Inhabiting a desktop

I once tried an MOOC, edX’s Future Cities. It was everything I expected, and I “dropped out” after the third lesson. I had what I wanted: a new term for a new discipline, “Information Architecture”, and examples of how not to do it—the MOOC itself was such an example.

Information Architecture is a discipline that looks at how information is structured. If physical architecture is the partitioning and ordering of space and material, information architecture is the sorting and hierarchical organisation of information and the ways in which it interacts. Databases, contacts, calendars, these are forms of structured information which we are familiar with. They come in a certain expected format: an event invitation would be very strange if it did not mention date, time, and venue, at the very least. But it can quickly get complicated as well. A huge event, such as a conference, with multiple breakoff seminars and sessions, can itself contain multiple overlapping events in multiple venues with multiple people. How is this information to be organised and presented? As we walk through the conference hallways and foyers, how do we see this information arrayed around us?

I’ve been paying more attention to coworkers’ desks lately. I don’t mean the physical desk, the physical structure of wood and steel, but the tangible desk, the way things are laid out. Which photographs and mementos take pride of place, the way in which paper is stacked, and spills over to adjacent spaces, the arrangement of the tiny paper-flanked cubbyhole where the laptop sits, . . . . We all have the same desk and cabinet and shelves, but over time we come to identify each coworker’s desk by this unique arrangement of personal effects. We inhabit our desks.

My workspace is very sparse, almost devoid of paper except for assignments not yet returned. I inhabit a very different kind of desk—a desktop, once simply a term to refer to the top surface of a desk, but now a term referring to a particular kind of personal computer, the bulky kind. I have a preferred way to arrange icons, a preferred set of buttons in my menus and toolbars, a preferred set of hotkeys to access common functions. But all brand-new desktops are alike, and it is the way I express these preferences that lets me inhabit my desktop and make it mine.

I take meticulous ownership of my files, clearing my Downloads folder frequently; in fact, my Downloads folder is my Desktop folder, so that downloaded files do not simply clutter up a folder that’s frequently out of sight. I’m a believer in the “cluttered-desk-cluttered-mind” paradigm, and get uncomfortable with the sight of icons cluttering up any space. and the first thing I do to any new PC is to disable the Recycling Bin (Dropbox’s undelete feature takes care of those needs for me), and uninstall all crapware.

Why go to all that trouble? The purpose of space is to be filled up, isn’t it? Isn’t that why we set Word document margins as narrow as we can, so as to squeeze every bit of printable space out of the page? Sorry, not me. I need my whitespace, on paper, on my desk, and on my desktop.

But there comes a point when one hits the limits of one’s workspace. A narrow desk makes it hard to have two files open at the same time. Transferring documents from one file to another means opening a file, closing it, then opening another file, and closing it again. In the same way, a small desktop monitor makes it hard to have two application windows open at the same time (without excessive scrolling), for easy comparison of documents, without lots of alt-tab application-switching.

I feel these differences acutely, because I have a 27-inch monitor at home and always work with two windows open side-by-side, but the 13-inch laptop I get at work does not allow that. I do not complain, because it would be easy to get a big monitor and have the same workflow I am so used to at home. But I wonder who is inhabiting who now; if different minds lend themselves to different ways of working optimally, do different working surfaces also converge towards optimal ways of organising and working with information?

There are also limits to our field of vision. Beyond 32 inches, I can’t work comfortably at normal sitting distance from a monitor. Taking in the entire screen without turning my head is impossible; it spills beyond my field of vision. Within this visible field, what is the best way to arrange information? I have seen hardcore terminal users work with 8-point font sizes and claim they can see everything; I won’t contest those claims but I can’t. Sometimes it feels like we don’t have enough degrees of zoom; the zoom level we want is somewhere between two available levels and neither is particularly optimal.

With every change in workflow, and with every new device I acquire, I come back to the same question: how can we adapt to new technologies, and how can new technologies adapt to us? With every change in task, and with every new bit of work I pick up, I return to the same thought: how do we fit these tasks to the available information structures, and how can these information structures adapt themselves to tomorrow’s tasks?