02 September 2011

The File Folder

I am sitting here at my desk mindlessly watching a co-worker pass by with a file folder in her arms. What is her story? Is she coming from a meeting or going to a meeting? She looks tired, was it a bad meeting or is she not looking forward to where she is going? Either way, doesn't matter, I am interested in the file folder she's holding.

What is in that folder? Something important or a just a collection of meeting agendas and minutes; souvenirs of time spent in meetings. That folder looks light enough but it looks like a burden too. For some reason we value these little bundles of paper. Do the file folders give us a sense of control or importance? When we hold them close to our chests, are we wearing them like a badge or a chest plate?

It is interesting how we have come to be so reliant on file folders. I wonder how we organized our lives in the past...the days before file folders. When was that exactly? According to wikipedia, the vertical filing cabinet like we use today was invented by Edwin G. Seibels in 1898. Poor guy applied for a patent but was turned down. What a rip off. Before this, papers were kept in envelopes stored in numerous little pigeonholes lining walls...not the most efficient system. But I bet there was a lot less paper kicking around, there were only so many pigeonholes. Of course they didn't have computers to store a lot of crap. What did they do with their crap? Did they keep crap? (Naturally I am not referring to libraries which categorically store resources and archives...I'm talking about the day to day stuff we so love to keep around us.)

A couple of years ago I was in cultural competency training for my placement in Kathmandu. A guy came in to talk about his experience in Botswana with the local tribe. He went there to help them record their traditions and history so they could present something tangible to the government. The tribe wanted the government to recognize them as a distinct society. So he helped them record oral accounts, images, stories and maps on a computer. Teaching his counterparts how to store the information was not easy because the tribesmen had no previous encounter with file folders or filing systems. Asking someone to file something is very cultural. To assume that everyone knows what a file is, or what to do with it, is a mistake. It is an invention that has been taken for granted.

We often fall into the trap believing that there is one way of doing things, it is ubiquitous. I think this is dangerous. I am sure that the file folder was a great invention and proved to be more efficient than the walls of pigeonholes and letters. But, that was then and this is now. We seem to be trapped in some sort of vortex where everything has to be sorted, classified, organized and filed in very obscure patterns.

If I got rid of my folders..what would happen? Is it possible? Of course it is possible. I have to think carefully about what it is I am keeping and for what reasons. What am I without my stuff? Do I need an anchor or can I drift? Am I allowed to drift...at what cost? Is it true that we are more than what we own?

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