Files are not the problem, finding them is

Recently Alex Bowyer blogged at O’Reilly Radar about why files need to die. He provides some good ideas about how we will store and find information in the future but he also misses the point a bit. Files are not really the problem, finding them is.

The past months I spent a lot of time writing on the quest for money. Due to the decentralized nature of our team at, we already realized a long time ago that doing work in something like a Word/OpenOffice document is not the way to go. In the peak time of Wikis we set up our own MediaWiki and started working in there. That did and does work quite well for some things but it is something I am not gonna do forever for various reasons. So what are the benefits/drawbacks?

Benefits of working with a Wiki:

  • History. I can not imagine working on a text anymore without a powerful history. I need to be able to see any change between version x and y at any time. If you interact with several people on the same text this is the only right way to do it in my opinion. A good history in a Wiki is far more powerful than tracking changes in an office document.
  • Multiple users can work on it at the same time. Yes there are more advanced ways of doing that nowadays, some suck (Google Docs: “someone else is editing this file”), some are a bit overkill for my taste (Etherpad). If we screw up the same paragraph we get hints and we have to fix it by hand. Not great, but works most of the time.
  • I just work on the text. I might add some headings and things like bold/emphasis etc but that’s about it. I do not loose any time at formatting it to look good on something ridiculous like an A4 page.
  • The text itself always has the same link and I can access it from everywhere. This is what made the Web so useful.

Drawbacks of a Wiki:

  • Finding wiki pages. This problem started with (digital) files in the late 70-ies, continued with emails in the 90-ies and we still have it with links (technically URIs) nowadays. There were plenty of ideas on how to solve it and none of them worked for me yet.
  • Exporting that stuff. At some point I have to do a snapshot in time which I send out to someone by email/PDF/office document etc. This is the point where I start to cry because I have to launch an office-like app to do that and believe me, I really hate all of them (LaTeX included).

A few years ago, a former boss very proudly told me that he had rearranged the files on the file server. I had a look at it and was totally lost. Not that I liked the old structure but I really couldn’t figure out which files were where anymore. It was logical for him but my brain totally disagreed with that particular structure. He could not understand why this did not work for me.

This was one of the early lessons we learned in our team. Have a look at someones Desktop. Might scare the sh*t out of you but it works for that person. For a long time I had the tendency to order everything in nested structures myself, like emails or files. Result: A few months later I absolutely could not remember where I saved that information and I either wasted a lot of time finding it or I let it go. And I did let go a lot I noticed.

So how would I want to handle knowledge in the future? I do want to have all benefits of a wiki, combined with a way of finding content by context. This means I don’t want to crawl through a fixed structure for locating a text I wrote, as I won’t agree with the structure or won’t remember the right way through it anymore.

My brain remembers the things around a specific event, even if it is only a simple text about a certain topic.  I know it had something to do with funding, particularly for an EU FP7 project. I remember that I sent it to that guy of the University in Bern for a review. I know that my friend Barbara had a look at the English before we sent it out. I remember that I went to Bali, the day after I finished the stuff. I know that one guy sent me an email about it and told me he loves the project. Note that I don’t remember the exact time of it but the things around it.

If I want to find that text, that’s the way I want to search and find it. This can be a file on my disk or a link on the Internet. In that regard a URI is nothing else than a modern form of a file, including all the problems we know.  And this is part of what we are working on at these days.