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Technology That's Ours

Two great related articles (the former found via the latter)…

Go read them both in their entirety. (I only started capturing large chunks of these kinds of things after I watched almost all the old articles I linked to 10+ years ago disappear off the Internet.)

Computer Files Are Going Extinct

The other day, I came across a website I’d written over two decades ago. I double-clicked the file, and it opened and ran perfectly. Then I tried to run a website I’d written 18 months ago and found I couldn’t run it without firing up a web server, and when I ran NPM install, one or two of those 65,000 files had issues that meant node failed to install them and the website didn’t run.

The unit of creation has moved from the file to the database entry.

Perhaps this is the archivist in me, but this process of creating files and flinging them into an unsorted pot and then searching or hoping that the newest one is the one we want gives me the collywobbles. It seems like a rejection of our past work, to just sling all the files into a heap, immediately devaluing them as soon as something newer comes along.

At work, I see colleagues creating files, emailing them, and not even bothering to save the attachments to their hard drive. Their inbox is their new file management system. “Have you got that spreadsheet?” they ask. Someone hunts through their inbox and forwards the person back the email they sent. Is this really how we manage data in the 21st century? It seems a strange backwards step.

(Pause to admire the use of the word collywobbles.)

I say this to mourn the loss of the innocence we had before capitalism inevitably invaded the internet. When we create now, our creations are part of an enormous system. Our contributions a tiny speck in an elastic database cluster. Rather than buying and collecting music, videos, or other cultural artifacts, we are exposed to the power hose: all culture, raging over us, for $12.99 a month (or $15.99 for HD) as long as we keep up our payments like good economic entities. When we stop paying, we’re left with nothing.

Everything is Amazing, But Nothing is Ours

Up until the mid 2000s or so, it felt like the collective goal of software and the internet was to create digital versions of all the stuff that worked well in real life – documents became Word, slides became Powerpoint, and mail became email. It’s also why files are called files, and why we got rid of them by dragging them into the trash can. Software was pretty skeuomorphic in design and in function. The file as an atomic unit for productivity made sense. It’s a solid, distinct object you could understand, and that was yours. You had to take care of it, name it properly, and save it in the right place, just like a paper file.

But for the last ten years, we’ve been undoing all of that. The constraints of mobile, plus a new generation of users that’ve never really known life without the internet, meant the benefits of skeuomorphism were no longer worth the cost. Ditching it as a philosophy, both in design and in function, freed us to go out and reinvent everything as a service. Abstract everything away into databases, links and logic, and provide it as a consumer service with all the topology and complexity hidden out of sight.

We love services. Services free us to be pure consumers, seeking exactly what we want for as little friction and overhead as possible. So long as everything works, trading ownership for access is an attractive deal: everything under the hood just gets magic-ed away, and provided for us as a service. No files, no updates, no maintenance; just access.

One of the funny outcomes of this half-mobile half-desktop world is where our de facto file system remerged. In absence of a coherent, logical file system across these two worlds, we trampled down a desire path and made our own: our email inboxes. I (and many of you, I’m sure) use my email inbox the way we’re all supposed to use Dropbox: it’s a ubiquitous, universally understood way to move stuff around, store and retrieve it. Gmail is the new Finder.

Email as a file system is inefficient, terribly designed, and full of friction. Repeatedly emailing yourself copy-and pasted information and attachments called presentation_final, presentation_final2 and presentation_final_final is nobody’s idea of a good time. But you know why it works? Dependency minimization. It’s air gapped from the rest of your work: no software update or edge case is going to screw things up so badly that it goes into your inbox and deletes your emails. You can always get to your email, and that attachment will always be there. It’s a universally adopted format. Most importantly, your inbox is yours.

I think there’s a really strong, counter-trend bet to be made here over the next few tech generations. If the world is going to get reorganized into services and dependencies, so be it; but find what’s air gapped, and find what’s ours. People are smart enough to tell what’s solid and what isn’t. Product teams who go out of their way to give us real, tangible objects we feel that we can own will find a great deal of success.

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