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This day’s portion

Notes on files and folders, and how platforms killed them

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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.

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Poorchop

Good writeup. I had similar concerns with respect to what people were giving up when they went from owning files to paying a subscription to temporarily access those files.

I still have a hard time believing that college students don’t understand the concept of files and folders. That paradigm continued to exist even as their digital lives moved to “the cloud.” All of the popular online storage providers use this model. I would imagine that even kids growing up exclusively on tablets and smartphones would understand this concept but apparently that’s not the case.

Leon

Yes, I think the article I link to overstates the problem, and pinpointing a quarter where the knowledge was lost is odd.

However, I do think there’s something in it. I have two teenage children, and they really don’t bother with the whole concept of folders and files except when they have to. They do work on Word documents, PowerPoint presentations etc., but they’ll either save them on the desktop or straight into their Onedrive folder. To find them, they’ll simply open Word or, if they’re starting from the Office 365 website, use the “Recent documents” list.

I’m a bit wary of coming across as a grumpy old man. This could just be the new way of things. I edited my post to reflect the fact that suggestions are actually very good sometimes.

Poorchop

Suggestions are a welcome feature for sure but sometimes they are downright heinous. There’s arguably some logic behind the Gang of Four recommendation but I can imagine that you’ve had worse. I also think that we briefly had the best of both worlds when last.fm scrobbling was still popular. I never really got into it but it seemed like there was a system in place for recommendations, and you didn’t have to give up ownership of your music files.

I’m a bit wary of coming across as a grumpy old man. It’s the circle of life. It will be funny to see what future generations complain about if I’m around long enough.

Richard Carter

There’s ongoing polite but opinionated debate in the Obsidian forums about whether you should use different folders to store different notes, or whether every note should go in the same folder.

Being an old fart, I’m a big believer in filing stuff in different folders. The chief argument against this (according to those who disagree) is that I’m constraining my notes by pigeon-holing them in folders. The argument is, put all your notes in the same folder, and there’s no assumed hierarchy suggesting how you should or shouldn’t link between them.

I understand the argument, but I genuinely don’t accept filing stuff in folders makes me blinkered in any way. I file stuff in folders primarily to make ad hoc filtering obvious groups of notes easier. I accept I could use tags to do this, but many of my notes are project-based, and filing stuff by project just seems right to me—not least for backup and archiving purposes. Besides, my Obsidian vault contains plenty of links between notes in different folders, so I can’t be being that blinkered.

Leon

@Richard,

As long as you can make connections across folders then it doesn’t really matter, and if the folders help you organise your notes then that’s all to the good. I guess your own structure sits on top of whatever work Obsidian does.

I’m not a great folder organiser, as my work colleagues would probably attest. I have a few sub-folders in my Mac’s Documents folder, but generally I just search.

The only email folders I have are inbox, deleted and archive. I use flags to indicate I need to do something with an email and then just try and get it out of the inbox.

I don’t really have a great need for any folders, to be honest.