Survival comes down to identifying priorities, and addressing them in turn.
If you are unfortunate enough to fall into cold water, your most immediate concern is the need to breathe air: wearing an effective lifejacket that supports your airways clear of the water is an important step in preventing immersion death. Throughout life, whether it is surviving after you have fallen overboard in the Atlantic, or surviving the jungle of business, identifying and dealing with what is more important is a most fundamental skill.
Despite the importance of importance in everyday life, as far as I can tell no computer operating system has the slightest sense of importance.
Put all the files for a particular project in a single folder, and OS X will consider them of equal importance – despite some being emails of little long-term consequence, and others being contracts and vital work in progress. Trawl across your startup volume and you will see this in the large: ephemeral browser cache files, vital operating system components, applications, CVs, notes, finished work – all are equally important in the eyes of your Mac.
Certainly there are permissions, laying out who owns what, and who has fairly crude rights to access each file and folder. But the permissions settings on passing jottings and crucial contracts may be identical. So as the owner, with those files in the same folder, OS X will deliver the same warnings when you try to delete those files, will back them up in the same way and frequency, and so on.
Because OS X has a profusion of different flags and flourishes inherited from different directions, you could of course (mis)use these artifices to mimic a sense of importance.
Perhaps the closest that we can now come to imbuing importance in permissions is to use Access Control Lists (ACLs). With over 90,000 different combinations and permutations of ACLs, they can certainly express greater subtlety than the crisp all-or-nothing of POSIX permissions. But getting the best out of ACLs is amazingly complicated, and in their complication comes the scope for error, the enemy of importance.
I believe that a file system that has a sense of importance could make our computing much easier, more efficient, and more robust in the face of human error and system degradation. Mirror RAID disks could economise on overheads by not mirroring the unimportant. It could be easy to run frequent, short backups of just your most important documents. If you were to inadvertently drop an important document in your Trash, then the Finder could warn you not only that this might be unwise, but could explain why. When your Internet connection is in heavy demand, perhaps sending your important files could be given a lion’s share of the available bandwidth, leaving those pondering their online weekend supermarket shopping with rather less.
OS X and other modern operating systems already have the wherewithall for users to accord importance to files and folders using metadata. Although metadata can be powerful tools in search, I am not aware of anyone who has experimented with them to assign importance, priority, or any related property.
Yet most email clients and some innovative applications such as Aperture and members of the iLife suite encourage you to rank the merits or importance of content elements. File systems have been designed to incorporate all manner of other features, such as objects, distribution across networks, encryption, journalling for recovery, and more, but the everyday property of importance seems to have been forgotten.
Eight years ago I proposed looking at how far we can get with current tools such as metadata. Clearly no one thought the idea to be sufficiently important. Do you?
Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 23 issue 14, 2007.