Culture Magazine

The Diary of a Man and His Machines, Part 2: How’s This Stuff Organized?

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
As I indicated in the previous post in this series, I’m in the process of transferring my “stuff” to a new computer, my third for this century. So, I thought I’d talk a little about how I organize my stuff, not in detail, though. I’m more or less interested in the simple fact that, after all, you have to organize things some how.
Organization wasn’t an issue for my oldest machines, the NorthStar and the “toaster” Macs, because they didn’t have hard drives. There wasn't anything on the for ME to organize. I kept all my data and programs, for the Mac, on floppy drives. Of course, I generally had more than one document on a floppy, and I’d keep the same kind of stuff on a floppy. Organizing floppies is the same kind of problem as organizing books or files. You put books on shelves and keep similar books together on the shelves. Of course, a given book might be like several others. For example, John Bowlby’s Attachment is psychology, infant behavior, primatology, and psychoanalysis. Just where it goes on the shelves depends on whatever else I’m putting on shelves. Similarly, you put files in boxes, with similar files together, or perhaps alphabetically, but alphabetically by what?
Organizing lots of stuff isn’t easy. There’s a reason library science is called a science. Organizing a library is tricky.
Well, I’ve got 30 years of work accumulated on my various machines. That’s a library. And organizing it is a b*tch.
My Performa, mid-90s, had a hard-drive. So now I could do something other than put disks in boxes. But it was a small hard-drive by today’s standards and I don’t remember anything about it. But I still had lots of floppies hanging around. And I used them.
When I got the G3 Mac I’m pretty sure I moved everything off floppies I could. Now keeping track of my hard-drive became a problem. But there’s always search. And I used it. Still do.
The thing is, when you do as much work as I do, it’s hard to keep things in order. Heck, beyond a certain point it’s hard to even know what order is. And files have accumulated at a fierce clip in the last seven or eight years, spanning my two previous machines. For one thing, I started taking photos. I’ve uploaded almost 18,000 photos to Flickr since 2006. Given that those are just photos that I’ve processed from RAW files, and that I don’t process all my RAWs, that implies that I’ve got 60,000 or more photos floating around on my machine. I’d had to think what a full-time professional photographer has to deal with.
I started blogging at The Valve in December of 2005 and wrote I don’t know how many posts until I logged off in March of 2012, but 100s. I started New Savanna in April of 2010 and have published 3450 posts so far (not counting this one); but 1083 were mostly photos, though some of those would have had a bit commentary. That’s a lot of writing, on lots of topics – literature, cognitive science, neuroscience, film and animation, music jazz jamming, Jersey City, graffiti, my life here and there, and so forth. And I’ve got notes all over the place on all those topics, drafts of papers, and other documents.
And then there’s all the material I’ve downloaded, probably thousands of papers on all those topics and more. I’ve got at least half a dozen folders filled the miscellaneous collections of downloaded stuff and each of those folders has 30 to 100 items in it. And I’ve got a nice little pile of music files, but they’re mostly tucked away in iTunes, where they have some kind of quasi-order. And I’ve even put together a few modest videos, stitching together photos to go along with sound, or even shooting a dozen or so videos of me playing trumpet.
So one of the things I’m doing while moving to this new machine is cleaning up things a bit. But I could easily devote several days, if not a week or more, to doing nothing but looking around and re-organizing. Is it worth the effort?
I don’t think so. On the one hand, ordering this stuff is intrinsically difficult because any given document can belong in several different places. You can see that with my posts to New Savanna. I’ve some 500 different tags/labels that I use to classify posts and most posts have more than one tag; some have six or seven or ten. The great majority of those posts, of course, exist on my hard drive somewhere. But I can’t put it in more than one place on my drive, though I can create an “alias” for a given file and put that somewhere. And I do a bit of that. But I’m not going to create a half dozen aliases for a file and stash those aliases in different places.
Rather, I use the search function, called Spotlight on the Mac. As often as not I’ll search on a file name, or what I think the file is named, or on words I know are in the file. That makes more sense then browsing around through a blither of quasi-ordered file folders in order to find something. Without a good search function, I’d be lost.
But would things be any different if I had all my work and materials in hard copy files in a wall of file cabinets. No, it wouldn’t. Hunting through hard copy is more difficult than strolling through electronic files.
Of course, when I create a document, I have to create it somewhere. If it’s a post for the blog most likely it will be in some file in a sub-folder of the NewSav Blog folder, which is in the New Savanna 2, folder, which is, in turn, in the Documents folder. The Documents folder is part of the Mac OS. New Savanna 2, well, it’s hard to explain just what’s in it or why I created it, and there’s a lot of overlap between it and the Intellectual folder, which also lives in Documents, and is another main repository of stuff. One of the many folders directly in the Intellectual folder is one called Literature. And lots of my work on literature is, naturally enough, in the folder. But not everything. Some of it will be in Literature & Related in New SavBlog, because I do a lot of posts about literature.
It looks like this:
Dizzy File Org
The folder’s I’ve been talking about are colored. I added a few others just to make the point that they’re there, lots more than I show here. The two literature folders are bluish. But why have two folders for literature stuff, why not just one? Well, I created the Literature folder before I started blogging, as I’ve been working on literature all my professional career. There’s stuff in that folder that goes back to days before I even had a computer; I scanned hard copy articles and loaded them onto one of those old 20th century machines. I created the Literature & Related folder under NewSav Blog when I started doing extensive postings about literature and that seemed the logical thing to do.
So, now I’ve got two folders with lots of literature stuff in them. But I’m sure there’s literature stuff elsewhere, in Language and Cognition, for example, which also lives in the Intellectual folder. And I’ve got files and folders aliased between Literature and Literature & Related.
And so it goes. All over the damn place, in all sorts of ways.
Now, what interests me, and the issue that prompted this post in the first place, in what way and to what extent does the organization of things on my computer reflect the organization of things in my mind? In some way it must, because it’s my mind that’s imposing the organization. When just how does my mind or anyone’s mind actually really and truly organize anything? Who knows?
But, though I’ve never actually spent any time cruising around on someone else’s personal machine, I’m sure that different people have different ways of organizing there materials. I’m not the only humanist who’s got thirty years of professional life on a computer. How do others organize their machines?
For example, here’s John Holbo:
For the past two days I’ve been transferring stuff to the new iMac from my old one(s) – I’ve got a MacBook as well. I’m not an organized person, by nature. I save stuff in stupid places, nested in folders within folders, with the wrong names on the files and folders alike. So for two days I’ve been trying to clean by hand. I didn’t use Setup Assistant to pour the messy old wine into the big new skin. I’m a digital hoarder. Why delete when I can just save in some new folder that I label ‘old stuff’? My old hard disc was this apartment crammed with the data equivalent of old jars of urine and nail clippings. When I digitally exfoliate, I send all that dead skin wafting up to the Cloud. When I intellectually excrete, I don’t delete. I need a seriously better system for storing casks of cyberurine just in case I want it again.
So, I’m sure his computer is organized differently than, mine, and differently from yours as well. Holbo posted that to solicit advice on getting his machine organized. He got 42 comments, and if you read through then you begin to get a sense that different people really do organize their computers differently. Just as they organize their houses and offices differently.
And of course their lives.

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