Thursday, September 23, 2021

How the ubiquity of search engines is changing people's understanding of how information is [to be] organized on computers [kids these days]

Monica Chin, File Not Found, The Verge, Sept. 22, 2021.

The article opens:

Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.

By contrast, and more traditionally:

Guarín-Zapata is an organizer. He has an intricate hierarchy of file folders on his computer, and he sorts the photos on his smartphone by category. He was in college in the very early 2000s — he grew up needing to keep papers organized. Now, he thinks of his hard drives like filing cabinets. “I open a drawer, and inside that drawer, I have another cabinet with more drawers,” he told The Verge. “Like a nested structure. At the very end, I have a folder or a piece of paper I can access.”

Guarín-Zapata’s mental model is commonly known as directory structure, the hierarchical system of folders that modern computer operating systems use to arrange files. It’s the idea that a modern computer doesn’t just save a file in an infinite expanse; it saves it in the “Downloads” folder, the “Desktop” folder, or the “Documents” folder, all of which live within “This PC,” and each of which might have folders nested within them, too. It’s an idea that’s likely intuitive to any computer user who remembers the floppy disk.

More broadly, 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. That’s a concept that’s always felt obvious to Garland but seems completely alien to her students. “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,” Garland says. “They see it like one bucket, and everything’s in the bucket.”

That tracks with how Joshua Drossman, a senior at Princeton, has understood computer systems for as long as he can remember. “The most intuitive thing would be the laundry basket where you have everything kind of together, and you’re just kind of pulling out what you need at any given time,” he says, attempting to describe his mental model.

And so on:

It’s possible that the analogy multiple professors pointed to — filing cabinets — is no longer useful since many students Drossman’s age spent their high school years storing documents in the likes of OneDrive and Dropbox rather than in physical spaces. It could also have to do with the other software they’re accustomed to — dominant smartphone apps like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube all involve pulling content from a vast online sea rather than locating it within a nested hierarchy. “When I want to scroll over to Snapchat, Twitter, they’re not in any particular order, but I know exactly where they are,” says Vogel, who is a devoted iPhone user. Some of it boils down to muscle memory.

But it may also be that in an age where every conceivable user interface includes a search function, young people have never needed folders or directories for the tasks they do. The first internet search engines were used around 1990, but features like Windows Search and Spotlight on macOS are both products of the early 2000s.

In my own case, of course, I have a fairly large system of files and folders on my computer. After all, I've been accumulating documents since I got my first Macintosh in 1984, though I've lost a fair number of documents to system changes over the years. But it is at best semi-organized. And in the area where I keep my photographs I have some folders with 100s, perhaps even 1000 or more, different documents. I will ofter find a documents by searching for them rather than going immediately to the appropriate folder. Why? Because I have a lot of different documents – now I'm thinking mostly of text files – in many different categories, but many documents could easily be classified in three or four different ways. Which place do I look?

The upshot is that I do understand the laundry basket metaphor. Perhaps the way to think of it is that I've got a traditional hierarchical structure overlaid or intermingled with a laundry basket. But I can't imagine going pure laundry basket. Nor does a traditional hierarchy provide an adequate representation of how I think about my documents.

As always, there's much more at the link.

* * * * *

More on how I organize things on my computer: The Diary of a Man and His Machines, Part 2: How’s this Stuff Organized? New Savanna, October 11, 2015,


  1. 'It's possible'

    I would say racing certainty,if I used analogies from my own educational experience to teach, it would be doomed to failure unless I was speaking to someone with the same from of dyslexia.

    Personally I associate filing cabinets with Daleks from Doctor Who (seeking to impose a rigid form of order).

    You work out you're own strategies or you fail. Hyper aware people think very differently and order information differently from an early age, as the world and its order is at times so alien and utterly incomprehensible.

    Most apparent in an Educational setting.

    1. The problem I have is that I often don't know what document I'm looking for. There's my own stuff, but I also have downloaded lots of articles by others. I don't always know what I named a file, so I search for some bit of content. But that my often present me with 10, 20, 30, 70, or so possibilities.

  2. '10, 20, 30, 70, or so possibilities.'

    I think that is my permanent state of existence regardless of wither I can find a source or not. Its making a hit and patterning and drawing a relationship with very different sources and subjects, I find the most rewarding.

    The frantic search for stuff often yeild's that. Can't find what you want but read something that seemed unrelated in a new light.

    Vexing/ joyous in equal measure.