This post is day 7 of me taking part in the #100DaysToOffload challenge.

One discussion point I’ve seen around is that kids nowadays don’t know how to use computers. Okay that’s a bit of a strawman, but this article titled File Not Found.

The gist of the article is that Gen-Z kids are too used to search interfaces. That means they don’t actually know about where files are stored, or how they are organized. They only know that they can access the files by searching for them. The article talks about how professors ended up having to teach them how to navigate directory structures and file extensions.

As the article claims, it seems to be related to how modern user interfaces are designed. Our UIs nowadays are more focused around search capabilities: you just type in a search bar and find what you need.

A desktop, displaying a bar with the words “launch”, followed by “fi”. On the right side of the bar are program names “Firefox”, “fish”, “Profiler”, “Frontend”, “Patch Fixes”, and “Qt File Manager”. Firefox is highlighted.

In some sense I do like this sort of interface. I use something like that when launching applications, both on my Desktop and on my laptop! It’s actually a better interface compared to hunting for icons on your desktop. I use similar interfaces in VSCode to switch between open editor tabs.

However, this is a complimentary interface to hierarchy and organization. Going back to the file systems example discussed in the article, being able to search through your files and folders is useful. But it’s not a replacement for hierarchy. You can’t just throw files into a folder, and expect to always find them accurately.

Let me give an example with Google Photos. I have been keeping all my photos on Google Photos, and between migrating photos from old phones and ones I have taken on new phones, I have over 8,000 photos. This is completely disorganized of course, but Google Photos has a search functionality. It even uses AI to recognize the items in the photos, which you can use in the search. A search for “tree” brings up photos of trees, “cat” brings up cats, and you can even tag people and pets and then search for their names. Very useful, right?

Well, it is sometimes. I recently had to remember what my wife’s car license plate is. A quick search for “license plate” on google photos and luckily, I had taken a photo of her car that included the license plate in the frame. Success! On the other hand, I was trying to find some photos from a particular gathering with my friends. Searches for their names, names of the place, or stuff I know are in the picture turned up with nothing. I eventually had to painstakingly scroll through all photos to find the one I wanted.

This reminds me of 2 things. One is this article named To Organize The World’s Information by One thing I found interesting on that article was that the concept of “the library” has been lost over the last few decades as a way to organize information. They define the library as a hierarchical, categorized directory of information. The article also talks about other organizational methods, and is worth a read.

The other thing is the note taking software we’re building at my workplace, Dendron. One of the core tenets of Dendron is that the information is hierarchical. Something the founder Kevin recognizes was that other note taking software make it easier to make new notes, but they don’t support hierarchical structures which makes it hard to find those notes later. I’ve also experienced this, when I used other note taking software (or sticky notes!) I found that it was easy to just jot down a few notes, but they very quickly get lost or hard to find when you need them. A hierarchical organization makes it possible to actually find and reference the information later.

Requiring organization creates a barrier of entry to storing information, but what good is storing information if you can’t retrieve the information later? This seems to work pretty well with Dendron. Would it not work for other things? Why not for taking photos? You of course want to be able to quickly snap a photo so you can record a moment before it’s gone, but perhaps you could be required to organize your photos afterwards. Before modern cellphones & internet connected cameras, you’d have to get your photos developed or transfer them off an SD card: a step where you would have to (or have the opportunity to) organize your photos. I wonder if we cloud services could ask you to organize your photos before syncing them as well.