The Tyranny of the Filing Cabinet

I have been thinking a lot about the relative merits of two different ways of storing files: a robust and well-executed hierarchical folder/file system vs tagging/metadata files. I’m thinking about this in the context of a work project but also in light of something L.M. Sacacas wrote a while back in, A World Ordered Only By Search, one of his excellent newsletters from Convivial Society.

“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.”

For many computer users of my generation, the filing cabinet has been a very useful metaphor for a computer’s directory system. Organizing computer files in nested folders is a reasonable extension of how the physical office space has always worked. That said, I’ve been considering a few of the limitations of the file/nested folder metaphor on computers that is probably hitting almost 30 years old at this point, if not more.

1.) As this metaphor has been the primary way of understanding file organization for almost 30 years, we now have a generation of computer users who have never seen an actual filing cabinet or manilla file folder. The metaphor and filing system are lost on them, especially as this generation has almost certainly grown up using gmail or similar for their email which relies on searching, not organizing emails into folders.

2.) In the file/folder model of file storage, a file can only exist in one place at one time. In this case we’ve taken a limitation of the physical world (“get me the invoice for last month from the Facilities folder”) and carried it over to the digital domain (“let me save this invoice in the Facilities folder”). In the world of tagging and metadata though, a file can exist in multiple places at the same time. (“Let me tag this document as an “invoice” and as related to “Facilities.”) The same instance of a file can live in multiple collections at once, transcending the limitations of the physical filing cabinet.

3.) Now, getting back to that Sacacas quote from above: folder hierarchies require some internalized understanding of how the filing system works. It is very rare to encounter a hierarchical file system that is self-documenting enough that a new employee could file a document without any sort of training.  Moreover, as anyone who has maintained even the most well-manicured and maintained hierarchical file system knows, sometimes you’ve got to fall back on searching because you just can’t recall where it made sense to put some document. Tagging removes the burden of having to recall the “why” of a folder system.

All of this said, searching is an imperfect solution. Just creating some kind of junk drawer for your data, the hot mess that Sacacas refers to in his piece, is not sustainable for an organization. Some kind of tagging needs to be implemented if searching is going to work. However, tagging does introduce some friction into the file management process, so we’re trading the present convenience of quickly being able to drop a file into a folder in some well-manicured hierarchy for the tedium of tagging a file when it needs to be saved with the future promise that this document will be easier to find. Either way, if not at the individual level than absolutely at the organizational level, our curation, collection and creation of digital data has totally outpaced our ability to manage it using the outdated metaphor of a filing cabinet.

“We build external rather than internal archives. And we certainly don’t believe that interiorizing knowledge is a way of fitting the soul to the order of things. In part, because the very idea of an order of things is implausible to those of us whose primary encounter with the world is mediated by massive externalized databases of variously coded information.”

That quote is from the same Sacacas piece where, citing Illich, he goes on to discuss how when the “text” became detached from the “book” the individual became detached from the community. Much of this makes me think about how work will change:

When an office migrates to tagging and becomes detached from the geological layers of meaning embedded in its folder structures, what will happen to shared understanding of the business that was represented by those folders?

I’d love to hear any thoughts/feedback on this. Feel free to get in touch.