Stop Wasting Your Time Making Filing and Deleting Decisions!

It's been five years and, boy has a lot changed! Remember the Y2K scare, when thousands of people spent millions of hours feverishly working to stave off informational and economic disaster? Old guys who hadn't coded in decades were paid huge sums to code once again in arcane languages, in order to upgrade software that was set to fail when the 1900s turned into the 2000s.

I thought at the time that the problem illustrated a certain, sometimes misguided, parsimony among techie geeks; one that in the 1970s and 1980s was surely justified but lost some steam in the 1990s and at the time of the Y2K scare had actually become a problem. By "problem" I mean that for me, it's been years now that so many other people think it's okay to look at my desktop and scream, or to criticize my "filing" behaviors, even though they work.

The problem: Some of us like everything nice and neat and in its place and just big enough but not too big and if it's not needed it should be thrown away. To me, that's mostly baloney. I want everything available all of the time and I don't want to waste time deciding what to put where or what to throw away.

I am not criticizing the early code writers who saved two digits by using only the tertiary and quaternary digits to represent "years" in software code. Sure, someone might have looked a little bit ahead and foreseen the problem when it turned out that the long range assumption that all years would begin with "19" was erroneous. But those folks were working in parsimonious times when resources were slim, computers and networks were slow, and pipelines and storage space were expensive and limited.

We're past that now, d'oh! And two of my "worst" habits are proving to be pre-adaptations to new, knowledge-age working situations:

· I don't throw anything away, ever; and
· I don't waste much time putting files away neatly in deep, rigidly structured hierarchies.

Not Throwing Things Away

I remember my first hard drive. It was a 20-megabyte Macintosh external drive and it was the size of several large, hardbound books in a stack. Now, each time I get a new laptop, it has a hard drive so much bigger than the previous one that the first thing I do is copy over everything from the old machine. My current laptop has folders on the "C" drive that are labeled "Terry's old hard drive," "Terry's older hard drive," and "Terry's oldest hard drive." I have more than half a million e-mail messages stored away and more than 25,000 jpg images.

Digital is different that way from physical. We all have stories about our mothers throwing away our amazing collections of now-would-be-valuable science fiction books when we were away at college or in the military, don't we? Here at SCUP I still deeply regret our physical move from the School of Education Building on the university campus to new offices in about 1995 and how we (against my strong arguments) "threw away" pounds and pounds of what I still think would have been valuable old books, campus maps and plans, and the like. But there was at least a legitimate concern about keeping all that old stuff--we didn't have space for it, and we would have had to pay to move it and rent space to keep it.

Not so when I get a new laptop. I just hook 'em up and copy the files over. Some day, of course, there will be incompatibilities that will mean I no longer have the software to read some files, but I truly expect some genius to work on that problem, too. I haven't the slightest doubt that whatever computer I am using at the end of my life, I will still be able to display my jpg images.

But will I be able to find the images I want? I think so, and certainly the image files are the toughest to locate on a hard drive where things stand now in early 2005.

Not Filing Things Away

The first time I ever made a live presentation about the Internet, it was to a standing-room-only crowd of about 150 members of the Society for College and University Planning. I had reserved an Internet connection for the room as well as a data projector. I was nervous and, of course, neither the data projector nor the Internet connection was there when I began speaking. Imagine giving a voice-only presentation about the Internet to a room full of people, many of whom had never used it, in 1996. Not fun.

Anyway, about 25 minutes into the session the hard-working techies arrived and got it all working. When it went on I, looking out at the audience and speaking, heard and saw a huge collective gasp--all eyes were fixed on the projector screen. Here's sort of what they saw:


Actually, it would take a screen larger than the wall of my office to display all of the icons on my desktop. That's where I work: my desktop. When that term came out for what we see in the window, I took it literally. That's where I put everything I am working on until it's done. And when it's done I file it away mostly in "monthly" folders rather in topically labeled folders. Or, I simply create a folder called "Terry's desktop 110404" and put everything in it and stick it on the C drive.

Now, before you think I have always been this way ... it's not so. I used to be so "retentive" about hard copy files and prevision filing and indexing that the books I used in law school would have, by the end of the semester, hundreds of little glue-on tabbies so that I could find things quickly--and I had boxes full of detailed files.

But then something magical happened. Someone invented the "find" command! How wonderful! Why would I spend tens of minutes each day moving files up and down through hierarchical file structures when I can find things at the push of a button? My time is too valuable. So I basically do not file things away.

There are some problems with this, of course. One being that few people other than myself can actually find things on my laptop right now. (But that's a bonus sometimes, too.)

And now the latest from Google (and others) shows that, just like I was ahead of my time by never deleting digital files (because I would always have enough cheap storage space to keep them all) I was ahead of my time by not putting everything neatly away. The latest "desktop search" software is a predictor of much better tools coming in just a few years.

My bet: Five years from now more users will be like me, and refrain from wasting hours each work week laboriously dragging things "where they ought to be" and will just let them go where they will. And, the desktop search software will be ubiquitous, unobtrusive, and may well file things where they should be anyway, without anyone having to think about it.

As for the current hardest-to-find things--images--when cameras have GPS built in and also RFID sensors and people are all wearing RFID tags, then every image will have oodles of metadata to be included in those desktop search engines, even if we never rename our files! (Which then would also be a waste of time.)

Just as spell checkers mean that everything's spelled right (or should be), though no one has to know how to spell; everything will be placed where it should be (or at least easily findable) without any person having to spend time putting things away or digging down through multiple levels of folders to find them.

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