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In other words, the desktop metaphor puts the onus on our brains to juggle this expanding collection of files, folders and lists. Yet “our neurons do not fire faster, our memory doesn’t increase in capacity and we do not learn to think faster as time progresses,” notes Bill Buxton, chief scientist of Alias/Wavefront, a leading maker of graphic-design tools. Buxton argues that without better tools to exploit the immense processing power of today’s computers, that power is not much good to us.

That’s why many researchers-at universities and startups like Gelernter’s Mirror Worlds as well as giants like Microsoft and IBM-are searching for alternatives. They’re examining metaphors taken from other media, such as books or diaries or film; 3-D schemes that use our sense of spatial orientation to create the illusion of depth on-screen, so that documents look closer or farther away depending on their importance to us; alternatives that borrow from video games the notion of having an intelligent guide, or avatar, to help us find what we’re looking for; or even theories that radically change the notion of what a “computer” is, so that we no longer think of devices as computers at all and are therefore open to new ways of interacting with them.

“The desktop metaphor made assumptions about how we use computers that just aren’t true anymore,” asserts Don Norman, cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group, famed critic of computer design and author of The Design of Everyday Things. “It’s time to throw away the old model.”

Learning Esperanto

It will take a Herculean effort to overthrow the desktop metaphor-many observers believe it will prove impossible-chiefly because the three-decade-old interface, popularized by the Mac and quickly made nearly ubiquitous by Microsoft’s Windows, has become integral to our very notion of personal computing. “A couple of years ago we did a study on how to introduce new computing models,” says Dan Russell, research director in the field of human-computer interaction at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA. “We wanted to find people who didn’t understand the function of file folders, how to open files, how to delete files. We couldn’t find anyone. That makes it hard to change people’s expectations of how computers should behave.”

With this in mind, looking over the landscape of alternatives, one comes away wondering if the desktop metaphor has become a part of basic cultural literacy, like language itself, and that getting people to try any of the suggested improvements is like getting them to learn an international language like Esperanto-a good idea in theory, but for most people not worth the trouble.

Even its biggest critics today acknowledge that the desktop metaphor was an extraordinary breakthrough that tapped into the way people actually work and think, a vast improvement over typing in text commands alongside a blinking cursor. Still, people like Gelernter remain undaunted in their belief that its moment has passed. “It was a brilliant idea at the time,” he says. “But it’s explicitly tied to the way we managed information in the 1940s, with filing cabinets filled with separate folders of information. Even 10 years ago the notion of putting stuff in files and sticking certain files in folders and others on your desktop was already broken down and failing.”

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