Matt Gemmell

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An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

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A farewell to files

tech 4 min read

I think I’m finally over the idea of file systems. It’s taken a long time, and I fiercely resisted the change, but it was inevitable.

I don’t really think in terms of folders and hierarchies anymore. I still put things there, but only as a kind of future archeological clue, if everything goes to hell and I’m left digging through the dirt, trying to rebuild.

These days, I expect the machine to accept my query, and throw the relevant set of my stuff back at me. Browsing through directory windows seems anachronistic now, and - interestingly - it also feels artificial.

I wouldn’t have said that a few years ago. The file system was the only reality, and everything else was a fancy search interface, slicing and dicing my data from moment to moment with algorithmic sleight of hand.

I think Alfred was the beginning of the end for me.

Not Spotlight, because it seemed like an afterthought; yet another menubarnacle clinging to the corner of my screen. Its importance and degree of integration (and its marketing) never quite gelled with its easily-forgettable location on screen - at least until Yosemite’s welcome overhaul.

I don’t remember when I started using Alfred, but I do recall that I was hooked within a day. It became one of my essential productivity utilities, and my brain can no longer interface with my computer if it’s not installed. I use Alfred to find, open, move, copy, and otherwise act on pretty much everything. I open apps with it, eject drives, and do a host of other things that I can’t remember right now, but have probably done in the last hour regardless.

I’m a committed keyboard user. The longer I can go without using a pointing device, the happier I am. I even wrote an article about my favourite Mac keyboard shortcuts and utilities. My job is gloriously typing-oriented, so there are real efficiency gains to be had by keeping my hands on the keys. I sometimes go for hours without using a mouse or trackpad.

Some of you are fellow users of a keyboard-based launcher and thing-doer, like Alfred, LaunchBar, or Spotlight itself. The rest of you should give them a try too. But I digress.

Somewhere along the line, as I was launching and finding and whatever-ing all my stuff using just a few keys, I finally got used to the idea of a query interface for the computer. I ask, and you fetch - rather than me doing it manually, digging through my meticulously-organised folders.

Sometime later, insidiously, the query interface just sort of… became reality. It became the definitive way to get stuff. And it seems right, doesn’t it? It does to me. We shouldn’t be managing those things ourselves, in 2015. In space. At this hour.

The file system, of course, is still there behind the scenes. We’re probably not getting anything fundamentally different for a while, and when we do, it’ll still mimic what we have now. We’ve had decades of conditioning that tell us to love the idea of little dog-eared documents, and folders that somehow fit inside other folders despite them both looking like they’re equally big. That’s really weird. Do we even still think about how weird that is?

The file system lurks ever below, Cthulhu-like, until the stars are right and the poets startle awake from barely-remembered nightmares. It’s there, whether you engage with it or not. It’s just that, like the guys in lycra shorts on the nearby cycle path, I don’t think I need to see that.

Organisationally, I’ve moved past it - but it won’t let me go. I’m ready to go further, if the machine would just let me. I’m on the brink of evolving to the being of pure energy level of data management, the likes of which have haunted my dreams since the tragic demise of OpenDoc.

Forgive me while I think out loud for a moment. I’m a writer, in case you don’t know that yet, and have somehow missed me shoving it down your throat in practically every article here for the past year. Ahem.

Anyway, for a given project, I typically have:

  • A Markdown file, if the piece for a magazine or this blog, or a Scrivener project for fiction.

  • At least one OmniOutliner document, which I use to plan the piece. For a fiction project, I’ll have lots of them.

  • Probably a text file of notes, unless it’s a Scrivener project in which case the notes are embedded.

  • Any resulting output files: perhaps an exported manuscript in two or three different formats, or generated HTML from Markdown.

  • For some projects, I’ll have a set of tasks in OmniFocus too.

Most of those will be in a folder somewhere, though in some cases the files will be split up - notably with pieces for this blog, where the exported HTML goes somewhere different from the source files.

It’s such a mess.

All of those files are conceptually just one “thing”. They’re the project; the piece of work. Whilst I naturally want to access their individual parts at different times, I don’t want to manage them all at the document level. I don’t care where things are stored. I just want to access them as one entity.

I also don’t have any desire to access the related bits of a project as files. There’s no view less relevant to my actual work than a window full of little file icons. Instead, I want to see the contents of all the stuff, in some kind of cohesive way. Maybe a big bulletin-board of the actual data, where I can rearrange and edit and generally just be creative with it as I see fit.

There are some half-way solutions, of course. There are tags (which I wrote about). There are pseudo-folders that are actually saved Spotlight searches. There are Stacks in the Dock, and other such alias-collecting utilities. None of them deal with the fact that I neither want nor need my data to be files.

Just my content - my stuff - presented in a way that even remotely reflects how we work. Not as filing clerks, but as creative people. A canvas instead of a cabinet. I can’t be the only one who feels this way.

I love my Macs. I’m a big fan of OS X. But, honestly, I wouldn’t miss that Picasso-esque blue face anchored to the left of the Dock. I do have warm feelings for you, Finder, but it’s just not like it used to be.

You’ve already done more than enough to help me keep documents. That problem was solved a long time ago; congratulations. Yet with every new version of the OS, there’s some new bit of tweaking or a novel widget to throw those dog-eared icons back into my face. Let’s accept that filing has reached its zenith. You may stand down.

Now, how about you help me to actually make things?