Zen and the Art of Searching for Lost Computer Files
Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself trying to find things. Sometimes I manage to find them; sometimes I don’t. I found my ice cream maker and my hole punch. I didn’t find the photograph I took when I was around 12 years old of the day the big tree fell down at school.
The reason for this hunting is the coronavirus. Indirectly — but ultimately it’s the root cause. Since the lockdown started, I’ve become much more confident in finding lost things. It would be too much to call it a silver lining, but I know that recently lost items are somewhere in my flat as I’ve barely been anywhere else.
Trapped inside, I’ve gone on excursions indoors as an alternative to day trips. My flat isn’t big, so these excursions consist of looking at things I haven’t looked at lately: the drawer of batteries and string, the tub of fuses, and that thing to get the SIM out of iPhones. Once I ran out of physical places to look, I started looking in digital places—a tour of my hard drives and web services.
Really this began when a friend from school asked if I remembered the tree that fell down. Not only did I remember it, I said, but I also had a photograph. And so I started searching.
Enter search term
On computers, much of the way we find things is by searching. Also, much of the way we don’t find things is by searching. It isn’t by chance that Windows quietly renamed Find to Search. Our expectations have been adjusted.
In typical Apple fashion, you navigate around your Mac with the optimistically named Finder. The search tool is called Spotlight, lighting up your computer like a theater so every file has its Warhol-esque 15 minutes of fame. Windows users have Explorer. I can’t help imagining myself in a pith helmet, hacking the undergrowth with a machete. On Mac, the only place you get this jungle feeling is when you leave the Apple-controlled world and go onto the internet using Safari.
This is the problem with searching: You have to know what you want to find.
The generic term for these applications is “file managers.” Sometimes I think about how this name contains the idea of managing files but also of just about managing files. Words leak unexpected truths.
I’m feeling lucky
Computers brute-force search everywhere, even the pointless places. Were we to apply this approach to looking for my hole punch, a computer would look in the bathroom cabinet, in the lettuce crisper, in my coat pocket — places I would never think to look but also places it would never be.
When we search computers, we type some text and the computer looks in its database. I type “Doctor Who,” and the computer finds sentences that contain those words, such as an article titled “Doctor Who Murdered Patients Sent to Prison.” Some searches are more sophisticated. The computer may look at my recent searches or use synonyms. But eventually, some text will be compared.
Computers let us down though. The tree photo was taken on a camera I no longer have and transferred to a computer that no longer works. Perhaps saved to a cloud storage service that is no longer in business. I probably didn’t rename it, so it has one of those digital camera photo names like DSC67484.jpg. On the off chance, I search my computer for “tree.” but I just find coding libraries: “symbol-tree.” “tree_adapters,” “regexp-tree.”
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Increasingly, I notice companies trying to sidestep the limitations of searches by preemptively displaying what we might want to see. Google Photos shows me pictures from this day one year, two years, and 10 years ago. Amazon assumes that because I once bought a light bulb, I am now a light-bulb-obsessed maniac and won’t stop until I’ve gathered all the light bulbs in existence. But I am fickle. There was no predicting that I would want to see this particular random picture from two decades ago. The algorithms don’t cater to my whims.
And so I find myself searching. Hunting is perhaps a better term. Clicking through folders on my computer, looking at photos from the past, I find things I had forgotten about: parties I went to, the time a duck waddled into my room at university, that sort of thing. In a way, these discoveries are more exciting than the picture I’m looking for.
This is the problem with searching: You have to know what you want to find. You type words, and you get matches. But it doesn’t remind you of things you’ve forgotten. It doesn’t lead to discovery. I wouldn’t have come across my ice cream maker this way.
In the New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz asks people for advice on finding lost things, but most of their suggestions, she writes, “are either obvious (calm down, clean up), suspect (the ‘eighteen-inch rule,’ whereby the majority of missing items are supposedly lurking less than two feet from where you first thought they would be), or New Agey.” As more things in our lives become digital, I wonder if we’re going to have to develop a new set of techniques for hunting. Things are not 18 inches away; they’re either nanometers away on a hard drive platter or thousands of miles away in a data center. Our new-age superstitions are going to have to update.
I wonder how many other things are lost to the digital void.
The problem with my tree picture is metadata: information about data. The image is the data; its filename is metadata. Pictures have all sorts of metadata: date, camera, even latitude and longitude. If you can’t remember what it was called, you might remember where you took it, what year, or what camera you used. Unfortunately, the picture I’m looking for dates back to before this metadata was added. And what’s more, these searches are only as good as the data they have. No matter how good Google Photos is, it’s not going to find the photo if it’s actually in Flickr. I am searching for a needle in a series of digital haystacks that belong to different farmers.
There are people who remember everything that’s ever happened to them — a condition known as hyperthymesia. (I don’t have this. I couldn’t even remember what it was called so I had to look it up.) It is apparently “like having a time machine, where I can go back to a certain day or a certain period in my life and almost feel like I’m back there,” Bob Petrella told the BBC. I wonder how he picks which memories to retrieve. Is it like Google, where he can find anything as long as he knows to look for it? Or is it like a book that he can flip through to amuse himself?
Often I use connected webs of information to recover what I’m trying to remember, like a detective piecing together clues. Trying to think of an actor, I remember he was in a film, but I forget what it was called. I remember another actor who was in it, but I can’t remember her name either, but I do remember the name of a TV show she was in, and so I start from there: searching the TV show on IMDb to find her name, then seeing what else she was in, finding the film, and finally looking at the cast of that to find the actor I was looking for in the first place. It is the least-high stakes investigation ever: budget Woodward and Bernstein for a trivial age.
The British Library has a quote from Samuel Johnson printed outside: “Knowledge is of two kinds,” it says, “we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.” Some people call this sort of knowledge “gisting.” “You’ll absorb the gist of what you read but rarely retain the specifics,” journalist Clive Thompson writes in Smarter Than You Think. Thompson describes Thad Starner, who has been wearing a computer for the last 30 years that records everything he hears and does. When he wants to remember something, he just looks it up. As with the people who remember everything, I can’t quite work out if I’m jealous or not. I forget so much of my life. When I think of books I’ve read, I realize I could barely say more than a dozen words about each, and many I’ve forgotten completely. My mind has a rudimentary summary, but if I want the detail, I have to go and check the original.
So I end up hunting. Trying to find an article I read, a line in a book, a tweet I scrolled past but now can’t find again. The agony of not being able to find something that you know is out there was summed up in a recent episode of Reply All where a man remembers a pop song from his youth but can’t find it anywhere.
Lost but not forgotten
I haven’t found the picture of the fallen tree. I fear I never will, which is strange as I rarely delete things. Rather than being gone, I suspect it’s in a place I haven’t thought to look: the digital equivalent of the lettuce crisper. Occasionally, when I have the energy, I have another hunt, going through old folders and hard drives. It’s not even about the picture anymore; it’s about proving to myself that I have the ability to recover it.
I try to accept this loss with a Zen-like grace. “There is some kind of moral in this,” Geoff Dyer says in Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It after losing his favorite pair of sunglasses. “Or not a moral but a fact. Things go missing. They just disappear.” I think I’d be more accepting if it were a physical item. As it’s digital, it seems less a loss and more a failure of technology. I wonder how many other things are lost to the digital void. And, unlike my ice cream maker, will never be stumbled upon by chance.
But there’s a positive to this hunting. As I dig back through old folders and files, I find memories and images that I had forgotten, that I would never have thought about had I immediately been able to find the picture. As clever as searching on a computer is, sometimes it doesn’t beat coming across happy memories you haven’t seen lately.