Workmen take out their anger on the machines

New technology is the murderer of longevity

By training, I’m a coder. The early stages of my career I spent programming. I’ll be the first to admit, I was a pretty bad coder, so I migrated to be a manager, technical director and then strategist, but they all shared the same core skillset – 1) problem solving and 2) making ideas a reality.

Code was, for me, just a means to an end. A problem exists (i.e. how to show people what events were taking place at the barbican) and code was a way to solve the problem (make a website where people can see what events are happening). It’s not the only solution – and ‘digital’ always being the answer was one of the reasons I moved from digital agencies to media agencies – as more often than not, the broader picture is about creating a holistic experience with many facets, hence strategy being where I now call home.

That’s an aside though – the ‘making ideas a reality’ is the heart of my thinking this morning. For about 8 years now, I’ve not worked on a Friday. This 20% time used to be dedicated to not-for-profit working, not just charity work, but projects which had no commercial reason to exist. From this sprung projects like The Disposable Memory Project, The 100, LoveThink, Clarity* and others. Small ideas, dreamt up whilst daydreaming, and made real by a few quick ‘hacks’ in code, et voila, a project is live and can exist. The Disposable Memory Project, for instance, was an idea in a Dry Cleaners on a Saturday afternoon, and existed by Saturday evening as a simple wordpress blog.

Code has always been for me, a sketchbook. Something to go from concept to working prototype, rapidly. And being able to start with the bricks of code, rather than the fully pre-built house of something like wordpress, meant that I could prototype the experience and the total concept, rather than fit my ideas into an existing framework. This was brilliant. I could knock out a working version of something quickly, get people using it, and see what happened. As my ideas are rarely about the technology itself, but mostly the people within the idea, the connections made, the output of the idea. It really doesn’t matter what is ‘under the hood’ and how the project technically works, as long as it does, and people can connect.

Now, here lies the problem. This morning, as I sit in my shed, drink my coffee and read the latest copy of Delayed Gratification, I get some server alerts pinging on my phone. The100 is offline. LoveThink is offline. Disposable Memory Project is offline. None of these projects are ‘active’, they are all in a sort of ‘pasture’ mode where people can simply see the outputs and results of the project, but it still requires some technology to allow people to see the content – a database to power the experience.

This is increasingly happening. Server alerts. Why? Because the infrastructure which sits behind the projects is changing. Whilst the projects lie as a snapshot in time – the technology stack behind the projects are constantly evolving. My hosting company upgrade the software, the language, the databases, the various nuts and bolts which run the ideas. These upgrades are usually to patch security exploits, or to improve uptime or stability of the service. (Sometimes, its simply because my code is bad, and the server runs out of memory, and it needs literally turning off and on again.)

You can’t use this bit of code any more – its insecure. Or, this database version is old and won’t run any more. Or, your upload approach is causing the server to crash. Or something something something I don’t understand.

The technology (naturally) has both surpassed my knowledge of how to make/fix things, and the legacy needs of my ideas. If I were to sit down and try and fix or upgrade the framework which lies underneath the project – I would end up having to re-write huge chunks of it – for what end? Just to keep a dormant project online? So, I wonder whether I should just take the content offline, so it no longer exists. A difficult decision, and one I cannot make on my own – it isn’t really my content. The Disposable Memory Project and The100, in fact most of my work, is other people’s content. I am simply the curator or guardian of the content, and I have a responsibility to keep these memories and snapshots online.

Yet, the relentless march of technology makes it harder for me to do this, every day.

This week, Pebble, the company who some years back made a huge splash on Kickstarter, having one of the largest ever pre-funding rounds on the platform, sold to Fitbit, stating they could no longer exist as an independent company, and that they wouldn’t be honouring any remaining pledges. Over $12m in pre-orders, and they are not able to manufacture the products their audience have been waiting for. Refunds are being sent out. Customers are both disappointed and furious, many saying ‘I don’t want a refund, I want my Pebble!’. A small note in the announcement explains that, whilst any existing Pebbles will not cease to work, ‘reduced functionality may come in time’. The technology infrastructure which sits behind Pebble will, in time, cease to exist. And, in time, Pebbles will turn into Bricks.

When I moved house, I unearthed a box of post-IPO or post-collapse kickstarter and early stage gadgets which I have purchased, but no longer work. A Little Printer from the team at Berg, which no longer has a cloud to connect to. An old Sphere which I can’t seem to find the app for to control any more. Various macs which won’t run new versions of iOS.

I start to think about the technology which is functioning today in my house, which in time, will also be orphaned. What happens when Alphabet decides Nest is no longer commercially viable, and they remove any cloud infrastructure for people’s connected homes? What happens when the smart doorlocks manufacturers go bust, and people can’t unlock their homes? What will the Vine superstars do when their app is closed down? Where did all the users of Google Reader go when their beloved tool was switched off? What happens if Wikipedia can’t fund the project any longer?

As someone who is required to look towards the future in my role, I wonder whether we forget about the past too quickly. Perhaps we need to play a dual role, thinking about both the road forward to explore new spaces and see what impact new technology has on our lives, yet also consider the importance of longevity, history, our past and invest in the importance of preserving things which have come before us.

Organisations like both the National Trust and the Wayback Machine play important roles in keeping not just ‘interesting artefacts’ but critical archives of social, political and cultural history. Digital content is far more ephemeral – some disappear within seconds by design, such as Snapchat, some are obfuscated intentionally for reasons of privacy or embarrassment; other digital archives struggle to exist because the infrastructure they were designed for simply no longer exists. I remember some years back reading an article about the Domesday Project – an early ‘multimedia’ initiative to capture living in the UK, we had a copy of it at my primary school, using huge ‘laserdiscs’ running connected to a BBC Microcomputer – no longer being accessible because the hardware to read the content no longer existed. Similarly, I asked a registrar why he signed my first child’s birth certificate in fountain pen, and he explained that the ink in a rollerball pen simply faded away over time.

How do we design for longevity, when digital technology, by design, exists as something which is ‘overwritable’, and how do we maintain functionality which people have invested into, if the creators and guardians are no longer funded or able to remember how to maintain something?

Perhaps Kodak were right all along. We abandoned them, laughing at how they refused to change with the times, yet anyone who has lost images on from phone will perhaps have some small ounce of nostalgia for the printed photograph.

I am entirely pro-technology – for the new things it can create, the new ways of creating, the democratisation of content which is has provided, is remarkable. But, we clearly need to now think about the challenges it has created too. It is to easy to create ‘news’ which is untrue. It is too easy to be anonymous and cruel to others. It is too easy to create something which people rely upon, and then remove that support. It is too easy to create accidental ephemera where sustainable impact is needed. For it has never been about the technology itself, but rather the outputs and outcomes of what that technology has enabled. We need to now think about how to design for a world where there is no guarantee that the medium which contained the message will exist in 2 years, yet alone 200.

So, now, I’m sitting staring at a database error that I no longer know how to fix. I think – possibly, new technology has just destroyed 100 people’s memories, and that makes me incredibly sad, yet with renewed ambition to better design my work in the future for longevity.

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