Every time an app I rely on exposes its mortality, I realize that all the software I rely on is made by people. And some of it is made by a very small group of people, or even largely a single person. And it gives me pause, because whether that person decides to stop development or retires or is hit by the proverbial bus, the result is the same: That tool is probably going to fade away.
A lot of the software I rely on is a couple of decades old. And while those apps have supported the livelihoods of a bunch of talented independent developers, it can’t last forever. When James Thomson decides to move to the Canary Islands and play at the beach all day, what will become of PCalc? When Rich Siegel hangs up his shingle [NB: idiom error] at Bare Bones Software, will BBEdit retire as well? Apps can last as abandonware for a while, but as the 32-bit Mac app apocalypse taught us, incompatibility comes for every abandoned app eventually.
At some point or another this website, this URL, won’t resolve though. Maybe the Internet Archive will stick around for a while, but then everything is locked within this vast archive.
But if my URL is dead, my website dies with it.
My work shouldn’t be presented in the Smithsonian behind glass or anything, I’m just pointing at this enormous flaw in the architecture of the web itself: you’re renting servers and renting URLs. Nothing is permanent because on the web we don’t really own any space, we’re just borrowing land temporarily.
The variety of impermanence that Jason Snell talks about is one that I reflect on often, which is why I try to minimize my vulnerability to it — for instance, by writing whenever possible in plain-text files, which are as future-proof as anything digital can be. I love BBEdit, in which I am writing these words, and hope that Rich Siegel will keep working on it into a hearty old age, and then will pass it along to a new generation of custodians of his work — but even if BBEdit dies my text files will not. I’ll just open them up in a text editor I like less, and will be deprived of some features and keyboard shortcuts that are deeply embedded in my muscle memory. Not the worst of fates.
By contrast, I am reluctant to invest heavily in Drafts, which is a fantastic app, but also (a) is owned and maintained by one person, (b) keeps its data in a database rather than in text files, and (c) has no mechanism for exporting its data into text files. Too many potential points of failure for me. Even worse are browser-based, cloud-located notes apps, which could fail utterly at any moment. I’m old enough to remember what happened to Gnolia, but what really soured me on relying on any cloud-based app for my basic information was the collapse of Stikkit, a brilliant notes/contacts/tasks app whose users loved it a great deal more than its makers did.
Paper, text files, and open standards for non-textual data — that’s my recipe for future-proofing my work.
To some extent that system addresses the problem Robin Rendle points to – but only to some extent. It was a little over a year ago that I fully realized that I don’t own my turf online. My work on this blog isn’t vulnerable in the way that Facebook posts or tweets are, but it’s still vulnerable. If my hosting company were to suffer a catastrophic data loss, I’d be okay — I back everything up regularly. But if my hosting company were to decide that my critique of Amazon for memory-holing Ryan Anderson’s book marks me as a transphobe with whom they will not do business, and if other hosting companies took the same view … well, then I might be in a certain kind of trouble.
I must make a distinction here: My data I own, my internet presence I rent. It’s interesting to think about how this situation differs from that of my published books and print essays. It’s possible for anyone to download this entire site — that’s what wget does, and I’ve used it to download my old Text Patterns blog to my hard drive — but I’m sure no one else ever has, so if anything were to happen to shut down this site or that old blog, then anyone interested in what I’ve written online would have to hope that the Internet Archive and its partners have the whole thing crawled and saved.
But if you’ve bought one of my books, or a journal in which one of my essays appears, then even if I were to suffer Damnatio memoriae, you’d still have those texts, and it’s impossible for me to imagine a world in which anyone would go to the trouble of taking them away from you.
So does that mean that I should focus my attention on writing for print publication instead of online venues like this blog? That would make sense if I wanted to ensure that people are still reading my work after I’m dead — but that would be ridiculous for a writer as insignificant as I am. As I often say, it’s quite likely that I will outlive all my work, and I’m just fine with that. So I’ll write in venues that give me pleasure, that seem fitting for whatever interests me at the moment. And then, one day, if I get the chance to set my affairs in order, I’ll hand over to my family a stack of notebooks and a hard drive full of text files, for them to do with as they please.
Oblivion is not to be hired. The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the register of God, not in the record of man…. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt, whether thus to live were to die; since our longest sun sets at right declensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and have our light in ashes; since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying mementoes, and time that grows old in itself, bids us hope no long duration; — diuturnity is a dream and folly of expectation.
— Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia