Harrison Middleton University

Filing Systems

Filing Systems

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


December 8, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier mentions that early web designers chose files over other organizational systems. Now, information is so regularly compiled into manageable units called files that you probably do not even second guess it. By clicking on the small manila file folder, one is able to see a list of the documents it contains. However, Lanier explains that various other potential formats had been proposed and discarded, which led to the now-universalized tiny little file icon. His comments made me reflect on my own use of the file folder, both physical and on my “desktop.”

Imagine, if you can, filing systems pre-computer. Physical files filled quickly, bulging and stretched at the seams. God forbid that one spilled. The contents were often arranged alphabetically or according to date. They required floor space like cabinets and rooms, and old metal filing drawers with squeaky hinges and rusted runners. This system gave birth to the online file.

Prior to computers, the manila folder filing system seemed ubiquitous, but was it? There are cultures who have no connection with the file. And now entire generations do not know what the small tan desktop icon signifies. Though society was moving towards an increasingly technical world, the symbol made sense to business professionals at the time. I have focused on the icon because it makes sense to those of us who worked in offices or filed papers, but will it make sense moving forward?

The issue, though, is bigger than the mere icon. The real issue is that there are other ways of managing information. Lanier questions whether forcing everyone (and he means everyone globally) into an identical system is beneficial. Perhaps a different format would have allowed for more freedom, rather than having such features already designed for the user. Once mainstream, the system becomes invisible. The repercussions, then, are that we cannot imagine what we cannot see. We don’t know what we’re missing because we literally cannot function outside of the parameters of the system. Do files limit our technological use? Is the system, or the icon, or both, outdated in some way?

Comparing the idea of non-existent organization systems to lost languages, Lanier writes: “What do files mean to the future of human expression? This is a harder question to answer than the question ‘How does the English language influence the thoughts of native English speakers?’ At least you can compare English speakers to Chinese speakers, but files are universal. The idea of the file has become so big that we are unable to conceive of a frame large enough to fit around it in order to assess it empirically.” In other words, regardless of our organizational styles and the way our brains function, you and I are forced into the filing system imposed by our computer.

Ironically, for this post, I learned a little bit about the physical manila folders: they came from a type of hemp fiber from Manila. My point being that the name never really meant a lot to me, the user, though it did to the producer, manufacturer, etc. And if you still buy physical file folders, they now come in a wide variety of colors and designs, though the two common regulation sizes remain the same (letter and legal). As society moves away from the physical and toward the digital, I too wonder why we stick with the folder icon. Will it be serviceable for subsequent generations who have no tangible experience with manila folders and physical files? Will they wonder at its origins? Will they relate to the file that bulges with paper? Or the way that the metal arms of hanging folders sometimes stick together or even entirely fall off of their metal frame?

On the other hand, being organizationally challenged, I for one, appreciate the fact that something might help me get organized. My office looks more like leaning towers and unsteady stacks than any sort of comprehensive system. Online, my folders wear neat labels, but hold a whole host of nonsensical items. (And truth be told, sometimes I use duplicate labels altering the capitalization. Yes, I know what you’re thinking!) This indicates that even the online system benefits from the occasional purge. Yet, somehow, despite Windows’ best efforts, I maintain an unsteady, unbalanced, illogical filing system online: poetry folders hold prose, work folders contain family photos, and I rarely (if ever) delete a file. (Yes, my desktop is a chaotic display of a hundred different folders and documents. It looks just like the nightmare that you’re imagining.) Although I cannot get around the system which runs Windows, I certainly don’t use it effectively. Perhaps an entirely different system would match my internal organizational system. Or, maybe I’m just a lost cause. But unless computer systems change, we’ll never know.

As a side note, you might enjoy a quick clip from the “Performance Review” episode of The Office where Dwight proposes double-tabbed manila folders. Think of it as a nod to the old days. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0fmcOlNRHc

Photo credit: Sutthiphong Chandaeng/Shutterstock

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