The Desktop Parable

February 13, 2009

People that work with information know that you need to organize it. Before there were computers, this was obvious, and when computers started to develop, the concept of files and a file system came naturally.

Early computer scientists figured out that to manage information you have to have a plan. So, the hierarchical file system was adopted. This is about as intuitive as it gets. For example, everyone understands that phone numbers have country codes, then area codes, then a local number. Libraries are organized the same way – from general, to specific. We’re born with that kind of thinking. Kids do it.

Computing that way is easy too. Directories and sub directories. Everyone figures it out right away. Tell them what a file is and the rest they already know. That is, if you let them. Unfortunately, with the adoption of the desktop, these basic concepts were obfuscated, and this simplicity came to an end.

Now it became necessary to think in terms of a single piece of furniture. A desk. More specifically the function of a desk which allows you to put things on it. This is supposed to help you.

How does that work? Perhaps it’s as if the library put all their books on the librarian’s desk so you’d know where to look. Perhaps it’s like everyone having the same phone number so you only have to remember one. The fact is that nobody knows exactly how it works. The reason is obvious. It’s because a desk is not very closely related to information management, and even less to computers. Probably the most difficult concept ever introduced into computer usage is, in fact, “the desktop”.

Commonly referred to as a metaphor, the desktop is an idea which goes back almost 40 years. What were they thinking? Were they having some kind of problem understanding something, or did they just want to make it more difficult for other people? Personally I think they created a solution that didn’t have a problem, and in doing so they have actually prevented many people from understanding how computers work. The invention of the desktop was actually a malicious act. At the very least it was sabotage.

Seriously though, it was probably an attempt to avoid dealing with a file system. Even if you take the metaphor to heart, sooner or later you’re going to have to put some of those files somewhere other than your “desktop”. What nitwit would not think that far ahead?

Human beings have an incredible, and well developed, ability for denial. When it comes to the desktop, it is downright amazing how computer users at all levels seem to be able to hold two contradictory ideas in their heads at one time. The first, that there is no file system. The second, that there is.

I nominate “the desktop” as the stupidest computer concept of all time.

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