The age of (digital) decline

About a decade ago, AppleInsider presented an enthusiastic report on the latest innovation from the iPhone inventor:

Apple is dramatically rethinking how applications organize their documents on iPad, leaving behind the jumbled file system [...].

Outside of savvy computer users, the idea of opening a file by searching through hierarchical paths in the file system is a bit of a mystery.

Apple has already taken some steps to hide complexity in the file system in Mac OS X, [...] the iPhone similarly abstracts away the file system entirely; there is no concept of opening or saving files.

I remember reading that and being very sceptical, perhaps as one of a few, but not the only one:

Heck, my 6 year old daughter can understand the idea of saving some files to a folder with her name on it, and others to different locations.

Another lone voice in the digital wilderness:

While this might sound like some kind of user experience utopia, I have a grave concern that eliminating a file system in this manner misses a huge audience. Us.

Now, almost 10 years later, we begin to pay the price for this development. How's that? Well, my experience shows that users who grew up with iOS or Android as their prime computing environment have difficulties to grasp the basic paradigms that still dominate professional work with computers. In particular, only few young users seem to understand the concept of a file (yes, a file, but see above), file types, and file systems. Even less understood is the client-server model, a concept that is indispensable in a modern IT infrastructure.

Consequences of this erosion of knowledge range from the comical to the disastrous. As an example for the former: when I ask for original data I do not mean ASCII data embedded in an MS Word document and a photo- or micrograph embedded in a Powerpoint presentation. However, many young users do not know that a 'data.dat' or a 'photograph.tiff' are valid file formats that can be viewed and edited by suitable applications. A secretary at an associated university had the opposite tendency: she wrote invitations for seminars with Word, printed them, scanned the printout with 1200 dpi, and attached the resulting 100 MB bitmap to electronic invitations sent by e-mail.

That's funny if your e-mail account has no size limit. But even if, you may see that this development has also much less amusing consequences. On a very general level, these users are incapable to appropriately interact with professional IT infrastructures, including common desktop environments (regardless of their provenience). More specifically, users with these deficiencies should not be trusted with handling and managing important data at all. Because ... they will lose them.

At least that's what's happening here: the number of users who experience a total loss of their data increased rapidly over the past few years. In most cases, the cause was not negligence and carelessness, but an alarming level of ignorance. Often, the root cause arose simply from bypassing the infrastructure we provide, and employing the private notebook for data analysis and presentation instead of the dedicated office desktop. Now, our employees can bring their own devices if they like, but if they don't register them with our IT staff, they will be classified as guest devices that have no access to our intranet – with the rather obvious result that the data on these devices cannot be synced to the home directory of the respective user on our file server (which is part of a daily incremental backup on tape, covering every day over the last 10 years as legally required).

The users, naturally, don't find that obvious at all (although they have been informed at length about these facts). They claim to have acted in the firm believe that the data on their private notebook will be automatically backed up to “the cloud” as soon as they enter a certain “zone” around their working place. When I asked how they imagined this miracle backup would work, one of them referred to Apple commercials in which photographs were transferred from an iPhone to an iPad “magically”. “That's the state-of-the-art, right? I expected that it would be implemented here!” She also said that she imagined the mechanism to work wirelessly, but that she wouldn't care how it worked, as long as it did.

Now, when people approach me with these stories, they want (i) forgiveness and understanding and (ii) an immediate solution. Well...


Fortunately, we now have first level support consisting of an invariably cheery youth who finds these problems most entertaining. Let's see what he says in a few years from now, when pampering the “digital natives” has become the next big thing.

And let's see where we are then, with our big hopes and high flying dreams of, for example, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, autonomous electric mobility, populating the Mars, establishing controlled fusion on Earth, and controlling the world's climate. Personally, when I see the present generation of which the majority has difficulties to count to three, well, you know, I'm not all that optimistic. ;)