drag and drop
Friday, October 3 2003
In the woods this morning, I ranged so far south that through the trees I could see every clod of dirt on the cornfields of the Esopus Valley below me. I continued still southward and steeply downhill until I ended up in the backyard of a house. I'd reached the small strip of suburbia running along Canary Hill Road, the southern boundary of the boundless wilderness. Up until today, I'd subconsciously considered the tract of forest behind my house limitless.
I've had computers since 1983 and have been using computers productively (that is, for purposes unrelated to computers themselves) since about 1986, when I entered Oberlin College. Nearly all of this productive work was done on computers running some sort of graphical user interface. Before I gained access to a computer with a GUI, I preferred doing my word processing using text editors on a Unix minicomputer.
The first computer with a GUI that I used was a Macintosh Plus belonging to the late Shandi Hopkins in the Fall of 1989. Like all first-time Mac users, I was fascinated by MacPaint, particularly when used to edit image files derived from photographs. Back then, these files were in one bit black and white and extremely grainy, but they were the closest thing to a photograph I'd ever seen on a computer screen, and they could be manipulated as if they were made out of magic Legos. My first alterations of photographs targeted the image of an infant I found as a demo in the program HyperCard. I cleaved the little guy's head in half vertically and then filled the gap with rumpled copies of other parts of the face. Eventually I used a version of this deformed monstrosity (or "ugly baby" as I called him) in a poster advertising an off-campus party featuring live music. This might seem pedestrian today, but back then I'd never seen any photographs that had been altered using computers.
Even when I wasn't using graphics software, I found the mouse and visual desktop indispensible, at least as implemented on the Macintosh. (I never understood the point of Windows 3.1 - the graphics took up a lot of memory and didn't make anything about using the computer easier.) To put things within the framework of the flawed right-brain/left-brain paradigm, the Macintosh allowed my right brain to handle the organizational grunt work while my left brain focused on the details on what needed to be done. (The efficiency of this division of labor is the reason no one is ever going to prefer voice-only interaction with a computer, despite the predictions of the guys who also predicted jet packs.)
The single biggest feature in a graphical user interface, aside from the graphical presentation itself, is the metaphor of "drag and drop." Once you understand drag and drop and start applying it to your everyday computer problems, many things about using a computer become effortless. Interestingly, though, I find that very few of my clients have ever used drag and drop to do anything on their computers. They know about double-clicking to open stuff, and if they're unusually smart, they know that folders are a hierarchical entity and that one can exist within another. But when I explain that the easiest way to back up their stuff is to put a disk in the floppy disk drive and then drag and drop their stuff onto the floppy disk icon, they tell me that they've never heard of such a thing. Mind you, I didn't know much about Macs when I first started using them, but I'd seen something on teevee about drag and drop and I tried dragging and dopping lots of things in a wide range of combinations. These days, though, apparently people can have their computers for years without ever learning to drag and drop anything.
The big advance in drag and drop came with Macintosh System 7. I believe that was when it became possible to drag documents to the icons of applications, thereby picking what application to use on a given file. In combination with the novelty of aliases (which I discuss here), the operating system finally got out of my way and allowed me to get work done.
Windows 95 (a great advance from Windows 3.1) duplicated all of the best features of Macintosh System 7, and I was happy enough with it to switch to Windows as an economical alternative to Macintosh. Even though I was making about eight dollars an hour at the time, in the Fall of 1997 my main computer changed from a 25 MHz 68030-based Mac with 4 Megs of RAM to a 150 MHz PC with 64 Megs of RAM.
In the years since System 7 and Windows 95, the metaphor of drag and drop has been continually expanded and adopted by the developers of a wide variety of applications. In my normal day-to-day work, I routinely drag and drop files to shortcuts (Windows aliases) of applications to open them in those programs. I also drag and drop image files onto web pages in Homesite, automating the creation of <img > tags having all the necessary parameters. When files need to be uploaded to my website, I drag and drop them to a window that represents a directory on the spies.com server. Should I need to put an attachment in an email, I drag and drop the file to the attachment part of the email editor (something that is still impossible using a web-based email system). The steps, and more importantly, the distracting thoughts that I avoid with drag and drop probably preserve hours of my life every week.
Interestingly, though I routine use drag and drop between applications, I never use drag and drop within an application (with the exception of file management). I find, for example, that the ability to drag and drop text in a word processor or text editor is a useless or (more often) dangerous feature. In the quick world of today's computers, it's entirely possible to drag and drop a block of text in an instant and not even notice. Your resumé is hopelessly scrambled, but you've already printed it out and mailed it off, completely unaware.
One of the applications in which I routinely use drag and drop is the unzipping of files from ZIP archives. I launch an archive in WinZip and then just drag the files out into some folder somewhere. I've been doing this for years, but for some reason I never noticed until today that doing so actually destroys all the folders in the archive and completely flattens the archive's file structure, as if anyone would ever want to do something so retarded. But I guess this isn't normally a problem, because - as I say - I never even noticed. Today, though, I found myself trying to reconstruct the folder structure for a massive thousand-file archive (it was an installation, and the "file not found" prompts gave me the paths it was looking in, so I'd construct these each time they were requested until I realized it was hopeless). Then I tried unzipping with WinRAR and damned if the folder structure wasn't left intact, saving me hours of grunt work!
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