The Uncharted Backwoods of Your Computer

Jeremy Wagstaff
Filed on September 18, 2009

I have just come back from the wilds, which I define as anywhere you have to wander around, or drive, to get a cellphone signal.

No Wi-Fi, no HSDPA, no cabling, no nothing. It was great.

There is a lot to be said about unhooking. If nothing else, it forces us to think of our laptop or netbook as just something we use to access the Internet.

In the old days, the computer was to do things on: to write, to organise stuff, to produce newsletters and invitations.

Then along came the modem and all that was lost.

Plug a cable in and you were connected to the world.

Now our computers tend to be more like terminals. We don’t think of the information on our computer as complete-as if the data out “there” is somehow more meaningful than the data “here”, on our computers.

Soon enough, there won’t be such a thing as a disconnected computer. But for now, maybe it’s something we should relish.

Like me sitting in my little cottage in the wilderness.

At first my laptop sat neglected as I wrestled with my cellphone, trying to coax a signal out of it.

My laptop, with 300 gigabytes of lovingly collected data, was ignored as I wandered the garden, and then the woodland around it, half admiring the scenery, half trying to drum up a bar on my cellphone.

At one point I found that if I stood on a chair and held the phone towards the sun, a bar or two appeared. Fleetingly. Long enough to dial a number; not long enough to hear anything from the other end.

Finally, I accepted my fate, and cracked open a book. Finished that. Read another one. Ran out of books. So I started digging around the laptop. The problem with computers, I was quickly reminded, is that browsing them is virtually impossible.

Whereas the Web was tailor-built from browsing-every link a path to somewhere else.

Never do you reach a page that says: “No more link-clicking for you, young lady! Nothing to see here. Go outside and get some fresh air.” It’s endless.

Your computer, on the other hand, is mainly built around applications-word processing, spreadsheeting, even music listening.

It is OK at finding stuff for you, so long as you know what you’re looking for.

But it’s not designed for someone who just wants to wander around, trawling through it as one would an old cupboard or drawer. As one might browse a bookshelf, a CD collection, an album of photos.

Of course, all the applications for these things exist, but they’re still specific to the file type-an MP3 file, a photo, a video, a spreadsheet.

But how about if we just want to look around? When we’re not sure what we’re looking for until we find it? When we’re looking for something to read, to listen to, to watch, and we’re not sure what?

There have been attempts to do this, but none of them has been particularly successful.

If you’re curious, you might want to check out BumpTop, which has a cute interface and lets you mess around with files as if they’re sheaths of paper, irrespective of what kind of file they are. Nice, but ultimately unsatisfactory.

One I do like, and I’ve mentioned before, is PersonalBrain.

It won’t help you browse until you’ve added stuff, but once you do it helps you find connections between things you hadn’t considered, or reminded you of things you might otherwise have forgotten.

And there’s EverNote, which is getting better and better at storing pretty much any kind of document type so you can read it.

But that’s pretty much it for letting us look at what we have on our ever-expanding hard drives.

One day we’ll look back at all this as rather weird.

We’ll think it absurd that we allowed computers to be built around software, and not the things that we create with that software.

I suppose it’s natural that programmers would work like this.

The programmes, after all, are built by someone else; the documents, the artifacts, are what we create ourselves.

Who controls the programmes that we use to access those artifacts controls our use of the artifacts.

So Microsoft, Apple et al aren’t about to cede control by working to reduce the tyranny of the file type.

(You can see how valuable this is by how hard these companies try to wrest control over what they call the default application that is used to open a file on your computer: browsers for HTML web pages, iTunes etc for music files, etc etc.)

I don’t necessarily have an answer to this, but I do know that something’s not right when we are better able to browse other people’s computers-the Internet-than we are able to browse our own.

One day we’ll be able to just scroll through all our files in whatever order or disorder we choose and they’ll play, or appear naturally-so much so we won’t even care if they’re an Acrobat PDF file or a music file or whatever.

But until then I’m going to unhook a little more often and get to know the backwoods of my own hard drive a little better.

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