Tuesday, 11 April 2017

What's in a Metaphor?

Like most people these days, I have thousands of computer files which I am careful to file away in folders. We don't usually stop to think about it but this notion of files and folders and filing things away in a computer or on a hard drive etc. is just a metaphor. There is no reason why the terms 'file' or 'folder' should be used in preference to other words. Other more technical words could be used. Alternatively, other more user-friendly words could be used.

Personally, I do not find the words 'file' and 'folder' user friendly. This is because I do not like the idea of being an office worker. Using an office-based set of metaphors does not suit me. I want to work my way; a way that is more productive and efficient: a way that is comfortable. That means NOT being office-like.

When I left school and was looking for my first job, the prospect of office-based work did not appeal to me. Not that I am an outdoors or particularly practical person but my first interim work, until I got a profession upon which to focus, was certainly not office-based.

When several years later I got an office it was one which had two sinks - one with a rack for draining test tubes - and a gas outlet for connecting a bunsen burner. I just thought of it as my room. It was only part office and, importantly, one could do scientific benchwork in it. I once heard it referred to as my 'lab.'

As time has gone by, my professional activities have become more and more office-based. It is only now that I am beginning to appreciate the insidious effect that this may have had on how I go about things. When I had just a multi-purpose room, I was much more content. I was able somehow to feel much less fettered and much more creative. In an office, one must behave in an office-like manner and do office things: one produces files that can be filed away in folders and cabinets. Very often all this filing is done just in case things need to be retrived; most of the time they do not. Things get filed away never to be seen again.

In my old room things were in piles; often untidy piles. This was not an uncommon practice. I remember one colleague with a room the same size as mine having virtually no space left in it at all due to it being piled full of papers and all sorts of things - some reputedly alive. Importantly, the environment was a very creative one. This is not one that I can say is typical of the offices with which I have been familiar.

To return to the question of metaphor as applied to computers.

If offices are not the best environments for creative and productive work and computers are set up so as to impose that metaphor upon their users, might it be that the productivity that using computers can certainly foster is being undermined to some extent?

I am much more at home in libraries. There everything has a place and is restored to that place after use. Arguably, libraries are more rigid about 'filing' than offices. Libraries give their books accession numbers and shelf marks and then they are put on shelves in alpha-numerical order. The big difference is that books are not hidden; they are not shelved-away (as a file might be filed-away inside a sometimes locked cabinet). Books are 'put out' so as to be easily accessible.

So why not such a metaphor for computers? Instead of a file being in a folder - which itself is often inside another folder which may well be inside another folder etc. (until the file system can't cope with the length of the path and directory names), what about a more library-like metaphor?

Alternatively, what about a computer file system that offers a choice of metaphor. Instead of files and folders, what about notes, scraps, jottings, leaflets, pamphlets, booklets, books as well as the documents we typically use?

In the extreme, one's computer could even be set up like the 'Library of Babel'!

In the meantime, recognising my dislike of offices and office practice and how it is ingrained in the way we interact with computers, I have begun something of a fightback. Realising all that I have said above, I am now using my laptop more like a library and an looking out for any evidence that my laptop is trying to inculcate in me an office mentality. Since doing this, I have found my working practices to be much more productive and certainly more enjoyable. (Don't tell my lap but I have even started using more paper in an effort to have tangible evidence of just how much I have been doing each day!)