When Microsoft and Apple introduced the first graphical based operating systems to home PCs nearly 40 years ago, it relied on familiar concepts like office folders and files to help organize information in the digital age.
What happens then when that real world physical object becomes redundant or deeply unfamiliar to the next generation of users?
In a recent article for The Verge, Monica Chin suggests that somewhere around 2017 a significant percentage of college students found this mental model altogether foreign.
She writes, “directory structure connotes physical placement — the idea that a file stored on a computer is located somewhere on that computer, in a specific and discrete location.”
It’s a concept that has always felt obvious to college professors, Chin reports, but seems completely alien to their students.
READ MORE: File Not Found (The Verge)
Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist and professor of engineering explains to Chin that, “I tend to think an item lives in a particular folder. It lives in one place, and I have to go to that folder to find it. They [students] see it like one bucket, and everything’s in the bucket.”
Chin points in this direction when she writes, “It’s possible that the analogy multiple professors pointed to — filing cabinets — is no longer useful since many students spent their high school years storing documents in the likes of OneDrive and Dropbox rather than in physical spaces.”
The point seems like a crucial one to socio-cultural critic Michael Sacasas, blogging at The Convivial Society.
He says, mental categories tend to be grounded in embodied experiences in a material world. Tactile facility with files, folders, and filing cabinets grounded the whole array of desktop metaphors that appeared in the 1980s to organize the user’s experience of a computer.
Instead, according to Chin and Sacasas, the logic with which the older generation structured information into hierarchical files, folders, and directories no longer has much significance or use when we instead have the search option to find items for us.
They use the phrase “hot mess” to describe this new mental model for ordering the world.
Sacasas explains further by talking about how we treat our email inboxes. “While some are quite adept at using labels, tags, and folders to manage their emails, others will claim that there’s no need to do because you can easily search for whatever you happen to need. Save it all and search for what you want to find. This is, roughly speaking, the hot mess approach to information management. And it appears to arise both because search makes it a good-enough approach to take and because the scale of information we’re trying to manage makes it feel impossible to do otherwise. Who’s got the time or patience?”
During the four decades since Windows arrived, the world has gone increasingly digital. Digital media has exploded and Chin and Sacasas argue how this implies that older means of organizing information are indeed past their sell by date: they can no longer keep up.
“There comes a point when our capacity to store information outpaces our ability to actively organize it, no matter how prodigious our effort to do so.”
Referring to the evolution in photography, Sacasas points out that most of us now no longer think in terms of specific photographs, which changed with age and could be damaged or lost altogether. We think in terms of images which can be shared, copied, altered, stored, and searched for ad infinitum.
“Consider our collections of digital images. No one pretends to order their collections. Of course, our apps do this for us. They can self-sort by a number of parameters: date, file size, faces, etc. And Apple or Google Photos offer a host of other algorithmically curated collections to make our image databases meaningful. We outsource not only remembering but also the ordering function.”
Consequently, he says, our relationship to the artifact — a book, a photograph — has changed. And it prompts all sorts of philosophical questions. How has the ubiquity of the search function changed the way we relate to the written word? Is there a relationship between our digital databases and the experience of the world as a hot mess? How has the digital environment transformed not only how we encounter the word, but our experience of the world itself?