Learning Society

Structures of Thought

Liked A World Ordered Only By Search by L. M. Sacasas (The Convivial Society)

In any case, the idea that is supposedly intuitive to anyone who remembers floppy disks is the directory structure model, or, put otherwise, “the hierarchical system of folders that modern computer operating systems use to arrange files.” In a recent article for The Verge, “File Not Found: A generation that grew up with Google is forcing professors to rethink their lesson plans,” Monica Chin explored anecdotal evidence suggesting that, by somewhere around 2017, some significant percentage of college students found this mental model altogether foreign.

The essay opens with a couple of stories from professors who, when they instructed their students to locate their files or to open a folder, were met with incomprehension, and then proceeds to explore some possible causes and consequences. So, for example, she writes, that “directory structure connotes physical placement — the idea that a file stored on a computer is located somewhere on that computer, in a specific and discrete location.” “That’s a concept,” she goes on to add,
that’s always felt obvious to Garland [one of the professor’s supplying the anecdotal evidence] but seems completely alien to her students. “I tend to think an item lives in a particular folder. It lives in one place, and I have to go to that folder to find it,’ Garland says. ‘They see it like one bucket, and everything’s in the bucket.”

Really interesting contrast in how we organize and conceive of structure. I’m just old enough to be fully ingrained in the idea of folders, and find the formlessness of cloud documents and the endless feed frustrating. I want information to be split into discrete chunks, for there to be ending points and divisions – as he compares to the historic breakthrough in structuring information in ways that are possible to reference as parts of a whole with chapter headings, paragraph divisions, and page numbers. He then calls out memory palaces as a way of chunking our own memory, which hadn’t occurred to me before. Even on this digital garden I try to sort things into separate buckets using categories and tags – though the digital can offer the best of both worlds: categorization and search.

Mental categories tend to be grounded in embodied experiences in a material world… Consequently, technological change not only transforms the texture of everyday life, it also alters the architecture and furniture of our mental spaces.

How has the digital environment transformed not only how we encounter the word, but our experience of the world itself?

I’d say at this juncture that we are reeling under the burdens of externalized memory. Hugh’s students labored to construct elaborate interior structures to order their memories and enjoy ready access to all the knowledge they accumulated. And these imagined structures were built so as to mirror the order of knowledge. We do not strive to interiorize knowledge. We build external rather than internal archives.

There comes a point when our capacity to store information outpaces our ability to actively organize it

Is search the inevitable conclusion to the quantity of information we now encounter?

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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