Gongol.com Archives: September 2021

Brian Gongol

September 23, 2021

Computers and the Internet "Content management" has taken a flamethrower to logic

Before there was Google, the nascent Internet was navigable mostly by directories. DMOZ and the Yahoo Directory sought to collect and organize links to all of the destinations on the World Wide Web. At the time, it was an achievable goal. ■ The eager proprietor of a new website would suggest their site to Yahoo and wait for human beings to place the page inside their structured hierarchy of information. It was all very consistent with the era's approach to computers, which were still slow enough that they required thoughtful programming and careful organization by human beings. ■ Limitations mattered: A DOS file name could be just eight characters long, with a three-character extension depicting what type of a file it was. A Pentium chip in 1998 could run at 200 MHz, barely one-twentieth the speed of a Pentium chip in 2008. Programmers had to think carefully, making sure that data was well-organized and lines of code didn't go to waste. Today, virtually nobody seems to pay attention to code bloat, because fast processors make up for inefficient code. ■ Directories aren't very helpful for people who don't already know how to find what they don't know. If you know the definition of a word but don't know the word itself, a dictionary is both well-organized and useless. That's what made Google so extraordinary when it was new: It could help the user answer ambiguous questions, and PageRank offered a way for the novice user to estimate the quality of a source without knowing anything about it. It was quite the step forward. ■ Unfortunately, though, we have unintentionally passed from making good use of search engines into the abuse of them. Being "found" on the first page of a Google search result is often more important to the prospects of a business than all of the other advertising it can do, so search-engine optimization is now a titanic digital industry. And, in turn, the concept of searching took over the relationship between computers and their users. ■ An article in The Verge suggests that the first fully search-dependent college students arrived in classrooms around 2017, knowing how to find files and information in their computers only by using the search bar. Individual professors confirm routinely seeing their students mystified by the idea of folders and directories. ■ In part, the companies making the operating systems are to blame -- Android and iOS fundamentally assume a search-first approach. Google Docs (widely used in schools) does the same. One college professor argues bluntly that computing tools are being designed so that users don't think about organization; the technology "replaced everything with a dumbwaiter. Maybe the right files come back up the tube. Maybe they don't." ■ But it's also a reflection of an Internet problem: "Content management systems" have effectively repealed decades of progress in directory logic that culminated in websites that a person could easily navigate from the file structure alone, with intuitive directory names and content organized in detail. Content-management systems can pack a long URL full of keywords (in a bid to win the search-engine contest), even if there's no resulting deductive logic to the way the files themselves are organized. ■ For a while, website designers put thought and effort into careful website organization, complete with features like breadcrumb navigation. That approach remains both logical and conscientious, but it isn't particularly rewarded in a "search-first" world. And thus confusion flourishes, as certain search features improve (like facial recognition, now built right into Google Photos), pulling users even farther away from even thinking about organization. ■ Certain organizing schemes of the past tried to do the impossible -- completely categorizing and organizing all knowledge. We still have rival systems for organizing books -- the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification -- telling us that conclusive organization may be forever an illusion. Yet even when the numbering systems were inadequate for a library's needs, there was always the vertical file. ■ Lots of people will manage to live long, happy, and fulfilled lives never knowing how to create a rigorously-organized file structure. For many, searching will be enough. But at the broader level, abandoning that rigor doesn't make sense, either. It was hubris to think that the whole Internet could be organized by Jerry and David's directory -- but many individual websites really should still have disciplined file structures, especially if they're going to last for any length of time. ■ "Content management" is too often just glorified SEO, and poor website management has made "link rot" a huge problem. A website "refresh" all too often results in dead links all around. It's a result of conscious choices not to invest in thoughtfully maintaining what's on the Internet. ■ Benjamin Franklin warned of this in 1758: "Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge." The Internet often helps us to feel like we have all the world's knowledge at our fingertips. But if we don't also have sound, logical ways of organizing that knowledge -- whether it's on our own devices or on the websites we manage -- it's the want of care that will come back to bite us.

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