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by Jay Fienberg

The Piles and the Files

posted: Jan 29, 2005 4:31:40 PM

Continuing on my last post, Shapes of knowledge, word for poodles, I wanted to note one other dimension of comparison between and .

In the scheme of things like lots of pieces of paper, there are folks who think organizing things neatly into files (often, a strict tree structure) is better than leaving things in piles. And, vice versa—some folks swear that their mess of piles are better than files. (Note: read Malcolm Gladwell's The Social Life of Paper: Looking for method in the mess, if you haven't. Coincidentally, I saw Gladwell speak last week here in Seattle, and am a big fan of his writings.)

In the physical world, the problem with files is that they make it hard to quickly create and evolve ad-hoc collections or groupings of things, or explore different axis of relationships between things. The problem with piles is that they make it hard to maintain neat groupings and determine consistent axis of relationships between things.

Now, electronically, there long have been ways (e.g., RDBMS with a cool DBA) to start with a file-like neat organization and develop more messy interconnections. And similarly, with the web, there has been ways to start with more of a mess of piles and create tree-like indexes that are neat and clean.

So, in the physical world, in general, there is a huge expense to cross-referencing, and people are way more locked into their files or piles. And, socially, physical files have won out (in the "official way to do things" contest) based on the idea that it's easier to understand someone else's files than to understand their piles. (And, in many situations, some might argue, it's easier to understand one's own files than understand one's own piles.)

Applications like offer us a new dimension of sociality in our piles. Of course, piles are more file like than the web altogether, but they are more pile-like than a typical file system.

The main point of this comparison though is to recognize that there are people who love piles and people who love files, and that there are sub-cultures for each, and within those, there are some fundamentalists who think the others are crazy for not doing things their way.

But, many people are comfortable with a little of both. And, I would suggest, in general, with the electronic possibilities of having files that work as piles, and having piles that work as files, that we should put aside our physical file vs. physical pile differences and look more into their compliments in the virtual web.

(fyi, At my previous job where I had a lot of papers, I often put my piles in my files, and also often put my files in my piles. ;-)

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Comment by: LionKimbro ·
posted: Jan 31, 2005 3:16:30 AM

Sounds right to me!

Some things, it's really important to put into files. Like, forms at an office.

Some things, it's so much easier with just piles.

And we generally have a mix.

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