Whatever happened to …

… file pathnames?

In many ways, I had it easy.  One of the more abstract concepts that we all eventually assimilate is the concept of “where” that computer file is stored.  My first networked experience in K-12 was on the Unisys Icon computer.  By its nature, it was networked; there was no local drive attached to the computer and everything has to be stored on the fileserver.  You would log in and be plunked into your “home” directory and everything was stored there.  

The concept was actually easy to teach new computer users because they didn’t have any baggage.  The popular home computer at the time was the Commodore PET and teaching a “new” way of storing files was a bit more difficult with those fortunate enough to have one.  Yet, it wasn’t terribly difficult because there really wasn’t another option.  Only the administrator actually had access to the floppy diskette drive located on the server.  They had to swim or sink.

Time and technology moves on.  Eventually computers had one or two floppy drives of various techniques and capacity and later a fixed hard drive internally.  That wasn’t enough to confuse the computer user so throw into the fray external hard drives, thumb drives, tape and other massive storage schemes, storage on a cell phone or mp3 player and now cloud storage.  Who doesn’t have a Google, OneDrive, and Dropbox account these days?  You might even have duplicates of them if you have a personal account and then a school account.

What got me thinking about this was a comment that my friend Andy Forgrave made recently about innovation and change.  If I recall correctly, he was defending the lack of a headphone jack on the new iPhone.  His comment, very true, dealt with a symbol that we long time computer users just take as granted.  To save a document in most computer programs, you simply click on the diskette icon.

The bizarre thing is that it furthers the abstraction by using a device that today’s student will probably have never seen and yet we hang on to it as something that’s crucial to the operation of the software.

Of course, in order for all of these things to work and your computer (or others) to be able to access it, you need to have a name for it.  Then, once you get the actual name, you need some way to navigate the device to find what you’re looking for.  Here’s where it gets interesting and a really abstract.  As I write this post, I’m using my computer booted into Ubuntu.  

My “Home” looks like this.  It’s not dissimilar to whatever your computer calls “Home”.  There’s a spot for my documents, my downloads, my pictures, my music, etc…

You’ll see, in the left pane, that my computer has access to Windows 10 which is also on this computer.  For Ubuntu, it’s mounted as a drive and is located at:

I like the comparison of the two.  In the first picture, everything is basically an icon and a double click will open whatever I want.  In the second, you get the actual details about how the drive is mounted.  And, I could dig deeper and get to everything that’s stored on the Windows side if I want.

In the beginning of the personal computer, the navigation scheme differed from computer to computer.  One thing was consistent though, installed things or saved files were tucked away nicely where you wanted them.  You’d get back to them by navigating from the C:\ prompt or double clicking on the Macintosh HD icon.  

Things got more sophisticated when installing software; I can recall working with our IT department to build an image for all our computers.  We had to track where things got installed; I remember distinctly the comment made after monitoring a pretty sophisticated program “It barfed all over the hard drive.”

At the heart of all this is navigating to the appropriate file.  Whether you’re using the latest or the greatest or the oldest and most stable system with or without cloud storage, it’s mission critical that you are able to find what you’re looking for.  In my case, going from school to school where there might be a networked computer or a standalone, I needed to have my files.  My failsafe was to create whatever document I needed and save to the desktop of my computer.  Then, I could drop it into the cloud or the local hard drive, or a thumb drive that I could carry to that non-networked location.  Success was guaranteed because of the pathname structure that works reliably.  It’s just that so much effort has gone into providing a user interface that hides it from you!

Some thoughts for a Sunday…

  • If you were stranded on your computer with no user interface other than a terminal prompt, could you find that resume that you know is stored on your hard drive?
  • Have you ever lost a file on your computer because of relying on the computer to save it rather than your own scheme?
  • If you have more than one piece of cloud storage, have you ever gone to the wrong cloud?
  • How do you transfer files from one computer to another?
  • If you were approached by a software company to provide an alternative to the diskette for the “Save” icon, what would it look like?

I’m dying to hear your thoughts.  Please take a moment to share.

Do you have an idea or thought that would be appropriate for my “Whatever happened to … ” series of blog posts?

Please visit this Padlet and add your idea.  I’d love for it to be an inspiration for a post!


2 thoughts on “Whatever happened to …

  1. Doug, I’m not sure if I have answers to all of your questions, but here are my answers to a couple.

    1) To transfer files from one computer to another one, I do one of three things: 1) Email myself the file and download it on the other computer. 2) Upload the file to GoogleDrive and download it on the other computer. 3) Save the file on a USB stick, & download it on the other computer.

    2) Instead of the disk icon, I’d love to see a big, green checkmark. It kind of gives the message that “it’s good to keep (or save) here.” Curious to hear other ideas that people have for this.

    Thanks for giving me lots to think about on a Sunday morning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For the save icon I’ve seen a small grey box (hard drive) with an arrow pointing “into” it from above. Loading (uh, I mean “opening” has the arrow coming out of the drive. Seems to work.

    I use Google Drive or OneDrive to transfer small files, but big stuff requires a fast external drive. No sense wasting bandwidth in the country!


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