The Breaking Down of the Desktop Analogy

N’Gai Croal is one of those smart guys that you just know you should listen to regardless of the topic at hand. He knows tech, he knows videogames, he knows basketball…. Occasionally though Croal will come out with something even more insightful than usual.

Before I cut back on my podcast consumption I used to listen to Croal in conversation every week on Out Of The Game; essentially the show is a group of friends, formerly or currently employed within or around the games industry, talking about anything that comes to their minds - though often it’s web or tech related. During one of the episodes Croal started talking about the file / folder structure of how we understand computing, how that design is predicated on an analogy of the computer as a desk, and how he thought the usefulness of that idea had expired. It seemed like the kind of idea that was underpinning a lot of the digital culture advancements and new technologies, but that I hadn’t actually seen spelled out anywhere.

I spend a lot of time organising my digital content. Just as my bookshelves are alphabetised at home, I’m fastidious about making sure that everything’s correctly titled, labelled, tagged, and filed. I’m that guy you know who looks at your iPod and just shakes his head at how you have multiple artist entries for R.E.M., R.E.M and REM. I’m the one who makes little noises of disapproval because you have tracks just listed as ‘Track 1’, and some of your albums are missing artwork. Seriously, I’ll actually sigh if you’ve got solo artists alphabetised by forename just because you choose not to spend hours of your life completing the ‘Sort By’ field in iTunes.

I have a lot of rules for iTunes:

• Artist alphabetically by Surname, or band name disregarding ‘The’
• Albums chronologically by release date (re-issues filed under release of original album)
• Guest artists listed in square brackets within the song title, prefaced by ‘ft.’ (ie Song Title [ft. Guest Artist])
• Square brackets for remix suffixes (ie Song Title [Mix Title])

…and on and on and on. These are rules I’ve developed over the course of years using the program to organise my digital music. Sometimes I’ll come up with a rule, or Apple will change the software to make something new possible, and I will have to spend literally hours making sure the change is applied uniformly to my entire library. It’s not easy being a pedant, but you do get a very clean-looking, easily navigable iPod out of it.

The problem is that not all systems are as flexible, and every system is different. Take Google for example; I tend to use a lot of Google applications in my every day life, Gmail and Google Docs chief amongst them. I like a clean inbox, and with Gmail’s huge amount of storage space and archiving function I can easily keep anything I’m not dealing with immediately, out of my way. Anything that’s dealt with I archive, anything that needs to be dealt with by me I keep in the inbox, and anything I’m waiting to hear back on I add a star to and archive. Then there are labels - the big difference between Gmail and its competitors (including Hotmail, from which I switched) was labelling emails instead of placing them in folders. I used to spend a lot of time on labels: wording and ordering them correctly; choosing colours that suit and making sure the colours were distinct enough from one another; making sure to apply at least one to emails I’d need again, but not too many as that felt like it defeated the object.

Now consider Google Docs, a super-useful way to move all my documents and files to the cloud and have them at my fingertips to edit anywhere. Docs was a revelation when it launched, but I quickly started to wonder why we were back to the language of ‘folders’ instead of ‘labels’, and the ‘Hide’ function was simply confusing at first. Docs is essentially using the same model as Gmail. ‘All Documents’ is an inbox, folders are essentially labels (in that you can store a single copy of a file in multiple folders), and ‘Hide’ performs the same function as ‘Archive’. What allows this model to work for email as well as documents, spreadsheets and various other kinds of files is Google’s powerful search functionality. Click ‘Show Search Options’ in the top bar of either Gmail or Docs and you’re presented with a remarkably similar box with various fields that will allow you to find any of your material.

This is the breaking down of the desktop analogy. The idea that N’Gai Croal spoke about is that when computers were first mass-produced they were based around a model that was familiar to their prospective purchasers: the desk. Each piece of data was a ‘file’ you could place within ‘folders’ and keep those in other ‘folders’ as you saw fit. This simple system allowed you to feel like you were in control of your data and find it again quickly when required. As the volume of data and the types of files grew (and it grew exponentially – exploded really) the model struggled to keep up. If you had photos, video, written documents and maybe even audio all related to one project, you suddenly had to decide whether to file content away by type or by context. You could duplicate the file of course, and store a copy in two places, but this caused two problems: firstly, it was easy to change one copy of a file and neglect to alter the rest, thereby fracturing your content; and secondly, doing so destroyed the idea of organising your content like material on a desk.

Google attacked the idea of multiple ‘copies’ of a document with Wave (wherein a single version of a document is collaborated on in real time) and with similar live-editing and collaboration functionality in their Docs suite. But to my mind it’s another of Google’s products that has finally rendered the desktop analogy next to useless: search itself. Those previously mentioned search boxes in Docs and Gmail allow me to find any file or email as long as I remember even the slightest detail about it, such as a word that it contains. Obviously the more I recall the better, as I can quickly make my search more specific: I can look for messages from a specific sender, containing a particular phrase and sent within a given time period, all with a few simple operator commands.

And the approach doesn’t only apply online. It bears pointing out that Microsoft’s Windows 7 has a greatly improved ‘Search’ function, which proves very good at pulling up all kinds of content very quickly with even the slightest of search strings. And it is perhaps telling that there is a ‘Search’ field built into pretty much every system window you open in the OS.

For someone as pedantic as myself it takes a lot to let go of the idea that I’m not better off meticulously labelling, filing, and sub-filing my content. But as hitting ‘Archive’ and learning to make better use of search becomes equally effective I find myself drawn more towards that way of working.

Adam Wood @adam