Tech Talk #188–September 17, 2022

We know that computers, phones, and tablets store files and folders on your device, but what ARE files and folders? Is it like in the movie Zoolander where Owen Wilson’s character learns that the files he needs are IN the computer, so he drops it off a balcony and sorts through the debris, looking for the files he needs?

Well, no.

In an office, a paper file stores related documents together in a container or a drawer. For example, a file might have all the receipts from last year, the budget numbers from this quarter, or your car’s purchase and registration information. On a computer, a file might represent a budget spreadsheet, a photograph, a video, or a song. A file can also be a program that tells the computer what to do. The programs that run on computers use files too. Configuration files, storage instructions, and optional settings are all stored in files the program can use.

The term file, as it relates to computers, comes from back in the 1950s.

Early computers ran programs stored on punch cards. A stack of punch cards could only contain a limited amount of instructions for the computer, so they needed large stacks of cards to run most programs. Related stacks of cards needed to be stored together, and they became known as a file. To run the program, you had to get the file (the stack of punch cards) and load it into the computer. By the time magnetic tape came along a few years later, people had been calling computer programs
“files” for so long that the name stuck. They even called the programs “tape files” because each tape contained the information needed to run a program.

When random access magnetic discs came along in the 1970s and could store related information entirely out of sequence, having a file on the computer became a concept instead of an actual thing, an electronic metaphor of a physical thing.

To a computer, a file is bits of information scattered across its memory. The ones and zeroes that make up that information get recorded in an index, which is a file.

What about folders and directories? A folder on a computer is a collection of files. To make things confusing, folders can also contain other folders which contain files. And finally, folders are sometimes called “directories.”

When computers first supported a subdirectory structure (directories inside directories), people used directories to keep related information together, the same way we use paper folders in an office. Then, in 1981, the first computer operating system that used graphics instead of green text on a black screen, the Xerox Star operating system, represented directories with icons that looked like manilla folders. Then Apple followed with the Macintosh, and Windows also used the file folder icon.

So, files, directories, subdirectories, and folders are all metaphors for the ones and zeroes stored on your computer. Or your phone, your tablet, your iPad, your smartwatch, or anything these days.

As we’ve seen, this file and folder metaphor is between 60-70 years old. Modern operating systems are slowly hiding a lot of this confusing terminology, using terms like application, document, and download instead of program, file, and directory.

The IT director advertises he needs a secretary.

Necessary skills: document formatting, computer knowledge, and a foreign language.

A couple of days later, a dog walks in with an application.

“I’m open-minded, but I need someone who can write and format documents.”

The dog sits down behind the computer and writes a professional business letter.

“Yes, but I also require IT knowledge.”

The dog codes a little clock program from a command prompt.

“Well, but a foreign language?” the amazed director asks.

“Meow!” says the dog.

Do you have a computer or technology question? Greg Cunningham has been providing Tehachapi with on-site PC and network services since 2007. Email Greg at

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