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August 2011

History, our future

… no civilization has ever saved everything; acknowledging that fact does not obviate the need to try and save as much as we can. — A Working Library

Way back in 2006, I heard Chris talk, demoing Nokia’s mobile web server. I loved that and in my imagination it combined with the idea of owning your own data. Imagine carrying your own data with you, the canonical copy of everything digital that’s you, serving it from your mobile device. (There was a newspaper picture I saw, during the terrible years after Yugoslavia disintegrated, of a refugee family carrying their hard drives stashed around their van and in their bags and coats. They called themselves, I think — I’ve never been able to find the picture since — the first hi-tech refugees, carrying with them all their digital stuff.)

Owning your own data:

I’m building a solution, bit by bit. It’s certainly incomplete, and with rough edges … but iteratively improving as I find time and inspiration to work on it. I’d rather host my data and live with such awkwardness in the open than be a sharecropper on so many beautiful social content farms. — Tantek Çelik

I haven’t even the beginnings of the technical knowledge needed to follow that particular path (‘This is what I mean by “own your data”. Your site should be the source and hub for everything you post online. This doesn’t exist yet, it’s a forward looking vision, and I and others are hard at work building it. It’s the future of the indie web.’), though I’d dearly like to. If someone builds that, I’d buy it.

In 2008, at Open Tech, I heard Danny O’Brien talk, Living on the Edge (pdf), and read his posts on the same theme: 2008–07–16, and then Independence DayIntermediariesDeath by BoredomH-T-T-P, You Know MeReachability on the EdgeHow Many Nines Does One Person Need?. From Independence Day: ‘a trend you couldn’t help but notice in this latest overexcitement is migration of data from the edge to centralised servers. … I’m curious as to what happens when one tries to buck this trend. … how much of our life that we share with the Web 2.0 giants do we really *need* to share? How much of these services can and should we be running from the comfort of our own homes?’

The year before, Ben had written: ‘I’m living out of webapps at the moment: Google Docs, Gmail, Reader, Meebo and the like. It has been a revelation: these things work really well.’ (And see Matt Haughey, writing in April that year.) How long ago that seems now!

Discussion of the issues hasn’t ceased and, for the foreseeable future, how can it? Take John Naughton, writing earlier this year: ‘the components needed for a new, user-controlled architecture are beginning to fall into place. It’s still a bit geeky, but all it needs is a human-friendly front end’ (my italics). And last year’s speech by Eben Moglen (FreedomBox), Freedom in the Cloud. Or, Take Back the Tubes — A DIY Data Manifesto:

… the web will likely never be completely free of centralized services and Winer recognizes that. Most people will still choose convenience over freedom. Twitter’s user interface is simple, easy to use and works on half a dozen devices. Winer doesn’t believe everyone will want to be part of the distributed web, just the dedicated. But he does believe there are more people who would choose a DIY path if they realized it wasn’t that difficult.

For much of the last year, I’ve become preoccupied with archiving and preserving our data; ‘we are all curators, in the post-modern world, whether we want to be or not’ (William Gibson, 2001). mmmarilyn: ‘The one thing that differentiates human beings from all other creatures on Earth is the externalization of subjective memory—first through notches in trees, then through cave paintings, then through the written word and now, through databases of almost otherworldly storage and retrieval power.’  And then — YAHOO!LOCAUST. John Naughton again (from earlier still this year):

Think of the pleasure we get from old family photographs or the delight that comes from clearing out an attic and finding boxes of love letters, school reports, our first exercise books and old appointment diaries. The contemporary versions of these personal documents are mostly stored either on obsolescent PC hard drives or on the servers of internet companies …


The European Union says its member states must do more to digitize Europe’s cultural heritage and not simply leave that work to the private sector. To do otherwise, suggests a recently commissioned report, could steer Europe away from a digital Renaissance and “into a digital dark age.” — ReadWriteWeb, 2011

I’m no programmer, though decades ago I learned to use Fortran, writing my own program for an A level Biology project, and played with BASIC. Now, I’m playing with a Mac Mini server and a Pegasus R6. I want to know that we can hand on certain things … music, audio, photos, text and, increasingly important, video. History for the future.

Last Christmas, I was hoping we’d see some development in 2011 around the Mac Mini, though I suspected the game plan was more likely to be centred on the ecosystem that individuals, families and groups weave around multiple Apple devices. There’s room for both and it seems that Apple thinks so, too. I use cloud services a great deal, and this won’t stop as I play with creating our own, centralised repository of music, audio, photos, text and videos. I want our own backup and personally maintained server and store, but I know the cloud offers us so much, too.

In What if Flickr fails?, Doc Searls looked forward to ‘self-hosted versions of Flickr, or the equivalent’ but also to a future where we ‘pay more for what’s now free’:

I want them, and every other silo out there, to realize that the pendulum has now swung full distance in the silo’d direction — and that it’s going to swing back in the direction of open and distributed everything. And there’s plenty of money to be made there too.

Yes, indeed. If Apple gets it right with iCloud, I’ll happily pay for secure and really useful services in the cloud that respect my privacy and offer a level of backup and reliability that, even with all my best efforts, I’ll probably not (always) achieve at home. But I’ll hold them to the highest standards and aim not to have to miss a beat if it comes to moving to another service. Dave Winer:

The important thing is that you and your ideas live outside the silo and are ported into it at your pleasure. You never have to worry about getting your stuff out of the silo because it never lived in there in the first place.

Things my students might enjoy reading as they, too, wrestle with these matters:


Kim picked out (in Google Reader) a piece on Joe Moran’s blog, and there at the end is this:

How many people turn on the radio and leave the room, satisfied with the distant and sufficient noise? Is this absurd? Not in the least. What is essential is not that one particular person speak and another hear, but that, with no one in particular speaking and no one in particular listening, there should nonetheless be speech, and a kind of undefined promise to communicate, guaranteed by the incessant coming and going of solitary words. — Maurice Blanchot

The experience of hearing someone in the family turning on a radio somewhere in the house, and then to become aware that they are no longer attending to the radio, if they ever were, but the radio continues, is surely very common. Yet this is the first time I’ve ever read anyone remarking and reflecting on this.

‘There should nonetheless be speech … a[n] … undefined promise to communicate, guaranteed by the incessant coming and going of solitary words’.

Yes. That.

Out of touch

We’ve been away and without connectivity for much of the last week. And what a week to choose. This summer will live in memory for its news and events. Some days, the real world is more like theatre than theatre is.

Through tools such as Reeder, and the many eyes and ears of Twitter, we just about kept abreast, snatching 3G, EDGE or feeble GPRS where location permitted, and quickly learning where towns and villages could give us WiFi. (A shout-out here for the excellent Toucan Café in Minehead, its good food and free wireless.)

Back home, I’ve caught up in detail on the accumulated reading. I wish it had been less dispiriting. It’s come to something when, as Euan said, Russell Brand is more credible than the Prime Minister.

Some of what I’ve been reading about the unrest in England, on Pinboard.