Putting the Tired Metaphor of Files and Folders to Bed

Who actually likes filing?

Not me.

And, judging by most people I know, not very many of you do either.

Our desks, shelves, floors and even walls are littered with vast amounts of loose paper, documents, pictures, and other stuff.

When we gaze upon this mess, a thought briefly flashes at the back of our minds: “I should sort this all out.”

And then we go outside to play.

The vast majority of normal human beings – those who enjoy their sanity – hate and avoid filing stuff.

The very thought of paper file folders gives even the most robust among us painful hives.

So it occurs to me: what ever possessed the geeks of yesteryear to adapt files and folders onto computers?

Was it some private joke? Did they think it was funny?

We should wonder about one guy in particular: Butler Lampson. When he worked at the research laboratory at Xerox Parc in the early 70s, this dude conceived of using cute little pictures of files and folders to organize stuff in a a new computer system he was helping to invent.

But give Lampson credit. His work was experimental, intended only for the eyes of people who probably actually liked filing.

We have another guy to blame for inflicting this nefarious, back-assed system of visual metaphors upon us directly.

Steve Jobs.

Yeah, the guy who is credited with some of the greatest computing devices ever, from the Mac to the iPhone, ripped the concept of the digital file and folder system off of Xerox Parc.

Jobs first introduced it commercially on a monster of a computer (seriously, the thing was huge) called the Lisa in 1983, and then on the historic Mac 128K a year later.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Why didn’t he just include a digital toilet plunger, pooper scooper, barf bag, and self-enema machine in his file-folder metaphor universe?

Because all these things rate about the same on the fun scale as folders.

Of course, monkey see, monkey do, and everything that came after that original Mac towed the file-folder line.

(Thanks, Bill Gates, for being completely deficient in imagination.)

Files and folders might seem, at first glance, to make sense.

Why, then, is the desktop on your Mac or PC overloaded with unorganized documents of all sorts (just like your real desktop)?

The fact is, files and folders on a computer are more about familiarity than functionality. They make people comfortable with computers because they mentally link back to something tangible, something real.

Beyond that, they’re generally just eye candy.

From my experience, very few people actually use the computer’s file-folder system.

Why? Because it’s confounding. It’s confusing. It’s counter-intuitive.

I deal with highly-educated, über-intelligent clients every day who are frustrated by the computer’s metaphorical file-folder system.

And it’s no wonder.

Despite the clarity of the metaphor, the digital file-folder system is broken. And it was broken from the get-go.

I mean, how many paper folders full of documents can you stuff inside one another in the real world?

Plus, there’s the problem of hierarchy.

A file-folder system on a computer depends on a rigid, pre-defined, multi-tiered structure that generally makes sense only in certain circumstances and usually only to the person who originally set it up (and sometimes not even to them, months later).

Human brains suck at dealing with rigid structure, especially of information. Our brains are wired for subjective, situational methods of information retention and recall.

What’s more, digital file-folder systems break easily, especially when multiple people are interacting with them. If you work in a large, corporate environment where there’s a file server then you know that once the system breaks (and it always does), anarchy rules.

Thankfully, Steve Jobs seems to have seen the error in his past ways and is repenting.

The latest generation of iDevices he’s pushing don’t have files. They don’t have folders.

Instead, the apps themselves on these devices manage the storage, retrieval, and presentation of information automatically.

On my iPhone, for example, I don’t have to worry about where I put something I’m working on, or even what to name it. Whatever app I’m using takes care of that.

It will be the same on the upcoming iPad, which will offer full-featured word processing and spreadsheet apps.

The folder-less world is already working on our desktops, too – to a certain extent.

On my Mac, organizing my massive music, movie, and TV show library in iTunes takes zero effort, despite the fact I really have no idea where the files are stored or how they’re organized.

But how can this be? The metaphorical system of files and folders on computers is drilled into our collective geek consciousness as the holy grail of modern computing.

It’s heretical to suggest that it may soon disappear.

Sorry to leave you in suspense, but I’ll have to leave that train of thought until next week.

Right now I have a stack of crap on my desk to sort out and file away.

Or not.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, February 12, 2010.

6 thoughts on “Putting the Tired Metaphor of Files and Folders to Bed

    • d’oh…i replied to the op instead of the comment…i’m such a loser…not only for screwing up in the first place, but noticing, correcting myself and re-posting….self-deprecating humour is so depressing….i think beer is called for…

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