Alternatives to hierarchical file systems

  • Post category:filesystem

@aral asked on twitter whether there is any alternative to the hierarchical filesystem.

It seems to be there is one clear path which we could take and I’ve never understood why we’ve not tried it within our modern operating systems.

Documents (because they don’t even need to be a file – they could be a resource/URI) simply need to be described. They don’t need to be placed anywhere. The content, the metadata and anything else we (or our programs) can add to the document would give it context and would allow us to index it for retrieval.

We could tag it, implicitly or explicitly, because after all indexes are just complex tags.

Of course, for those stuck in the ‘I need to navigate my way through a series of paths to find my files’ mindset, could simply traverse the virtual filesystem with tags.

Start with


Or perhaps you think about it differently.


Each ‘step’ would offer you a series of related classifications. For everything organized by Biology, some are classified by year, some by type (eg. assignments, handouts, lectures). Eventually, you would narrow the choices to only that assignment you created for Biology in 2012.

Or you could just describe what you are looking for, using a more traditional search.
Either way, if it is indexed well, it can be found.

The point of all of this is that we give up on the futile idea of filing away each document. We give up on our mailboxes in our email clients. Everything is just one long stream. The technical constraints that required the creation of a filesystem no longer exist. The problem we’re having is letting go and allowing ourselves to not file – to not organize.

After all, everything is miscellaneous!


No one remembers the exact path they took. But we will remember some parts of the journey, and that’s more than enough to get us to where we want to go.