Buried data

I love new inventions. I love using technology in new ways to solve old problems. The future excites me. On top of this, yes, I admit it, I’m a shameless Apple acolyte.

And yet, with all the recent discussion about the iPad and the future of publishing, I seem to have inadvertently positioned myself as a sceptic. Maybe it’s because I’ve been around the block a few times and seen so many things hailed as The Future that I’m just a bit harder to convince than I once was. You see, I don’t have a problem with the iPad per se, but with our approach to software/hardware in general. We’re so eager to jump ahead to the next exciting bit of tech that we completely ignore how to make what we produced with the old tech accessible.

For example, just over ten years ago, I produced a lot of (admittedly, not very good) artwork with DeluxePaint IV on my Amiga 1200. This wasn’t a rare piece of kit – it was the leading graphics software on the leading home computer. How on earth am I meant to access those files now? Even if my Mac could read Amiga files, where the hell do I stick the floppy disk? I can pick up a piece of printed material from ten (or twenty … or a hundred …) years ago and I’ll still be able to read it just fine thank you very much. If the history of computing has taught us anything, it’s that the shiny new format you’re currently using will be useless several times over within your own lifetime. An entire generation’s work is being lost thanks to ‘progress’.

Proof that our current approach to media is flawed is the Planets project (led by the British Library and a bunch of other European organisations). Acknowledging that most digital file formats have a life expectancy of five years, they’ve put the details of today’s most common file formats – and how they can be read – into a time capsule, and then put that into a nukeproof labyrinthine bunker in the Swiss alps. Adam Farquhar, one of the brains behind the project puts it simply:

Einstein’s notebooks you can take down off the shelf and read them today. Roll forward 50 years and most of Stephen Hawking’s notes will likely only be stored digitally and we might not be able to access them all … The time capsule being deposited inside Swiss Fort Knox contains the digital equivalent of the genetic code of different data formats, a ‘digital genome’.

Consider that for a moment: to make our current media formats usable in the future, we have to lock them in an impregnable fortress under a mountain in Switzerland.

Wake-up call, anyone?

By relying on hardware-dependent formats that will only last a few years, we’re turning into a civilisation with no long-term memory, only short. Publishing sorts, please acknowledge that the iPad is not the future, it is just a very shiny, very promising, fundamentally flawed present.