A Plea for the Horizontally Organized

by John Perry

Version of April 25, 1995

There is nothing intrinsically disabling about being left-handed, but when the world is organized for right-handers, it can be a real handicap. Consider the chairs one finds in university lecture halls, with little fold up desktops on the right side for taking notes. A left-hander has to write with the left elbow dangling in mid-air, or turn all squeezed around in her seat, with her elbow where the right-hander puts the notebook and her notebook on the narrow back of the desk where the right-hander puts his elbow. We might call being left- handed a situational handicap; in situations where things are set up with right- handed people in mind, being left-handed is a disadvantage.

I am not left-handed, but I have another less well-known situational handicap. I am a horizontal organizer in a world set up for vertical organizers.

The main mark of a vertical organizer is the ability to make use of filing cabinets. These people use filing cabinets to store materials in that they intend to use just an hour or a day or a week later. When they need that stuff again, they reach into the filing cabinet, pull out the folder and resume working on it.

It probably seems pretty silly to the vertical organized reader for me to be going on and on about how filing cabinets are used, but I think the horizontal organizers may never have actually realized how the other half lives and may find this account completely incredible, so let me go on for a minute.

Yesterday I was working on a letter to the Palo Alto Medical Clinic explaining why my bill is screwed up and I don't owe them as much money as they think I do. It's pretty complicated stuff, and I didn't finish by the time I had to leave. A vertical organizer would have scooped this stuff up, and put it in a file to retrieve later. Had I done this, there would be a bare spot on my desk. These bare spots are the mark of vertical organizers. They are a dead give away.

Now of course that is not what I did at all. I left the letter on the desk, with the materials spread out. Actually, it is not exactly on the desk, because some other ongoing projects were already be spread there; the letter and supporting documents are on top of half-graded papers, half-written lectures, half-read brochures and the like.

The fact is, I am a horizontal organizer. I like all the thing I am working on spread out on a surface in front of me, where they can beckon me to continue working on them. When I put something in a file, I never see it again. The problem isn't that I can't find it (although that has happened), but that I don't look. I am constitutionally incapable of opening a filing cabinet and fishing out a half-finished project to resume working on it.

I do use filing cabinets. They are for a) storing finished things that one plans never to look at again and b) putting things that one would feel bad about throwing away but has no intention of reading. Say an old colleague sends you a long boring paper that she has just finished. It would be unfeeling and mean to throw it away; one would no doubt have to lie the next time one saw the person. But if one puts the essay in a filing cabinet one can say, "yes, its in my file of things to read this summer". All this implies is that one has a file labeled "Thing to read this summer" and that one put the paper in it, so one is not really telling a lie, even if the chances of reading the paper this summer (or any summer, fall, winter or spring) are nil.

Now looking as it does, my desk is likely to attract critical comments from vertical organizers. These people tend to think that a desk piled high with paper is the sign of a disorganized person. But this isn't so. It's like looking at a left- handed student all squashed up taking note on one of those desks and thinking that they are uncoordinated. The problem is that they are at a situational disadvantage. And that is the problem for horizontal organizers, too. The whole world is set up to help keep vertically organized people on top of things, through the use of filing cabinets. All horizontally organized people have are desks, the tops of filing cabinets, nearby chairs and the floor. If some thought were put into a good document storage and retrieval system for horizontally organized people, we could be as organized and neat as anyone else.

Here is my idea. Instead of a desk, I would like to have a very large lazy susan in my office. A lazy susan is a thing like one has at the large tables at Chinese restaurants. A large circular platform sits above the table, covering most of it, just leaving enough room for the plates of the diners around the edge. The various dishes are put on the lazy susan, which can be spun (at a low speed, unless on wants mui gai pan all over one's shirt), so that each diner has access to each dish.

I think something about fifteen feet in diameter would be about right for my office. My whole life would be spread out on this lazy susan. It could have little pie shaped areas that are labeled with letters of the alphabet. When I had gotten as far as I could with the letter to the Medical Clinic I would have just turned the lazy susan around to the right quadrant and placed the materials there. (I suppose the right letter would be "M" for "Medical". Maybe "C" for "Clinic". Or maybe "L" for "letter" or "U" for "Unfinished" or "S" for "Something I'm upset about". I'm sure that if I had a lazy susan I would get the knack of making this sort of decision.)

With my projects laid out on my lazy susan, they would each have a claim on my attention that they could never have if they were filed away. And yet they would be neatly organized, just as organized as if I were a vertical organizer.

Admittedly, a fifteen foot lazy susan would take up lot of space in my office, which is sixteen foot square. I kind of imagine myself like people I have seen in photos of model railroad clubs. The whole room is taken up with the board for the train --- little towns, paper mache mountains, and lots of track running everywhere. The operator ducks under all of this and pops up in the middle somewhere. Since lazy susans are round and my office is square, my chair would presumably be in one the spaces left in the corners. I could come in, crawl under the lazy susan to the corner, and pop up ready to work as efficiently and neatly as a vertically organized person. I could also wear one of those denim engineer caps like model railroaders do, although I suppose that is not strictly necessary to make the system work.