Desktop Layouts

My friend Ann (who, despite being one of the most astute critics of the technological life that I know (or maybe because of that fact–don’t you love the parenthetical to the parenthetical?), surprisingly does not have a web page or much of a web presence–otherwise I would put a link to her here) and I are working together to read a number of texts at the intersection of our two fields, computing and literary theory. We have read, among other things, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. Obviously, the work we’ve done together has inspired this blog. The other day, we were discussing our latest project in the HUB (PSU’s student union), each using our laptops to make notes. When I showed her my computer, she was intrigued by the arrangement of icons on my desktop.

There are many limitations to the desktop metaphor for organizing files and folders. But Microsoft has introduced additional problems into the metaphor by only considering it at a superficial level. The default for Windows XP is to put icons in alphabetical order starting in the upper left corner of the desktop. This has never made sense to me. The desktop metaphor is a spatial one–the screen of the computer is supposed to represent a real, physical desktop. On a real desktop, WHERE you place an item is of primary importance. The NAME of that file is not important at all. And yet, Microsoft has chosen a default organizational structure that depends on the name of the folder or document. I have chosen to organize my computer desktop in a way that is very similar to the way I organize my physical desktop. In the upper right corner of my desktop are the things that I want to deal with first when I sit at my desk or start my computer. There’s a shortcut to NHPR’s streaming audio which I always start first thing. (I am addicted to National Public Radio–that will be the subject of a future post.) There’s a shortcut to my web browser which allows me to check my email next. As I move down the right side of the screen, there are the folders for my current classes, followed by articles and other projects I’m working on followed by the applications I use most. Across the bottom of the screen are zip files which contain the work of previous semesters. On the left side of the desktop are the items I use most infrequently. These items tend to remain in alphabetical order because I don’t care enough about them to move them around.

Ann pointed out to me that my desktop organization is kind of like a clock, with the things I want to be able to deal with first at 1 o’clock and things I don’t care about at 11 o’clock. The clock is an apt metaphor for how I organize my desktop–and I guess I see more of a relationship between my time organization and the desktop metaphor than between Windows’ default alphabetical organization and the desktop metaphor.

One of the things that interests me is how we understand what the computer is presenting to us. The use of metaphors is clearly important. But when the metaphors are superficial, they fail to help new users understand the information they face. We may think that there are no new users, that everyone knows and understands how Windows works. But it isn’t true. I spend my Friday afternoons at the Interlakes Senior Center in Meredith, NH, teaching senior citizens how to use computers. I am constantly amazed at how much one has to know in order to interpret the information presented by the computer in even the simplest interaction. As I explain even the most basic activities, there is a constant tension between too much information so that I overwhelm them and too little information so that they don’t really understand what’s going on. If the metaphors worked on deeper levels or if the information presented could be organized in more intuitive ways, I think some of this tension could be lessened.

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