What is a File?

Richard Harper, Eno Thereska, Siân Lindley, Richard Banks, Gavin Smyth

MSR-TR-2011-109 |

For over 40 years the notion of the file, as devised by pioneers in the field of computing, has proved robust and has remained unchallenged. Yet this concept is not a given, but serves as a boundary object between users and engineers. In the current landscape, this boundary is showing signs of slippage, and we propose the boundary object be reconstituted. New abstractions of file are needed, which reflect what users seek to do with their digital data, and which allow engineers to solve the networking, storage and data management problems that ensue when files move from the PC on to the networked world of today. We suggest that one aspect of this adaptation is to encompass metadata within a file abstraction; another has to do what such a shift would mean for enduring user actions such as ‘copy’ and ‘delete’ applicable to the deriving file types. We finish by arguing that there is an especial need to support the notion of ‘ownership’ that adequately serves both users and engineers as they engage with the world of networked sociality.