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The End of Files December 8, 2012

Posted by Andre Vellino in Data, Digital library.
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A few weeks ago, I boldly predicted in my class on copyright that the computer file was as doomed in annals of history as the piano roll (the last of which was printed in 2008 – See this documentary video on YouTube on how they are made and copied!)

This is a slightly different prediction than the one made by the Economist in 2005: Death to Folders. Their argument was that folders as a method of organizing files was obsolete and that search, tagging and “smart folders” were going to change everything. My assertion is the very notion of a file – these things that are copied, edited, executed by computers - will eventually disappear (to the end-user, anyway.)

The path to the “end of files” is more than just a question of masking the underlying data-representation to the user. It is true that Apps (as designed for mobile devices) have begun to do that as a convenient way of hiding the details of a file from the user – be it an application file or a document file.  The reason that Apps (generally) contain within them the (references to) data-items (i.e. files) that they need, particularly if the information is stored in the cloud, is to provide a Digital Rights Management scheme. Which no doubt why this App model is slowly creeping its way from mobile devices to mainstream laptops and desktops (viz. Mac OS Mountain Lion and Windows 8).

But this is just the beginning.  There’s going to be a paradigm shift (a perfectly fine phrase, when it’s used correctly!) in our mental representations of computing objects and it is going to be more profound than merely masking the existence of the underlying representation. I think the new paradigm that will replace “file” is going to be: “the set of information items and interfaces that are needed to perform some action the current use-context”.

Consider as an example of this trend towards the new paradigm, Wolfram’s Computable Document Format. In this model, documents are created by dynamically assembling components from different places and performing computations on them.  In this model there are distributed, raw information components – data mostly – that are assembled in the application and don’t correspond to a “file” at all. Or consider information mashups like Google Maps with restaurant reviews and recommendations are generated as a function of search-history, location, and user-identity.  These “content-bundles”, for want of a better phrase, are definitely not files or documents but, from the end-user’s point of view, they are also indistinguishable from them.

Even, MS Word DocX “files” are instances of this new model.  The Open Document XML file format is a standardized data-structure: XML components bound together in a zip file. Imagine de-regimenting this convention a little and what constitutes a “document” could change quite significantly.

Conventional, static files will continue to exist for some time and version control systems will continue to provide change management services to what we now know as “files”. But I predict that my grand children won’t know what a file is – and won’t need to.  The procedural instructions required for assembling information-packages out of components, including the digital rights constraints that govern them, will eventually dominate the world of consumable digital content to the point where the idea of a file will be obsolete.

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