Fragile digital world?

There is a belief, back from when the Internet was DARPAnet, that it could survive a nuclear blast – it is inherently fault tolerant, so it would route around damage.  In the early eighties, John Gilmour (one of the founders of the internet) expanded on this to note that censorship would be interpreted as damage and routed around.  And the inexorable dropping of cost of storage, bandwidth and processing power has meant that creating, storing and delivering things on the internet is so cheap that what used to be distributed by expensive books is now available to all, effectively for nothing.

Though the technology can be highly distributed and fault tolerant, in practice it has become much more hierarchical in operation.  So, although we have incredible things like an encyclopedia entry about the Egyptian Protests even whilst they are happening, it was also entirely possible for the Egyptian state to block all access to the internet pretty much instantly (see here).  Here I am relatively optimistic – I believe that these types of events will in fact promote innovation that beats this – for example, in a world in which I can buy a micro-memory card for £15 that is smaller than a postage stamp and stores 8 billion characters (or the whole of Wikipedia, to put it in context!), and many people have phones that can read them, you should be able to have a pretty effective and very very hard to censor sneakernet (aka a network that relies on people passing things to each other physically).

But, I think there is something more risky in the cheapness of everything, linked to this hierarchical evolution of the internet.  We now rely on central storage, cloud computing, and always-on high bandwidth internet connections.  And, technically that makes sense – those systems can be and are able to handle hardware failures.  I have no worries that my Gmail history or google docs will get ‘lost’ by Google.  Nor even that my infrequent book reviews on Amazon will be lost.  Much safer than relying on local copies, and far far far easier.

But, I am exposed to the businesses business model in a way that never used to be true.  If the Encyclopedia Britannica went out of business then an edition I had would remain usable.  If the replacement is wholly in the public domain, like Wikipedia, then there can be and will be ways of taking copies, whether online or offline – see here for 10 ways of using Wikipedia offline for example.  But, if it is a closed source then I have fewer options.

As an example, if we had a favourite recipe for Vegetarian Paella in a book then I could still use it, even if the vegetarian society decided to change it’s book and delist that recipe.  Not true on the internet, unless I print it out, or ‘store offline’ (which is not obvious enough for most people to do).  It might sound a silly example, but it’s very frustrating for the ability to find a favourite recipe to be exposed to the whims of a central group.  This is part of the reason I am building the Yololi website; to store personal ‘fair use’ copies of internet recipes properly so we still have them, and variations, ratings, pictures etc. even if the original source disappears, and to have outputs in a useful format, so that they remain usable even if Yololi disappeared.  And the specific example here is of course no longer linked to the right source!

The UK vegetarian society might sound like a small scale example, but Yahoo is rather more of a web goliath.  And, they are ‘sunsetting’ Delicious which we have used to store bookmarks for some years.  Likewise the BBC are removing many websites as part of a shuffle of focus – I many not find out about the loss of something I value until too late.  The key here being not the material itself, but the impact of the copyright and other legal constraints when operating such a centralised model – there simply may not be legal distributed copies.

So, whilst the infrastructure might be tough, the content needs to be watched – ask yourself what you value (whether you created it or others) and how exposed you would be if the things a company providing the service or content valued were no longer the same.  Do you have the rights and the ability and tools to get the information out and put it elsewhere?  Do the websites you use make it easy to get your information out, or for it to exist after they may not. Top tip – this is almost never commercially aligned with them when they want lock-in – make it easy to join and hard to leave.  Or you may find that your information is far more transitory than you had expected.  And, if you don’t check this at the start, you may find the effort is just never quite worth it … I am not sure what I would do if Yahoo sunsetted Flickr for example.  And, whilst I tell myself I will find a way to backup this blog, and believe that WordPress probably do provide the tools to do it, I have to admit that in the last four years I have never quite got around to it – the modern version of not quite backing up as often as you should!

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