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:


Every year when I teach our first years (Year 9) about ICT it’s often surprising what stands out as having changed. It’s life-as-we-once-knew-it, Jim, but now more or less of a piece with this digital stuff. We’ve made a new thing. Lots of new things.

But quick! Look after them! They’re vanishing even as we look.

Recent lessons have developed a focus around the web-and-culture, the web-as-culture. So, lesson 15 is all about the stuff James talked about at dConstruct last year: history, historiography, memory; archiving the internet; time, growth, loss, decay … hope. James’s talk is the focus.

Last Thursday, in the discussion about all that, I found other things suggested themselves and fell satisfyingly into place. I’ve added some of these to the lesson as a supplementary page: Lee’s deeply affecting talk at Reboot 9 about Kozarac; the Long Now’s Rosetta Project. But also things I haven’t put on that supplementary page: Yahoo! and Geocities (already in the original lesson 15) led on to Yahoo! and Delicious (I showed them Pinboard and we talked about backing up locally as well as in the cloud), and Yahoo! and Flickr (which Yahoo!’s CEO doesn’t use: ‘One of the most highly visible and trafficked Yahoo properties and you don’t even have an account there’).

That led on to a look at cloud-computing and the ways in which the Wikileaks story has made people readjust their view of providers (see my last post). It got me scrambling around to find this photo that I knew I’d squirrelled away on Tumblr a while back:

Jerry Yang at Congress

Gao Qin Sheng, mother of Shi Tao, a Chinese reporter sentenced to 10 years in prison for leaking state secrets, cries as Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang (left) testifies before a congressional committee hearing. (Photo: Reuters) — The Sydney Morning Herald (2007)

Wikileaks, Egypt … let’s not forget these lessons about cloud-computing and the responsibilities of global communications and cloud-computing providers.

And, as I find myself thinking more and more about archiving, memory and the digital, I really enjoyed Euan’s recent pieces: One small step (‘Goodness - a usenet search just stumbled upon my first ever experience, in 1995, of the power of the internet to make things easier’) and My first blog post. I hope Euan is happy if I re-blog the latter here (it’s so pertinent):

I knew I started blogging around this time of year in 2001 but thanks to a server crash in December 2001 I had no record of my first blog post. I tried The Wayback Machine but couldn’t remember the original url. I had tried various searches on Google and using Devon Agent but with no success but then I remembered that Ev Williams, who started Blogger and now Twitter, had made me a “Blog of Note” on the front page of Blogger in 2002. A search for that got me my old url and The Wayback Machine then came up with the goods.

So my first ever blog posts are preserved here and I began on the 3rd of March 2001. On day three I said:

“I started feeling a bit uneasy about this blog today. Who will ever read it and what will those who do think?”

Ten years later I am still wondering …..

URLs, permalinks, archives … preservation. It all matters so very much.

I’ve been pointing out to my Year 9 pupils the Facebook setting that lets you download your material to a local drive (thanks to Michael for pointing it out to me) — Account > Account settings > Download your information:

This tool lets you download a copy of your information, including your photos and videos, posts on your wall, all of your messages, your friend list and other content you have shared on your profile. Within this zip file, you will have access to your data in a simple, browseable manner. Learn More about downloading a copy of your information.

So many memories are held in Facebook — for now. Will these teenagers be grandparents with few photos of their teenage years to look back on, show and share? Back up, back up, back up.