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Notes on files and folders, and how platforms killed them

If students are indeed no longer saving discrete things called files in hierarchical structures of folders – and anecdotally that seems true to me – the reason seems relatively clear.

Over the last decade and a bit, the way we interact with and understand content has changed – even the term “content”, amorphous and fluid, points to a different way of perceiving a song, picture or essay.

People of my age learned to use computers in the pre-smartphone and pre-internet era. We’d assemble a collection of, say, MP3 songs on a desktop PC, and listen to them using programs that played music files.

The concept of a discrete file, an abstraction applied to a wide array of artefacts – documents, videos, music, text extracts, scripts, programs etc. – was necessary for this model to work, enabling easy copying, transfer, deletion and compression. Cause and effect is perhaps hard to discern: did this file and folder metaphor enable a world in which we owned music and photos, or did the consumer ownership model require files that were easy to download, play and copy?

The program and the file were strictly delimited, to the extent that you could open the same file with different programs, and transfer it across devices. We could play a song with WinAmp, iTunes or dozens of other music players, plug in an iPod or other MP3 player, and copy it across.

The internet enabled us to share files stored on billions of devices rather than access content from a central repository owned by a single company. It was of course possible to upload a file to a remote server for someone else to download, but the server’s purpose was to enable this transaction between individual devices.

You can still use a computer in this way, probably at work – although this may also depend on your age and familiarity with the filing cabinet metaphor, as platforms such as Office 365 use meta data such as recency to sort documents. But the chances are you organise, find and listen to any commercial object – a video, song, image etc. – using a platform. Platforms don’t deal in files.

It is worth noting that as a way of organising content, files and folders are imperfect. Taxonomy is taxing, and any filing system can soon become repetitive, unwieldy or unfathomable to anyone apart from the person who created it – and often they’ll end up wondering why on earth they have two folders named, say, Marketing campaigns and Marketing plans. File sharing services such as Napster relied on meta data rather than the sharer’s filing system in order to find the songs you were looking for.

The platform is ostensibly a superior tool for finding content, even content we didn’t know we were interested in. It’s not surprising that the file and folder metaphor only persists among older people or those dealing more directly with their computer’s insides.

However, there are, of course, two problems with the platform. Firstly, without discrete files we no longer own content. We merely rent songs from Spotify or TV programmes from Netflix and Amazon Prime. We are beholden to these middlemen, reliant on them providing a good quality, affordable service.

The second problem is that the platform replaces search with suggestion – or at least makes it a secondary function. When I hunted for a song on Napster it either found the file or didn’t, and that was the end of the process. When I open Spotify it’ll display six daily playlists based on my previous listening, along with other algorithmically generated ideas.

Suggestions greatly enhance the simple I want this, go and find it model – without them, I wouldn’t have discovered Roedelius’s Einfluss album, Objekt or Aleksi Perälä. A lot of the time they can be merely annoying – Spotify insists that I’ll like Gang of Four because I listen to The Fall a lot, and they will be wrong forever and always. But sometimes it’s more sinister. If you are searching for football content on YouTube you’re never more than three clicks away from some lunatic, neo-fascist misogynist making streamed millions.

It’s not that the platform is capable of bending the minds of its impressionable users. But it isn’t a disinterested machine simply trying its darnedest to send useful content your way. Like any other entity, its owners have a myriad of needs and drives, as do the people able to exploit it through advertising.

You might not have been able to find your files, but at least they were yours and no-one else tried to intervene while you were looking.