The temporary nature of digital

I found a relic, a paper Tate and Lyle coffee bag under a floorboard. That paper bag is older than me, it made me sit down and think about life for a few moments. Finding a paper bag is unlikely in the digital world as resources only a few years old have a habit of disappearing.

This isn’t particularly new ground, but after an evening discussing the flash games we used to play with my friends. We tried to find a few, and found that many are no longer accessible to play. This brought the topic to the forefront of my mind.

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The current state of affairs is that technology marches on at an astounding pace. Innovations in the digital sector are abound, just look at those pesky JavaScript libraries landscape that changes on the daily.

Looking at historical data it seems that this will continue (how far nobody knows). Software today leverages all the levels abstraction below it, if I’m designing a website, I can use the browser, which in turn uses the OS’s code.

This abstraction means you have fundamental dependencies for your software. One of the games I wanted to play required Shockwave, which at one stage was ubiquitous. Today, this is rare software to run, and this means the game is actually no longer hosted, as most people wouldn’t be able to play it.

As a software developer this is an interesting to observe, as it makes you consider the shelf-life of your work. If I was a civil engineer building bridges you can have a reasonable expectation that it lasts a hundred years (some of the oldest bridges are 1000’s of years old). As a software developer my work is likely to last 10ish before it’s considered so archaic that it needs to be upgraded. I don’t fault the future engineers as when I encounter 10-year-old projects I agree that often needs updating to take advantage of the latest improvements.

It’s interesting thinking that in 10 years most of the work that I have written will start to be slowly replaced (if it hasn’t already) as improved technologies and ideas make the software I currently write obsolete.

The world is faster

It’s interesting to me that the world is faster now than ever. For example, US presidents used to be able to spend months away from the white house, that is no longer feasible as the world moves so fast. The modern world has a blistering pace of information that needs to be reacted to constantly.

The side effect of this is that the outcomes of also dissipate much faster, becoming irrelevant faster than ever. In the petabytes of information that are generated every X not much of that can actually be useful, so more information than ever is also filtered out.

Can we do anything?

I think one idea is for legislation that would make software public after a certain period of time. This would only need to be specific version released at the time allowing companies to carry on innovating.

This would mean software that can no longer extract commercial value would be released to the world. For example, games that close down their online servers would be forced to release the source code allowing people to host their own if they wished to continue playing. This would also allow people to patch outdated software.

There are many practical complexities to this legislation, and more thought is required to this side. As it may touch upon on how trade secrets work, in the physical world.

Overall though, I think most of the time if a company can no longer extract value from it’s software, they should distribute it freely.