Golems, smart objects, and the file metaphor

20.52, Monday 1 Feb 2021

I often wonder what it would be like to have “Open File” and “Save As” for lightbulbs, online grocery stores, and messaging apps.

It’s hard to explain what files used to be like because they’ve changed so much.

Files used to be independent from apps. The way it used to work was that you would open a standard file format in an app, say a TIFF (image) or an RTF (text file) or an MP3, and you would play the file or edit it. And then you would open the exact same file in a different app for different capabilities.

Nowadays, if an app deals with files at all, you import files into the app and maybe export versions later, but the working doc itself is sealed in a library, or in a special format that nothing else can open.

Files used to be objects you could manipulate. Nowadays apps take care of versioning, and sharing, and often organising. But before, you would duplicate the file object directly, or drag it onto a chat window, or whatever. You can’t drag a Google Doc; the file isn’t a directly manipulable “file” so much as the visual depiction of a save point.

The upshot was that you owned your own files. And when a new application came along, it was exciting because you could try it out by using it with those exact same files, maybe switching back, maybe not.

So when I talk about files, I mean these

  • standard file types, shared between applications
  • where the file is the working document itself; it doesn’t have to be imported or exported
  • and the file icon is directly manipulated: shareable, printable, versionable, independent from the app.

(And yes, I know it was never as clear cut as this, but in an idealised kind of way.)

A file is a boundary object

What is a file?

There’s a technical answer. If you do the archeology and go back to source code from the 1970s, a file is a handful of properties: an address on disk; a size (i.e. how long to read the disk for); and some metadata like which owns these bytes, and do these represent an executable app or a document, and so on. Here’s the code. It’s less than a page. (Photo from Lion’s Commentary on UNIX 6th Edition, as previously discussed.)

But that’s not a definition that works for “documents” on cloud services, where a saved Google Doc is more likely to be a bundle of dynamic lookups from a database, rather than a run of bytes on disk. So…

There’s the design answer. A file is what it looks like: an icon. There’s a fantastic oral history of the hamburger menu (the three-lined menu button that you see in the top corner of a ton of websites), and it goes all the way back to the Xerox Star, which was the first commercial computer to actually have windows, menus, a mouse, etc. The history includes commentary from Dave Canfield Smith who mentions icons, which I’d invented at PARC for my thesis.

And he makes the distinction between file icons and the hamburger menu, THUS:

I don’t understand the fascination with the hamburger menu symbol, because it’s not even an icon–it’s just a symbol. Icons had both visual and machine semantics, whereas this menu button had only the former. You don’t do anything with a menu. It just sits there on the screen. You poke at it and a menu pops up, you move the cursor away and the menu goes away. That’s all it does. An icon is an object in a metaphoric world that you can do things with in the real world, the world that is being modeled.

That’s the key quality. Files are meaningful to computers, but they are also meaningful to users, and both can manipulate the same object. The two of you inhabit different worlds, but you’re talking about the same thing.

There’s a great paper from Microsoft Research called, simply, What is a File?

For over 40 years the notion of the file, as devised by pioneers in the field of computing, has been the subject of much contention. … we suggest that files continue to act as a cohering concept, something like a ‘boundary object’ between computer engineers and users.

A boundary object is a term from sociology. From Wikipedia: boundary objects have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation.

The user can tell the computer what to do with a file without having to know the details of the inode structure or how to program their instructions; the computer can make a file available to a user without having to anticipate every single goal that a user may have in mind.

The “boundary object” quality of a file is incredibly empowering, magical really, one of the great discoveries of the early decades of computing.

A file is what you put in the golem’s mouth

The file made sense for desktop computers and bytes stored on disk. What could the file be now, in the era of the cloud and smart devices?

There’s a clue, I think, in this kids’ toy, the Yoto Player: A carefully connected screen-free speaker. Made for children, controlled with physical cards and playing only the audio content you want them to listen to.

It’s cute!

It reads bedtime stories!

Kids “program” it by inserting a card!

My niece has one of these. She loves it.

What neat is that you can make your own cards. I’m guessing the cards are just blank playing cards with a RFID tag inside. You program each card using a phone app. Once programmed, Yoto Player will play the relevant audio or podcast, and show pixel graphics on the front of the device.

BUT ALSO you can draw on and decorate the card, and you can keep them in a snazzy green wallet. So you can match the cards with interests, put educational ones with your school stuff, fun ones with different toys, private ones with your diary, keep some back for treats… all that good stuff. And all without Yoto having to pre-decide what kids might want to do (and having to design an app to do all of it).

Yoto Player is a golem. The golem, the animated anthropomorphic being that is created entirely from inanimate matter from ancient Jewish folklore. A statue, an ancient robot, but not autonomous. Specifically:

It was believed that golems could be activated by an ecstatic experience induced by the ritualistic use of various letters of the Hebrew Alphabet forming a “shem” (any one of the Names of God), wherein the shem was written on a piece of paper and inserted in the mouth or in the forehead of the golem.

If you think of apps, or executables, as essentially inanimate clay - code which is pure potential, and brought to life by the loading of the user’s own file - then the file is the shem, or rather a generalised kind of shem, not a divine name as such, but a set of instructions, inserted into the mouth.

(Now go and read Ted Chiang’s sci-fi short about golems and software Seventy-Two Letters.)

Maybe lightbulbs can be golems too

I have 1 (one) smart plug. I used it to control the Christmas tree lights (so I didn’t have to reach back on the floor twice a day) then nabbed it to control a lamp across the room from my desk. Currently it has been requisitioned to monitor the power usage of a water pump: I’m concerned there is a slow leak and the pump is switching on at odd times in the night. The plug will confirm this for me.

I would love to encode these configurations, and more, onto cards: the name, the room, who can use it, maybe some power user features such as where logs are sent, and how alerts are dispatched, and so on. These cards, physical or virtual, would live in a stack somewhere (on my bookshelf or in a shared Dropbox), and I could swap back and forth, and other family members would be so empowered too.

What about lightbulbs? Lighting scenes are a pain to create. A standard “file” for lights, not just bulbs but whole setups, would allow for

  • having different scenes for summer and winter, packed and unpacked at the turning of the season
  • giving away carefully created scenes in magazines and online – maybe you could get a movie director’s tuning colour temperatures to use when you’re watching on of their films
  • making a “virtual home” app, so I can create the lighting scene file in the app, maybe on behalf of a friend who hasn’t nerded out about the topic, and then share it with them (or debug it with them, texting the file back and forth).

Do I literally mean that the lightbulb needs a little slot like the golem’s mouth, into which you insert your instructions stamped on microfiche? I’m tempted but no. But metaphorically.

What about an online grocery store? If my preferences and purchase history were a file, it would make it a ton easier to switch from one store to another. But that’s just export/import, service portability.

What makes the file, as a metaphor, so magical is that other, unexpected software can open the same thing.

So what I’m imagining is a “Let’s Go Vegan” app which loads the grocery file, deletes any meat and dairy from my purchase history (so I don’t get tempting recommendations) and seeds my shopping basket with a starter pack. Or a “Shop Local” campaign that looks at my purchases and sets up accounts (and regular orders) with appropriate neighbourhood stores – or vice versa, if the supermarket can beat them on price and that’s what I want!

The trick is that these aren’t apps calling an API, because an API is bespoke to every store, and it’s not a matter of export/import because that misses the point of the file being a shared object that multiple different apps operate on simultaneously: a genuine shared file.

(APIs mean that a healthy ecoystem is a tough N^2 problem: every service needs to be tested with every other service. Shared files reduce this to an N problem. Each service needs to be tested with precisely one other thing, the file spec.)

What does it mean to have a file for a cloud service?

I’m afraid this opens up more questions than it answers.

  • If it were possible to “Save” from WhatsApp and “Open” in Signal, then where is the user’s metaphorical filesystem kept, given it needs to be always available?
  • How is the “file” (whatever it is) kept up to date, given that files where invented for documents, which are punctual in time, versus cloud services which have streams which run and run?
  • How do you have standard file formats that don’t also prevent new interfaces and new metaphors?
  • How does this sit alongside protocols which, in the context of video conferencing services, might be a way to have interop, cross-platform presence, and dialtone and video calls.

Let’s pretend I somehow got to run my Orthogonal Technology Lab – this is research programme #1. There’s no new technology here. Just a series of ideas to explore that seems like they might unlock a tech ecosystem with good values, and the trick is to chase it down with small-scale prototypes, to begin with, and then speculative specification docs, and sketches of business models, etc, publishing it all, and using the whole activity to demonstrate to both founders and policy-makers that another future is possible, basically continuing the pile up the whole edifice until someone decides to come along and do it.

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