Dragonfly in the Amber: How Our Data Gets Locked Away in Obsolete Technology

By Nathaniel Mott , written on August 28, 2012

From The News Desk

It's been said that digital is forever, that once something is committed to digital memory it can't be completely erased, much like a prehistoric fly trapped in amber. This sentiment rings partially true – anyone that has attempted to delete a troublesome file or a particularly nasty virus can testify to the digital format's tenacity – but, in reality, information isn't as permanent as we may like it to be.

In a comment on my post covering the Evernote Trunk Conference, David Wo says that one of his main problems with Evernote is that the company "lock[s] up my data in their proprietary format. My data is theirs and I can't take it with me elsewhere[...]" Wo's use of the term "proprietary" garnered a response from "roschler", another commenter, who argues that it would be easy for a programmer to dig through Evernote's SQLite3 database and export its data in a usable format.

From a technical standpoint, "roschler" is probably right, but the issue of an average person with no idea what "SQLite3 database" means not being able to access their data remains. The following question, then, is whether or not you can truly call data as your own if you don't have the ability to take it where you see fit.

Attorney, writer, and podcaster David Sparks explains this issue in his inaugural column for Macworld as such:

Looking back through my old files, I'm amazed to see how many word processors I’ve used over the years. I’ve got document files in formats ranging from MacWrite to Pages and everything in between. The problem is, a lot of those old files are useless to me now: None of my current word processors can read them.
Sparks' issue is familiar to most anyone that has had to open files long after they were created, or with an application other than the one used at the file's genesis. One cannot take the file created by Apple's Pages software (assuming that the file is saved in the default .pages format) and open it in Microsoft Word, for example. Even users that do save their files in the near-ubiquitous .doc (or, lately, .docx) format eventually will have to deal with display and encoding issues.

Passing such a file through multiple points and saving it in a new way at each stop also distorts its contents. Moving from Pages, to OpenOffice, to Word 2003, to Word 2007, besides being completely nonsensical, is like playing a long game of "telephone".

Popularizing the use of a singular file type has worked wonders for Microsoft, with its Office suite remaining the de facto standard for every analyst, student, teacher, businessman, and general PC user. There are other options, such as the previously mentioned OpenOffice and Apple's iWork Suite, but almost every piece of software supports Microsoft's file types, if only just barely.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, what's best for a company isn't necessarily best for a user.  Sparks isn't the only person that has had to grapple with long-forgotten files that can't be opened, their contents lost to the digital ether.

The post-PC era has only exacerbated the issue. Files don't simply have to work from one Windows computer to another anymore – instead, files are expected to be accessible from iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, Windows Phone, and the Web. As anyone that has copied a Word document into a WordPress page knows, many of these "specified" file types become cumbersome and impractical.

A solution has emerged, and, technologically speaking, it's ancient: plain text. Services like Simplenote and Dropbox, as well as apps like Notesy, Byword, iA Writer, and more than a dozen more, have popularized the simple files that are accessible through every single platform, both major (like Windows and iOS) and minor (like Linux).

In this instance, being ancient is a good thing. Because plain text files are so small and simple they will, in all likelihood, be around forever. Sparks cites this longevity in his column, saying "It’s timeless. My grandchildren will be able to read a text file I create today, long after anybody can remember what the heck a .dotx [sic] file is."

I can, and do, edit plain text files from any device that I own. This capability has come in handy many times, from those moments that a draft needs to be edited right now and all I have is my phone to all those times I had to use a school-provided computer to print a document. I've shifted computers and changed text editors multiple times since I began writing, and have never run into a single issue, provided the files I was working with were simple .txt files.

Technology changes rapidly, and there will always be a new service to try. I, personally, have used Simplenote, Evernote, Springpad, Dropbox, and a few services that I don't even remember, to hold snippets of information. That doesn't even take into consideration the non-writing-related services I have experimented with, such as Fitocracy, Instagram, LinkedIn, Camera+, Google+, Twitter, and many others that, again, I can't remember.

These dalliances aren't unique to myself, if the number of apps that people connect to Twitter is any indication. We are constantly creating content, whether it's a tilt-shifted photo of a slice of pizza, a Tweet, or a collage. When services use open technologies or provide an easy method of export it doesn't hurt to leave – I can simply take whatever piece of content I created with me when I go. I own it.

But when that access is cut off, or a company uses a system designed to keep users around by holding data hostage with a "specif- fuck it, let's call it what it is, proprietary format – that content is no longer ours.

And that's what this issue comes down to: Do you own your content, or are you simply renting it? And, if you're only renting it, are you comfortable with the possibility of not being able to see the photos you took, read the words you wrote, or view a movie you made because you don't have an application capable of reading a file?

The answer is probably "no." If these things that we're creating aren't worth saving and preserving for as long as digitally possible, we wouldn't (or shouldn't) be recording them in the first place.