OK last post about technology for a while. But I’ve been pondering recently on the way that files are organized on computers (haha yes I have an amazing inner life that you can only dream of), and while I was walking the dog the other day it occurred to me that the current setup on both Macs and PCs is not particularly helpful, but the overly simple, restricted way that files are handled on the iPhone wouldn’t be good for a bigger, more open device.

Backpedaling: the nested folders that you see on Macs and PCs are a descendant – or, a representation – of the directory system that you had on DOS and presumably on other, older, operating systems. Files are located within directories, which sit in the drives, which are at the bottom level of the system. The thing about this system is that a specific file sits in one and only one directory – i.e. it has a single category assigned to it (notwithstanding that with nested directories a file could be in a category within a category within a category, etc). The problem with this system is that while it has a logic to it, you quickly run into problems finding stuff when you have a lot of files. Mac OSX solved this to some extent with Spotlight search – its extremely fast search system that’s always accessible. But that means that you have to recall specific words associated with the file – either its name or some text that’s contained within it. It’s pretty good, but somehow it feels wrong running a search of your own computer; it kind of feels like you’re not in control – and the searches always turn up hundreds of things you’re not actually looking for. Windows 7 takes another approach, allowing you to create Libraries, which you can assign files to as you wish, without moving them from their home directories. Maybe I just need to learn this system better, but I find it kind of impenetrable. It seems like a terrible amount of work to set up one of these things and get all the files into it that you want.

On iOS files are basically hidden. You see your emails in the email program, your photos in the photos program (I default to calling them programs rather than “apps,” which seems like a needless neologism to me), and likewise in other programs only the files that are relevant to it.

OK so this is already longer than I wanted it to be. But we’re getting there. The file system I want would give you the visibility into your files that you have in a standard directory structure and the flexibility of Libraries. But the way of implementing this that would make sense to me would be, basically, the way that posts get categorised on this blog: with tags. Whenever I write a blog post there is a box that I can type as many tags into as I like, and all of them will be attached to the post. This links the post to all the other posts that deal with the same thing or things, enabling the user (theoretically, I don’t think anyone actually does this) to follow all of their linked interests across the library of content that’s being built up here. What it would allow me to do at work is, whenever I was saving a file, to tag it with the project that it’s associated with; tag it with the type of thing it is (questionnaire, report, proposal, etc); and anything else that might be relevant (whether I think it’s awesome, for instance). This would mean that I could instantly get all the files for a specific project, refine it just to the questionnaire drafts, or jump out to all questionnaires on the system, so I could compare them.

Who knows, maybe the operating systems I already use could do this, but it’s not something that exactly presents itself in the “Save As” dialogue box. If I knew about a million other things I could design my own OS, but that’s not gonna happen. OK, non-tech stuff coming.

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