My wife and I are talking about getting some landscaping done. One of the interesting options we have is to get a computerized sprinkler system. The system connects to your PC and uses the web to determine the weather. It can use this information to make intelligent choices. For instance, if rain is coming, it won’t bother to water. This sounds really cool until you stop to think about it. How long do we expect the sprinkler system to last? 10 years? 20 years? What is the chance that computers will be around in 20 years that can still run this irrigation system? Even if we preserve one, what is the chance that whatever web service is behind it will still exist and will still have the same interface? Zero?
One problem computers face is that they accelerate the pace of change. Sometimes this can be very good. It is the secret to much of the large increase in productivity this country has experienced. However, because things change so quickly, nothing stays around very long. Within the lifetime of everyone reading this, there will likely be several major computing platforms. So far, we are not very good at preserving the old ones. Try finding a machine to read a 5 1/4″ floppy disk.
This, by the way, is the main reason I won’t buy DRM’d music. When formats change, I can always re-rip my CDs. What if Apple stumbles and the iPod becomes uncool? What will I be allowed to do with my FairPlay-encrypted music files? I can’t transcode them because they are encrypted. I still have the CD’s I bought 15 years ago in High School. They still work. Does anyone think that the iPod will still be using the same music format in 15 years? If you think it will, just go talk to anyone who bought music from MSN music.
Will the web change this? Will it preserve things better or worse? My vote is for worse. Take for example our digital photos. When I have 3 gigs of pictures on my hard drive I have some hope of preserving them. Let’s say that .jpg dies out and some new format comes to dominate. I can always run a conversion program to keep my pictures around. Now assume that all of the photos are on Flickr instead of my hard drive. How do I preserve them? Sure, Flickr could just convert them for me but what if Yahoo goes out of business? What if they just decide that they are not making money on the free storage of photographs model? Then I have to find a way to download them all, convert them, then upload them to another site. It can be done, but it’s more custom work than just getting a photo converter program to run locally. When we put our data into someone else’s hands we lessen our ability to manipulate it which lessens our ability to preserve it.
Consider gaming. I can still find ways to play games written 25 years ago for the Commodore 64. What’s the chance anyone will be able to experience World of Warcraft in the year 2030?