Sorting out the Windows trash

c: | f: /

Why is the Windows trash can called a Recycle Bin? You don’t take the contents, melt it down and make something else out of it.

Since Windows 95, the notion of putting something in a place pending deletion was cloned from other OSs of the time. The story goes that Apple sued Microsoft for infringing its MacOS rights and lost, big time, with the exception for the trash can and folder icons. So Microsoft had to come up with another name for both.

Presumably the idea behind calling it a Recycle Bin was due to the content not actually being deleted as such, since it can be returned to working order at any point until you actually destroy it. Unless the file you’re trying to put in is too big, then it just deletes it anyway.

What I find baffling about the trash can is that it’s more of a trash can’t. For starters, it cannot count. This morning, I right-clicked the icon and chose Empty Recycle Bin. A dialog popped up:

Are you sure you want to delete these 43 items?

I clicked Yes and Windows popped up a progress dialog informing me:

Deleting 731 items…

Wha…?! It’s deleting more than I put in?

With my long service history of accepting the many foibles of Windows, I know that it meant there were 43 items to delete, some of which were folders that contained other items, to the grand total of 731. Perhaps it’s for speed reasons they do this, but I’d think that to a new user this misrepresenting of the facts would be somewhat disconcerting. The OS isn’t exactly doing itself any favours with users who are already afraid of this “complicated” technology.

Surely it’s not difficult to stash a running total number of items along with the contents as things are added to the bin so it knows the tally, without having to re-count when you issue the command. I’m all for JIT when appropriate, but sometimes it pays to do things piecemeal at times when a few extra milliseconds would go unnoticed to the user. Besides, at the moment someone decides to delete a file, the cognitive experience wouldn’t be diminished, because the expectation is for a fractional delay as the computer performs the task unto which it was bequeathed. Do it then.

When is a bin not a bin?

If I was new to Windows I would find other bin-related terminology somewhat misleading. It’s trying to be skeuomorphic — a digital representation of a real-world object — so it needs to represent actions that you’d do in the real world. One such common task is accidentally putting something in the bin you didn’t mean to.

What do you do when you need to look for something in your paper recycle bin at home? You either rummage through it or — more likely when it’s quite full — empty it onto the floor so you can more easily find what you’re looking for. In the Windows world there’s an Empty Recycle Bin option. Yay, that’ll show me the contents of the bin so I can find what I accidentally deleted… yes, I’m sure. Oh, all my stuff’s gone.

OSX doesn’t suffer from this because they’ve called it ‘Trash’. And Empty Trash is something you do at home to get rid of it. No confusion.

Since Microsoft can’t use Trash, I can see how they arrived at what they did, but the whole ‘recycle’ angle in Windows delivers a mixed message. Yes it recycles the hard drive space by allowing you to reuse the bits for other files. But that’s tech speak and Windows tries very hard to shield users from things going on inside the machine. Yes the content isn’t actually deleted until you complete the second emptying step (unless holding down shift while deleting) so it can conceivably be ‘recycled’ back into use, but that’s not the same terminology used in real life. Recycling is re-purposing objects into something else.

Must admit I can’t think of anything better unless they drop the whole real-world analogy and come up with a different analogue. I prefer shred as it’s more permanent and relates more closely to files. But since the whole idea behind shredding is that the content is irretrievable (whether that’s true in real life or not) they’d probably put themselves in hot legal water since it’s technically possible to recover a deleted file soon after deletion. The only way out of that is to actually zero-fill and/or randomize the drive space and ToC that referenced the file. That’s expensive (slow) in comparison.

Guess we just have to live with an imperfect representation. Still wish it could count though.

Gimme your thoughts


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