File Names Are Obsolete

you know what’s barbaric? our computers still won’t let us put multiple files with the same name in one folder.

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“but wouldn’t that confuse people?”

no, and we already have proof.

  • iTunes lets you have multiple playlists with the same name.

  • Notes, notes.

  • Photos, albums.

  • the iOS Home screen, apps.

only files and folders pretend we’re still in the 1970s.

in fact, what is confusing is you actually can name files identically, under one condition: they have different extensions.

  • you can export “Report.doc” to “Report.pdf” in the same folder.

  • you can put “Photo.jpg” and “Photo.png” in the same folder… but then if you want to convert the PNG to a JPEG, suddenly there’s a problem?

this begs the question:

“how can dumbass end users distinguish files with identical names?”

by their contents. different files have different contents—otherwise, what’s the point of having them?

file names were invented back when the only way to identify files was by typing their names. but nowadays, files have giant icons with previews, and you choose them by pointing and clicking. and there’s a bunch of other traits that help us identify our files: metadata—date created, date last modified—and spatial arrangement in the Finder—“it’s the second one from the bottom-left corner.”

with all these features, file names have never been more irrelevant. i can name a bunch of my files something like “fasdsadsfadfs” and get by just fine—(but each file must have a different keyboard smash!).

a modern file manager in action

behold Apple Photos. it never shows you a file name, and somehow people manage to use it.

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obviously, you don’t need file names to identify your photos—because you’re looking right at them. dates, types, faces, places, and albums all help you too. you know what doesn’t help you? “IMG_4518.JPG”.

behind the scenes, all those photos do have file names—and unique ones—but you never see them or manage them, as you shouldn’t.

there are no “file name conflicts” in Photos. imagine if your grandma were saving a photo on her iPhone and saw this:

An older item named “IMG_4518.JPG” already exists in your library. Do you want to replace it with the newer one you’re saving?

  • Keep Both
  • Stop
  • Replace

she would rightly say:

why do i care?

when this happens, Photos automatically renames the new item. file naming is the computer’s problem, not yours. if the computer wants unique text strings to identify things, then the computer should manage them.

back to the shitty status quo

file managers force you to manage unique file names, which gets in the way all the time. the following is illegal in any conventional file manager, even though it makes perfect sense to a human:

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we all know how to bend over backward to accommodate our computers. i have to name each folder something verbose like “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - Bonus Features”—ridiculous. (not to mention, colons aren’t allowed either.) or i have to put each group of related files into a separate folder—also ridiculous.

mandating unique file names here has zero benefit. it’s just a pain in the ass. thanks to the icons and the way they’re arranged, we instantly know which file is what. the dumb labels below them couldn’t be more irrelevant.

that said, you should even be allowed to leave file names blank. sometimes, they’re completely unnecessary—just look at Photos.


let’s liberate file names

file names should let you write anything, including:

  • any special character.

  • the same as another file.

  • nothing.

file names should be like Comments fields: dumb text for optionally helping you identify your files. let’s call them “file descriptions”.

the problem is, command lines expect to specify files using only their names, and that’s why file names are neutered the way they are today. we need to separate file descriptions, for users, from file IDs, for computers. computers should specify files with unique file IDs behind the scenes, like “File 86417549”, which might correspond to “Final Report: The Mojave Desert” for users.

other pieces of software—iTunes, Notes, Photos, the iOS Home screen, and more—already do this. the question is whether we care as much about the file manager. i say it’s about time.