Growing up with Google is making students less organized — but it might not matter

Google has transformed how Gen Z uses computers -- leading to more use of search tools and less reliance on folders for organization.


September 24, 2021

Google has had a hand in killing off a long list of products — encyclopedias, maps, newspapers — and it may be time to add another casualty to the list.

Beginning in 2017, STEM professors started noticing a recurring trend: new students didn’t know how to use folders.

Folders are part of a bigger mental model…

… called directory structure — the hierarchical system where files are saved in folders and subfolders in an intuitive way.

  • For example: a new file might be saved in a “Documents” folder, that lives in a “Desktop” folder, which lives in a folder called “This PC.”

Professors say students who grew up with Google are eschewing this method entirely in favor of a different mental model called “laundry basket” structure.

With this “system,” users save all files in one place (like items in a laundry basket), then use search to find a file on demand when needed — which can result in desktops that look like this:

(Source: @AidaSaidSo/Twitter)

Thanks to Google, search is built into everything now…

… including computers, mobile phones, and apps — which begs the question: are folders even necessary anymore?

Professors in STEM fields argue that in some cases they are.

  • For instance, computer programming, which often requires programmers to reference an exact location for a file. 

As a result, many STEM professors are doing double duty, teaching directory structure alongside their field of expertise. 

But it may just be a stopgap

Even the professors who teach directory structure believe it’s on the way out, anticipating that Gen Z will build their own tools without the need for folders — and teach that to future generations.

Even if that’s the case, there’s still no excuse for a desktop that messy.  

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