From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 31, 2008*: One tool to rule them all?

Throughout these columns I've noted numerous times that folders, the central metaphor via which we "organize" our materials on our computers, ran their course long ago. The tools we have at our disposal today for accessing what we store on our computers basically make the hierarchical filing systems that, over the years, we grew so accustomed to, anachronistic. About three months ago, George Siemens, on a blog post, wrote essentially that same thing:

Back "in those days" folders on a hard drive still ruled organization approaches to managing content. Google was still emerging ... tags and folksonomies didn't yet exist explicitly. I was asked how we should best organize our resources when content was developing so quickly. I stated that we should "throw everything into our containers and apply intelligence at the point of search". I still think that's the main way to manage information.

Siemens, of course, wasn't the first to note this. Many others did so before him, and this probably wasn't the first time that he himself wrote about it. A reliance on folders, however, doesn't necessarily stem from being convinced that they're the best way to organize information. I'm sure that there are numerous computer users who "organize" their files not because they have to, but because doing so generates in them a feeling of being in control, rather than of being inundated by the unrelenting onslaught of information that surrounds, and threatens to drown, them. The very thought of abandoning the generally accepted organizing principle of filing for the (dis)organizing principle of search is, for many people, very threatening. But while tools such as desktop search may be overkill for people with only a handful of files on their computers, there are many of us who have a pressing need for such tools, and the fact that today they're readily available makes our lives considerably easier. Even so, each new "solution" such as this opens the door to new problems as well. Today, thanks to desktop search, simply by remembering, or guessing, even a couple of words in a document that I'd like to find, I'll probably succeed in finding that document without any difficulty. That is, as long as it's on my hard drive. But what good is desktop search if I hardly save files to my hard drive anymore, and instead save them primarily online?

The fundamental benefit of cloud computing (if, of course, we're truly able to be online whenever we want) is that our files are always accessible to us, from wherever we happen to be. But as being online anytime/anywhere becomes more and more the norm, the actions that we perform online continue to increase, and in turn, the services that vie for our use mushroom out of all proportion. Each service seems to offer a slightly different take on what we can do, or store, or save, online. And if we use numerous services of this sort, we discover that while we may no longer have to divide our files into folders or categories by topic or some other "logical" organizing principle, we're now dividing them by the type of tool that we're using. There are bookmarks that I prefer to save in my Google bookmarks, while others seem right for my account. Parts of pages that I've clipped will probably be saved in my Google Notebooks (though I've still got lots of items in my esnips account), but if I've saved an entire article, it's probably stored in my Furl account. A document that I've been working on may be stored in my Google docs, but chances are also good that it's simply sitting in my gmail instead. Or maybe I've finished writing it, and it's now posted in my blog? In all of these different cases, if I want to find a specific item that I've saved, a search for a couple of words in that item or document will probably find it ... but which tool did I use to "save" it?, within which tool should I be searching? And as additional new tools continue to offer me novel alternatives for earmarking something, this problem becomes more and more acute. When we've moved so much of our lives to the cloud, it stands to reason that what we're going to need is a tool that will aggregate all of our online tools and let us search them from one convenient location.

When it comes to things internet, I've learned to expect that if I have a particular need, many others have it as well, and chances are good that somebody out there is already trying to fill it. Thus, in that same post by George Siemens, I wasn't particularly surprised to read him report on a tool that attempted to answer just that need - a meta tool that would search all of my online materials, in much the same way that desktop search goes through my hard drive. Though it's perhaps tempting to call this a Swiss Army knife, or the Veg-O-Matic, of online tools, that wouldn't really be accurate. It doesn't slice or dice, chop or grate. It doesn't really do anything, but instead aggregates the results of searches that we might run individually on all of our online tools. I suppose that we should call it a meta-search engine for our own online materials. In the same way that traditional meta-search engines run our search on numerous search sites and present us with the results, this tool does the same thing, but for the various accounts we have online.

So, rather understandably, I immediately clicked over to and took a look. Yes, it seemed quite tantalizing. But that was three months ago, and I still haven't opened an account there. For the past month I've been trying to figure out to myself just why that might be.

I'm quite aware that anyone who reads these columns would find it difficult to accept that, far from considering myself a power-user, I actually see myself as being rather lightweight on the digital-tool-user scale. Certainly in comparison to people who never venture beyond an established set of web sites they frequent, or perform only a limited number of web searches here and there for clear and pre-determined purposes, or who check their email twice a week, and perhaps occasionally indulge in some instant messaging, I'm a full-blown geek. But the truth is that I actually use a rather limited number of tools, and devote increasingly less and less time to seeking out, and trying out, new ones. There never seems to be any lack of these, and if we devote our time to finding them, we quickly discover that we don't have any time to use them. I must also admit, however that while I'm far from convinced that I really need more tools, I'm forever on the lookout for better ones. I wouldn't mind finding a tool with a number of Swiss-Army knife type all-in-one features, though were I to find such a tool, I'm not really sure I'd use it. So many new tools seem to offer me pretty much what I'm already doing with a tool with which I've grown accustomed. I don't really feel much need to jump ship from them for a new upstart, no matter how promising it may seem.

Ultimately (and yes, I know, I tend to use that term way too frequently) I'm far from sure that I really want an all-in-one solution. In the past I've noted that sometimes, while reading and collecting notes, and bookmarking various pages, I'll find that I purposefully change the tool I'm using in order to make a note of something simply because the "something" I'm noting is, to me at least, different than a bunch of other "somethings" that I noted only a bit earlier, and thus, I need a different tool to distinguish it, to make it stand out for myself. That being the case, could still answer my need - I'd use whatever tool I'd find preferable for any particular task, and still be able to conduct a search for whatever it was I'd noted from one central search box. It sounds nice. And because it sounds nice, as I write this I find myself scratching my head, asking myself why it is that over the past three months I haven't opened an account there. It's not as though I haven't opened any accounts during that time. I've done so at least three or four times, and probably more. What's more, I doubt that it's only me. It's a fair guess that there are lots of people out there who have accounts with numerous tools, and those are precisely the sort of people who not only need, but who also would tend to find, a tool such as

So it would seem that, lip-service aside, I may not really want what I say I want. And I'm not really sure just why that might be. If I'm truly a netizen (though I have no idea when I last heard that word used) then perhaps the entire web should be my home, perhaps my goal should be to stake out more and more varied territories, farther and farther from my original point of origin. And if that's the case, perhaps I'm not really concerned with Bringing it All Back Home, but instead with continuing to explore beyond my pre-existing borders. Maybe I don't really want to click my heels three times and return home. Perhaps the various outposts of my net-being - the plethora of sites I frequent and explore with the wide-variety of tools that I've found useful to me, aren't supposed to be "brought back" anywhere. Perhaps all my bookmarks, notes taken, comments left, highlights, and more, are actually the territorial markings that I leave behind me as I move on to newer and/or different grazing grounds.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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