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Gödel’s theorem and the Italian garbage collection system

Published on 09 August 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

At a champagne and caviar event, referring to Gödel’s theorem identifies the speaker as pleasantly and ironically post-modern. Suavely dropping the name Gödel is akin to be seen driving the Rolls Royce of learned ignorance.


Alas, Gödel’s theorem may not be the cock of the party for much longer. Habituals of the most advanced gatherings dismiss it as cliché; some daring participants disdain it as passé.

Gödel’s theorem proves by abstruse mathematics something we all know from experience: some things just can’t be decided. The Greeks called it aporia (which qualifies me for further points of the Glizzy Scale).

We can divide a village in “those who shave themselves” and “those who go to get a shave from the barber”. In a first round this would seem to cover all possibilities and neatly divide the world into two categories. Until someone – in this case Bertrand Russell – asked the impertinent question: “where do you put the barber?” Had St. Thomas been alive, he would have choked on his tertium non datur.

I was reminded of Gödel’s Theorem as I gingerly opened the stinking garbage collection bins of the village in Italy where I live, at the moment. (Never mind the distraction of the wild boars, which regularly overturn the containers in search of foodstuff. Come to think of it, they are the only ones understanding the system properly). The system is complicated, for it classifies refuse into six categories, including potential compost. Each category has its own bin – except plastic, which should be brought in bags and left next to the bins on Tuesday.

If I have compost material, I might put it into a plastic bag for transport to the distant bin. Once emptied into the bin, I should take the dirty bag back to my place, awaiting disposal the following Tuesday. The same conundrum applies to paper, glass, and metal, which I’m likely to carry around in a plastic bag. Unsurprisingly, the compost bin is full of neatly tied plastic bags. Admittedly, in a couple of years’ time they will all be bio-degradable. Until then…There should have been a further bin for “unsorted” – but that would have defeated the triage purpose. Hear Russell chortle in the background: he had a wicked sense of fun.

The same kind of folly is doing the bureaucratic rounds of public administration at the moment. The aim is to document all decisions in a fit of “traceability”, hopefully leading to “transparency” or even to the nirvana of “accountability”. Wickedly, sometimes I phantasize about former colleagues as meek cows, all sporting a yellow tag on each ear – the lasting world-wide heritage the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease.

This self-regarding process, I suspect, easily absorbs 25% of active time. Of course, “traceability” must be verified, even if just by sampling. Verifiers need certification and inspection. There is no end to this distracting “strange loop”.

We move to higher and higher meta-levels: each layer adds new information, so the loop is never closed. The system reminds me of a ziggurat – the Babylonian towers with a spiral ramp doing the rounds all the way to the top. The Tower of Babel probably was a ziggurat – unless it was an observation tower left by extra-terrestrials.


The result? Beyond the sheer waste of documenting the obvious and correct, I’m doubtful that the resource investment will reveal the non-obvious and the incorrect. PRISM is built on the same faulty logic – namely that having waded through all the chaff, what’s left must be wheat. It’s guilt by correlation.

Meanwhile, this process is stifling content by favoring “proper” process. Rituals replace reason. And attention to rituals replaces attention to reality and context.

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