How to sort spoons and files

How to sort spoons and files

In the physical world we sort objects according to some fixed principles. First and foremost, we like categories. Spoons go with spoons and forks go with forks in my kitchen drawer. I also keep my spoons closer to my forks than I keep them to my cups. By doing so, I exhibit natural behavior. My cognition contains taxonomies with categories, such a cutlery, and subcategories, such as spoons and forks. When I put order to my kitchen, I like to obey the taxonomies dictated by my brain.

Secondly, in the physical world concrete objects occupy a single space at a single moment. For example, I can expect to find a specific spoon in the cutlery drawer or in the dishwasher, but I am sure I will not find it in both places simultaneously. It is an implicit assumption deeply imprinted in my cognition.

Because objects can only occupy a single space we only label them with a single category when sorting them. Cognitively, it would make sense to label a spoon with various categories, such as ‘cutlery’ and ‘metal object’. But this only creates confusing when putting order to a kitchen. Should I store the metal spoons together with the plastic spoons or with the metal pots and pans? Well, I will have to choose which category to adhere to, because my spoons can’t be stored both in the drawer with the cutlery and in the cupboard with the pots and pans simultaneously. I will therefore probably end up putting my spoons in the cutlery drawer after all. In other words, I store them in a unique location chosen on the basis of their most significant category. Let us call this sorting principle the location-based principle.

If the physical world were better aligned with my cognition I would simply store the spoons somewhere and they would come if I shouted ‘spoons’, ‘cutlery’, ‘metal objects’ or even ‘things I need to serve soup’. In other words, I would still use categories to sort my spoons, but I would not be bothered by the restriction that they can only belong to one category. I can assign as many tags as I want to my spoons and they will come when I shout any of these tags. Let us call this sorting principle the tag-based sorting principle. Note that the tag-based principle is more practical than the location-based principle. Alas, in the physical world it cannot be used.

We tend to adopt our understanding of the physical world in the virtual world. If a colleague asks us where we stored a given file, we will respond something like ‘in folder x on the server’. In other words, the primary sorting principle we adopt in the virtual world is location-based as well. However, in the virtual world we can complement it with the tag-based sorting principle. We can assign as many labels to a file as we want. And when we shout one of those labels our files will come. Practically, this is done by defining keywords or tags and by using them in search functions.

For certain types of files, the tag-based sorting principle has become the dominant principle. Pictures and photos on Flickr and Facebook, for example, are commonly tagged. Yet, tags should not be restricted to pictures. Microsoft Office, for example, equally allows you to define keywords for your files. (Go to File > Properties.) To find files by means of their keywords, you simply use the search function in Finder/My computer. As such, tags may complement the location-based storing principle we use for our Office files.

by Marijke De Belder, Technical Writer – Touch Of Content, MindForest Group