Zettelkasten Forum


18 year-olds today grew up with search, and files and folders are foreign concepts

This article discusses a current generational shift in the way people interact with computers:

https://www.theverge.com/22684730/students-file-folder-directory-structure-education-gen-z

Adapting an example from the article: Where 30 years ago the professors wouldn't understand how students could use a computer without knowing how to solder their own boards, nowadays professors don't understand how students came this far without organizing files, and understanding "the file system" at all.


I'm sharing this here because I do wonder what that means long-term for Zettelkasten software :)

I have a couple anecdotes of friends and family that match. I bet some of you have heard similar stories.

  • Some teens doing internships (mandatory in Germany during your school years) at a design firm weren't accustomed to power on a monitor and a computer and didn't know how to interact with them. Looking up YouTube tutorials worked well enough, but getting to the web browser is surprisingly hard for some.
  • A friend is a professor at a University, teaching 3D animation and such things. Roughly half of his students didn't know how to power on a desktop computer, too. They also sometimes have trouble submitting their project files for review. Some can't locate the projects; some don't understand how email attachments work.
  • Another friend noticed his students have trouble finding files they downloaded from the internet. The notion of a file being downloaded into the Downloads folder and staying there, waiting to be looked-up, is rather foreign.
  • Ethan Schoonover, inventor of the Solarized themes, shared this article on Twitter, and he mentions how his 6th grade computer literacy class students are mind-blown when he teaches them basic command line interactions and manipulating files and folders:

Just because the young'uns know how to manipulate content on a touch device and how to navigate the latest social media platform successfully doesn't mean they automatically have general-purpose "computer literacy" (it's "Medienkompetenz"; lit. "media competency" or "media literacy" in German, an oft-abused political term). There may not be such a thing.

I recall @sfast had read a book or two by Manfred Spitzer who researches and writes about such things, but is stuck in the role of Kassandra -- nobody seems to take his results seriously or heeds his warnings.

Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

Comments

  • I think links play a huge role. Where once a file existed, a link to Google Docs has taken its place. A file is really only a persisted set of bits. Now that so much is done on the web/cloud, the idea of "saving" something between sessions does not come up.

    When I first read Getting Things Done, I was surprised how little I knew about organising information. I had to lookup a lot of terms that I assume were early 90s/00s office jargon (I'm a university student):

    • Wire standing holders
    • Tickler file
    • filing cabinets / stack-baskets / legal pad
    • "Loose leaf" notebook

    After reading about people being randomly banned from their Google accounts and Apple using machine learning to scan photos, I slowly started migrating to folder/files for data storage/retrieval.

    Since managing my data more closely I have often felt friction figuring out where stuff should go. Is this data project support material? Or maybe useful in 2 years (general reference)? I have to create categories and sub-categories that only allow one dimensional lookup in the file system. Before I would just associate the data with the application and rely on its full-text capability or recently added index. When I get the "where I want to save the file" message I often sigh under my breath. Do I want my personal photos stored inside a folder by day (23/9/21) or event (went to the beach) or adopt a Date - Event file name convention? Apple photos just does this for me.

    I'm guessing this kind of friction is why a lot of people end up with 10,000 files on the desktop. When you do use an application that requires files to be saved manually, it is just easier to dump it somewhere and let the application remember its location (until you change applications or it somehow gets moved). Now I use an inbox to defer this organisational processing.

    I've started looking into how to index files, full-text operating system search, photo library software that allows me to control the internal data structure, only acting as a nice UI for browsing photos in my folder. Apple photos did a lot of this storing/indexing/browsing automatically for me. I've learned more about Finder and Spotlight, but that still binds me to the Apple ecosystem.

    An aspect of ZK I like is that I do not need to make decisions about where notes go. I can create indexes (structure notes) later if a topic emerges. Folder systems require up front decisions (top-down).

    Overall it requires more effort managing my data than dumping it in Google Tasks or Apple Photos. Only when issues come up (privacy, app not supported in some environment) does the question of where and how my data is stored come up. Suddenly you realise how dependent you are on tools that can disappear overnight.

    end of rant :)

    Zettelkasten is love. Zettelkasten is life.

  • @ctietze

    I'm sharing this here because I do wonder what that means long-term for Zettelkasten software

    Perhaps you could make an introduction to files and folders for less tech-savvy teens, then add it to the "Getting Started" post of the blog.

    What do you think?

  • @Dilan_Zelsky said:
    Perhaps you could make an introduction to files and folders for less tech-savvy teens, then add it to the "Getting Started" post of the blog.

    What do you think?

    If we're all still here in a decade or two, this might be necessary to prepend this to any software discussion in general, because who knows what the youngsters are used to by then :)

    For now, I'm not even qualified to do that: I never taught computer newbies (not pejorative) the basics of the file system. Now that this popped up on my radar, I'll collect information in my ZK of course :) There's ample opportunity to try applying this in my family in the upcoming years as the smallest members are getting into a computerizable age.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • I am sceptical about the final message of the article to accept change. With the tools of an average user the need of organization may never occur, as they may never experience any consequences in their personal life.

    But every change is a trade, if that trade is to our advantage it persists. While things like manually safing a document and file storage may be(come) a thing of the past, learning to organize our lifes should remain a problem of everyone's needs.

    And the price is high in this case. There is no standard way to process our files. Every application develops its own, vendor specific solution, for taking care of our work. For many of us, everything of our work is stored in files, and that's not something to change very soon. If we are unable to handle these files there's nothing left for us to keep for ourself.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • @ctietze said:
    For now, I'm not even qualified to do that: I never taught computer newbies (not pejorative) the basics of the file system. Now that this popped up on my radar, I'll collect information in my ZK of course :) There's ample opportunity to try applying this in my family in the upcoming years as the smallest members are getting into a computerizable age.

    I tested the concept out on my 8 and 10 year old grandsons - they are apparently not afflicted at all by the ignorance of computer hardware and operating system to which the article your cited referred.

  • edited September 25

    @sfast

    I was ignoring the bigger picture. You're right. This applies to any software discussion in general.

    I wonder if IT is still taught at school. That should do it. Though they'd first have to teach the students how to learn :neutral:.

    Good luck on teaching your family and gathering information in your course!


    EDIT: Removed a sentence.

  • When my son was in 4th grade his class used Alphasmarts and they had to learn to upload their files to the school server. The teacher’s explanations did not seem adequate so I gave my son a basic lecture on the difference between hardware, software and data. It has apparently served him well. He’s now 18 and always knows exactly where his files are. He primarily uses Google Drive but uses it for all files, not just Google.

    What’s funny is that my son recently troubleshooted my husband’s Google Drive migration issues, and my husband was programming on the Atari at his age. He just can’t seem to get the hang of cloud syncing in practice. So I’m not entirely sure this is a generational issue.

  • “Take their phones away and get ‘em on Windows 98.” is not a mere catchphrase. Schools are taking it quite literally. When my brother went to 1st grade every student had to bring a netbook (a laptop in mini form factor). It comes with Windows XP and Ubuntu in dual boot. Teaching went far beyond IT lessons.

    The project wasn't a success, also because the computers failed to deliver the promised ruggedness needed to handle 6yrs old.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • A World Ordered Only By Search 202110070629

    Metaphors break down, sometimes with surprising consequences. As metaphors age and become stale, the paradigms built on those metaphors crumble.

    Antidote. When confronted with the task of finding files in folders on a computer, some college students are bewildered, having never seen a file cabinet and not grasping the metaphor. The idea that a file is physically stored on the computer is an enigma as most of their interactions with computerized technology are search/cloud-based.

    Search/cloud computing fosters a feeling that everything is in one bucket. It is going to a single search engine, like Google, to make a single query and search the entire bucket of the web, hiding the workings of all the files, folders, and computers that make up the web. This flattens the physicality of the web's computing, making information seem to come from a single amorphous place that isn't even a place.

    The reality is that metaphors make sense of things by explaining the unknown (tenor) by comparison to the known (vehicle). But when the known element itself becomes unknown, then the meaning-making function is lost. Files and folders are metaphors that once helped users navigate computers by reference to older physical artifacts that would've been already familiar to users. What happens when those older artifacts themselves become unfamiliar? I happen to have one of these artifacts sitting in front of me in my office, but, in truth, I never use it. 1

    The physical environment that was so common when WYSIWYG computers were developed is so uncommon now. The metaphor has melted into a hot mess. It leaves young people in the dark as to what is going on with computer architecture. In today's work environment, there is no equivalent to files and folders. The metaphor of a file cabinet is now cliché.

    it is the case that the metaphor has simply broken down in the way so many other metaphors do over time when the experiences upon which they depended are lost due to changes in material culture. 1

    What is another metaphor that has or threatens to break down?


    A World Ordered Only By Search
    The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 17
    L. M. Sacasas

    Will Simpson
    I'm a zettelnant.
    Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @Will

    I get the point, but it's not that simple. There are many people who grew up with the idea of files and folders on a computer - only. They have no idea what those terms meant in the physical worlds but they learned and understood what they meant in the digital world. So knowledge of old forms and metaphors isn't necessary to understand new forms. What has changed is that some people no longer access files and folders any more; they just search the web - especially those who function on smart devices. They have had no need to learn about files and folders, so they haven't.

  • @GeoEng51

    You might be right.

    Your description is how a metaphor erodes and finally devolves losing its power to communicate ideas.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a zettelnant.
    Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • ... like the "save" icon. A floppy disk. There was an actual connection, then it just was "the save icon", now it's borderline obscure.

    I remember the mesmerizing manila folder icon on Windows 3.1. So much promise! There's always a surprise in them. But the German word for file ("Datei") never made any sense to me outside of computers. In English, you can use the verb "to file", too, but there's no such thing for 'Datei' in German. That always was a bit weird. It was a computer term from the start. We also don't have standing manila folders in Germany :) Hanging folder is what caught on here, but the metaphor of "something's inside" did still work, and they look similar enough.

    Funnily, our verb for what "filing" is in English would be, roughly going back and forth, "foldering" in English again, because you put things in folders, I guess. But our work for folders is, back-and-forth translated, closer to "orderers", so there's a heap of other associations.


    Either way, it sounds like The Archive's search-first interaction paradigm fits the modern age. But it also explains how I get support questions about how to move notes into another cloud service. Some assume that it's iCloud by default, while it's actually local-first, which they don't realize.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • i used the clipboard as a metaphor long before i knew its literal meaning. I never used a clipboard in my life. To explain it, i really need to stop and think: how are clipboards used? when do i use it and why do i not use something else? That's not something i can spontaneously explain, i need to think about it and come back to the question. The exact opposite of what metaphors do.

    Printing is slowly migrating into saving, or exporting because more and more documents are no longer printed. The printer icon is becoming replaced with a share or PDF symbol. I think that all of our paperwork is in the process of finding new metaphors.

    Same for computer. Originally, computer was an occupation for someone that computes mathematical problems. Our understanding of the original meaning is completely lost.

    I don't know what "breaking down" means. I think it is wrong to describe a metaphor as broken or malfunction. Most of the times, when the original meaning is lost the metaphor itself becomes the better replacement. It just means that there is a need for a more abstract explanation of the difference between one concept and another.

    my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

  • @zk_1000 said:
    I don't know what "breaking down" means. I think it is wrong to describe a metaphor as broken or malfunction. Most of the time, when the original meaning is lost, the metaphor itself becomes the better replacement. It just means a need for a more abstract explanation of the difference between one concept and another.

    I blame the curse of knowledge and my poor writing skills for the confusion. Breaking down is another metaphor in trouble. It is sometimes used in a value-laden way, as in it is terrible when things break or are spoiled. Less frequently, it denotes a returning to elemental parts like a melting ice cube or digestion process breaking down foodstuffs into nutrients.

    Metaphors can't be "broken or malfunction." They can be misunderstood and disappear quietly through disuse or become unrecognizable in the culture at large. "Broken or malfunction" are terms that, in the context of describing a metaphor, are themselves metaphors. Metamedaphors.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a zettelnant.
    Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • Metaphors can't be "broken or malfunction." They can be misunderstood and disappear quietly through disuse or become unrecognizable in the culture at large.

    Booker would argue otherwise: 7 Basic Plots. :)

    I am a Zettler

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