Mental Map of Unix Tree

February 2, 2009

In chapter 15 of Tog on Interface, Bruce Tognazzini says that although Myers-Briggs Intuitives makes up 25% of the general population, they make up 75% of engineers at Apple (in 1987). Intuitives are good at making internal maps of the external world, then relying on those maps when dealing with the world.

One of these internal maps is a computer’s directory hierarchy. An Intuitive can keep track of dozens of directories, their relative locations, and their contents. A Sensory would prefer to see the tree and navigate through it to find files. One of the innovations of the Macintosh was realizing this and making the directory tree visual (in windows) rather than forcing the user to make a mental map (on the command line).

I remember an artist at PDI using the shell to go to a deep directory by first going to the root directory, listing it, going one directory down, listing it, and so on eight or nine levels. She was likely Sensory.

I’m strongly Intuitive, so I make mental maps just fine. I’ve always had one of the Unix directory tree, and in fact it’s remained remarkably stable over the last twenty years. It’s a horizontal line of top-level directories, and it hovers about 30 degrees up from the horizon. It doesn’t include subdirectories, strangely. It looks something like this:

/dev  /share  /proc  /opt  /var  /home  /usr  /etc  /tmp

When someone tells me that a program is in /opt, I immediately visualize it slightly left-of-center. That makes it easy to find it later, except when I search in /var instead. I don’t know why these directories ended up where they did in my map.

Note that /bin and /sbin aren’t on there, probably because I rarely visit them; I only run programs from them using the search path. The right-most two directories, /etc and /tmp, are in fact overlapping in my mental map. They’re nothing alike, yet I must have placed them there in 1989 and they haven’t moved. As a result I frequently go to one when I intend to go to the other.

There’s a difference between the way my wife and I use physical maps of cities when we’re travelling. I always hold the map so that north is pointing away from me, but Jen holds it so that the map’s north points north. Rotating the map like she does causes me great confusion. I wonder if that’s because I transfer the map to my brain, and therefore want to keep it in the same relative orientation, regardless of my physical orientation.