Modern computing is based on an analogy between computers and file cabinets that is fundamentally wrong and affects nearly every move we make. (We store “files” on disks, write “records,” organize files into “folders” — file-cabinet language.) Computers are fundamentally unlike file cabinets because they can take action.
If you have three pet dogs, give them names. If you have 10,000 head of cattle, don’t bother. Nowadays the idea of giving a name to every file on your computer is ridiculous.
Our standard policy on file names has far-reaching consequences: doesn’t merely force us to make up names where no name is called for; also imposes strong limits on our handling of an important class of documents — ones that arrive from the outside world. A newly-arrived email message (for example) can’t stand on its own as a separate document — can’t show up alongside other files in searches, sit by itself on the desktop, be opened or printed independently; it has no name, so it must be buried on arrival inside some existing file (the mail file) that does have a name.
You shouldn't have to put files in directories. The directories should reach out and take them. If a file belongs in six directories, all six should reach out and grab it automatically, simultaneously.
A file should be allowed to have no name, one name or many names. Many files should be allowed to share one name. A file should be allowed to be in no directory, one directory, or many directories. Many files should be allowed to share one directory. Of these eight possibilities, only three are legal and the other five are banned — for no good reason.
File cabinets and human minds are information-storage systems. We could model computerized information-storage on the mind instead of the file cabinet if we wanted to.
Elements stored in a mind do not have names and are not organized into folders; are retrieved not by name or folder but by contents. (Hear a voice, think of a face: you’ve retrieved a memory that contains the voice as one component.) You can see everything in your memory from the standpoint of past, present and future. Using a file cabinet, you classify information when you put it in; minds classify information when it is taken out. (Yesterday afternoon at four you stood with Natasha on Fifth Avenue in the rain — as you might recall when you are thinking about “Fifth Avenue,” “rain,” “Natasha” or many other things. But you attached no such labels to the memory when you acquired it. The classification happened retrospectively.)