File Hierarchies: Images & Email

Every now and again, I come across something that makes me realize there is something about me that is different than most people. It happened this week while reading A World Ordered Only By Search by L.M. Sacasas, which is, in part, a commentary on an article Monica Chin’s File Not Found in The Verge. Here’s the relevant bit:

There comes a point when our capacity to store information outpaces our ability to actively organize it, no matter how prodigious our effort to do so. Consider our collections of digital images. No one pretends to order their collections. I’m not sure what the number might be, maybe 10,000, at which our efforts to organize images falters. Of course, our apps do this for us. They can self-sort by a number of parameters: date, file size, faces, etc. And Apple or Google Photos offer a host of other algorithmically curated collections to make our image databases meaningful. We outsource not only remembering but also the ordering function.

I order my images. I find it is pretty easy actually. There’s the main principle, which is by year. Then, you group them into relevant categories. Smugmug essentially uses symbolic links to files that allows for easy hierarchical ordering. So, I can keep files in a specific year. Then, another folder that points to a sequence within that year that corresponds to a vacation or event. You can also create folders for particular people, such as scans of older photos of relatives.

This is really only a problem if you only have one method, such as year, as an organizing principle, which forces you into a search paradigm. You need to be able to organize in multiple places within a hierarchy, and you need to choose software that enables you to do that. However, if you think in terms of search, then you are less likely to think in terms of symbolic links that allow for multiple points of categorization and points of entry to the same file or set of files.

It may be more “natural” to me for a number of reasons. One, *nix systems incorporate symbolic links into their file structure exactly for this reason. So, anyone that primarily uses a *nix system is going to think of hierarchies and using symbolic links to create different points of access to the same files. Two, I used to be a librarian. So, I might claim that I have a greater familiarity with classification systems, indexing, and other ways of organizing information than most people. This blog is probably a good illustration of this point. Another is email. I use a fairly simple structure in email that looks like this:

  • Archives
    • Blog
    • Correspondence
    • Goods
    • Information
    • Jobs
    • Statements
    • Subscriptions
    • Travel
  • Family
    • Name 1
    • Name 2
  • Friends
    • Name 1
    • Name 2

Blog is anything related to this blog. Correspondence is something official, like a politician. Subscriptions tend to be when I sign up for something online. If it is a friend or family member that doesn’t have their own folder, they get dropped into the main folder. If there’s enough email exchanged, then I create a new folder and add all their emails to it later. The rest is self-explanatory.

It’s easy to keep this file system in your head and to quickly categorize a piece of email. The aesthetic for edge cases is to try to use an existing category to cover it, if it is unclear. Information and Goods covers a lot of territory.

Of course, some people may have large families with different branches or different friend groups. It is easy enough to categorize these under sub-headings. But, I think trying to over-categorize is probably why a lot of people end up giving up on file hierarchies. They are trying to impose too much order on a system that should be fuzzy, allowing for rough categorization without too much detail.

The same principles apply to this blog, personal files, and elsewhere. For cafebedouin.org, for instance, there are the categories that act as a rough heirarchy and tags are symbolic links that give other ways to access a particular post. When you start thinking of files as having a main organizing principle and then other avenues for access, hierarchies become a useful supplemental (or starting) strategy that complements search.

L.M. Sacasas made me realize that this kind of mental model for organizing information is unusual. I thought discussing it might spark ideas or be useful for someone else.

Confronting the Technological Society

“But as more and more activities and areas of life get absorbed in technique — in recent years perhaps most visibly through digital technologies shaping friendships, learning, buying and selling, travel, music, leisure, and much else — the possibilities of pushing back against it diminish. The lesson here is not that the particular technologies are necessarily harmful and ought to be shunned. Rather, while they aim to make countless activities easier and more efficient — and us happier — they tend to obscure from our vision the real, kaleidoscopic, sometimes maddening but appropriate complexities of these activities. Education, political engagement, friendship, artistic and scholarly excellence, moral and intellectual virtue — these are and remain vexingly difficult, and there are no shortcuts to becoming good at them, even if various tools are helpful along the way. What we need is to learn to appreciate the tensions and difficulties of pursuing these deeply meaningful ends. As Ellul writes in The Political Illusion, “Only tension and conflict form personality, not only on the loftiest, most personal plane, but also on the collective plane.”

An ethics of nonpower — choosing not to exercise mastery at the expense of proper human ends — will involve tensions and conflicts, the maintenance of which is a prerequisite for the pursuit of the best things. The craftsmen of governments demanding separation of powers and a system of checks and balances recognized this principle, ensuring restraint and organized tensions to prevent despotism. Freedom requires tension, and Ellul in his insistence on dialectical thinking is ultimately concerned with preserving human freedom. Whereas technologies grant us greater freedom to master our environment, technique as a whole restrains it and itself becomes the new environment resisting our mastery. An important point Ellul seems to have missed is that for the technician, the craftsman, and the mechanic, mastery over technology requires not confrontation from without but proper care for the thing and submission to its physical demands. Freedom from the tool goes hand in hand with freedom and skill to manipulate it, which often makes older tools that reveal their workings superior to the new ones that conceal them. The master technician may thus be freer than the mere user who has not been disciplined by the making of the tool…

…We ought instead to take Ellul’s book, placed in the context of his larger work, as an appeal to walk a middle path between unrestrained technophilia and reactionary technophobia, a path we see only if we refocus on human ends, which are familial, communal, political, and ecclesial. This requires that we are willing to admit that among our vast array of technical means many fail to serve us well, that progress on this path has often little to do with innovation, and that control over our means is not simply given but something we must struggle for by confronting them with these higher than technical ends.

-Samuel Matlack, “Confronting the Technological Society.” The New Atlantis. Summer/Fall 2014.

Another reminder, along with L.M. Sacasas’ The Convivial Society, to read Ellul’s work.

L.M. Sacasas’s The Questions Concerning Technology

If you find the list below interesting, you could always subscribe to his newsletter, and as with all Substack newsletters, it can be turned into an RSS feed by adding /feed to the main url, like so: https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/feed. Don’t know what RSS is? There’s a post for that. h/t to Alan Jacobs for the reminder.

  1. What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
  2. What habits will the use of this technology instill?
  3. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
  4. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
  5. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
  6. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to the world around me?
  7. What practices will the use of this technology cultivate?
  8. What practices will the use of this technology displace?
  9. What will the use of this technology encourage me to notice?
  10. What will the use of this technology encourage me to ignore?
  11. What was required of other human beings so that I might be able to use this technology?
  12. What was required of other creatures so that I might be able to use this technology?
  13. What was required of the earth so that I might be able to use this technology?
  14. Does the use of this technology bring me joy? [N.B. This was years before I even heard of Marie Kondo!]
  15. Does the use of this technology arouse anxiety?
  16. How does this technology empower me? At whose expense?
  17. What feelings does the use of this technology generate in me toward others?
  18. Can I imagine living without this technology? Why, or why not?
  19. How does this technology encourage me to allocate my time?
  20. Could the resources used to acquire and use this technology be better deployed?
  21. Does this technology automate or outsource labor or responsibilities that are morally essential?
  22. What desires does the use of this technology generate?
  23. What desires does the use of this technology dissipate?
  24. What possibilities for action does this technology present? Is it good that these actions are now possible?
  25. What possibilities for action does this technology foreclose? Is it good that these actions are no longer possible?
  26. How does the use of this technology shape my vision of a good life?
  27. What limits does the use of this technology impose upon me?
  28. What limits does my use of this technology impose upon others?
  29. What does my use of this technology require of others who would (or must) interact with me?
  30. What assumptions about the world does the use of this technology tacitly encourage?
  31. What knowledge has the use of this technology disclosed to me about myself?
  32. What knowledge has the use of this technology disclosed to me about others? Is it good to have this knowledge?
  33. What are the potential harms to myself, others, or the world that might result from my use of this technology?
  34. Upon what systems, technical or human, does my use of this technology depend? Are these systems just?
  35. Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?
  36. Does using this technology require me to think more or less?
  37. What would the world be like if everyone used this technology exactly as I use it?
  38. What risks will my use of this technology entail for others? Have they consented?
  39. Can the consequences of my use of this technology be undone? Can I live with those consequences?
  40. Does my use of this technology make it easier to live as if I had no responsibilities toward my neighbor?
  41. Can I be held responsible for the actions which this technology empowers? Would I feel better if I couldn’t?

Commodified Emotions as Entertainment

“As with Fear Factor nearly two decades ago, it’s worth asking
what exactly what is being watched and why? It seemed to me then, and still does, that we are watching human beings whose emotions are extracted and commodified for our entertainment. I would still argue, as I did then, that this is dehumanizing, both for the participant and for the viewer (the consent of either notwithstanding). I’d extend this point not only to reality television, but to each of the myriad ways we are now enabled to watch one another, with or without the consent of the watched. In my view, this calls for the renewal of a new sort of chastened vision, one which would turn away from spectacle of intimate life extracted and commodified.”

—L.M. Sacasas, The Convivial Society, No. 20. July 27, 2019.

I’ve been subscribing to a lot of newsletters lately. The Convivial Society, after reading only one issue, seems worth a mention.