Metaphors limit our technology

Digital files do not have to take up one and only one spot on a shelf or in a drawer. Metaphors like “files” and “folders” help to communicate some of the limitations of a system, but those metaphors are not intrinsic to digital experiences. Like all good information architecture, this is a shared fiction. That “shared” part can break down and limit this approach.

Lastly, it’s worth recognizing that this shared fiction is breaking down for a good reason. It embodies many limitations that our experiences no longer adhere to. A system that surfaces what you need when you need it, rather than keeping it from you until you supply an exact file path, is delightful and generous. The problem, according to professors in this article, is that programming languages don’t work this way. It’s crucial to add, though, that this is a latency in our technology and its metaphors, not an inherent characteristic of it.

Our insistence on an architectural metaphor of outdated technology limits us. As Ted Nelson said about 1999 technology, hewing too close to the metaphor of paper is like “tearing the wings of a 747 and driving it as a bus on the highway.”

See: Gen Z can’t use file structures


Nelson, Theodor Holm. “The Unfinished Revolution and Xanadu.” ACM Computing Surveys, vol. 31, no. 4es, Dec. 1999, p. 37.