Electronic Permanence

It was always better in the good old days

Let me start by taking a poll of you readers. How many of you have had your computer crash while you're working on an important document or graphic, resulting in all your work done after your previous save being lost? Let's see, that must be, well, all of you?

Don't worry, this essay is not going to degenerate into a Microsoft-bashing rant. Crashes occur, in varying frequencies, on every type of operating system. And it's not always crashes that result in your screaming obscenities at your computer because you've it's wasted half an hour of your time. Imagine you're working on a long document, and you want to change the entire font. You select all the text, and by accident press 'g'. In your haste, you quickly press 'Ctrl-S', saving the document. Whoops, you just replaced all your work with the letter 'g'.

The cynical and hardbitten computer users out there who've suffered innumerable crashes, would shrug their shoulders and say, that's the way it is. Garbage in, garbage out.

But aren't computer supposed to *help* us with our work? I mean, you never have these problems when you're writing something on a piece of paper. Your paper doesn't mysteriously vanish into thin air, being replaced by the blue card of death. Your ink-written words don't get replaced by a pathetic 'g'.

It's obvious why this is so. Ink on paper is permanent; you can't get rid of it. Even if you crumpled the piece of paper up, and threw it into the bin, the words would still be there if you decided you actually did want it. The only way of getting rid of the ink would be to tippex out every single word.

Conversely, the words you seen here on your computer screen are anything but permanent. They're merely patterns of electric charge which can be wiped at the touch of a button, to be gone forever. If you delete a document properly, it's gone forever (or as good as).

I'm not suggesting that we should all abandon our computers in favour of pen and paper - that would be needlessly wasteful and we don't want to cut down any more trees than absolutely necessary (mind you, the idea of a 'paperless office' is still just that, an idea. For now). Yet there are important lessons we could learn from the age old technology of writing.

Sprinting hard just to stay still

Have you ever noticed that however fast your computer is, the amount of time it takes to write a letter or design a graphic stays pretty much the same? We've all heard of Moore's Law - computer power doubles every 18 months, and his Law is holding up to be true for now.

True, we can play some graphically stunning games, and have ever-increasingly sophisticated Artificial Intelligence programs. We can compute billions of operations per second, and edit digital video in real time.

But for all of that, writing still hasn't gotten any easier. Might we not use this huge processing power to help us *work*, and not just play?

Imagine this situation. You're running a word processor, and with every letter you type, the program updates a 'current' version of the file you're working on. And every minute, it saves a read-only backup. So when (not if) the computer crashes, well, you can go right back to the very last word you had written. And if you mistakenly save the file after wiping it, you can go back to a file saved a minute ago.

'Hold on a second,' I hear you cry. 'Don't Word 97, and other word processors, have the option of saving 'autorecover' information every minute? So why are you wasting our time with this antiquated, irrelevant and out-of-date drivel?'

I'm not. What I am suggesting is not the same thing as autorecover information. I am suggesting that we treat our electronic files in exactly the same way as we treat our physical files, so that you have dozens of permanent revisions for each file. Autorecover, and other options like it, merely saves information that tabs onto the file you were working on.

Would this really be useful? I think so. Let me extend my imaginary scenario a little. Say you're working on a big proposal for your company. You start off by writing a draft. You then revise the draft and pad it out. Images get added, then new fonts and tables, and page layouts. Eventually, you get to the 'final' version, which is still tweaked several times.

Instead of having to save the file at every stage of the process, and cluttering up your desktop on your computer with dozens of near-identical files, you have one 'parent' file - a file that does not only have a dimension of information, but also of time. A TARDIS for word processors, if you will. You could rewind to when you started the document, and see the draft. Then you could fast forward a day later, to see the second draft. If your boss decides he doesn't like the layout of your final version, you could just rewind back to the time before you changed the layout, and just change it differently then.

In essence, the file would look like a family tree. The original rough draft would be patriarch (or matriarch, if you want) of the entire file. It would spawn 'baby' files as each revision went on, and if you ever played around with different layouts, then the tree would branch into different 'baby' files. You could even end up with a number of different 'great-grandchildren' of the 'parent' file, all different, but descended from the same original information.

This wouldn't only apply to text documents. If anything, this approach might work even better for graphics design. Imagine how useful it might be if you were creating a complex 3D object of, say, a house, and once you finish, you think, hmm, it would have been so much better if I just went and added an extra level. Unfortunately, it's too late to do anything about it now, unless you were using the 'file TARDIS'.

Using this approach, in effect you would never even have to bother saving your work files any more. They'd be saved for you. Just as you don't have to press a button on the piece of paper you're writing on to make sure that the ink doesn't vanish when you close the writing pad, you shouldn't have to press the save button just to ensure that your electronic words (or drawings) don't disappear when you close the program.

The more pragmatically minded would say, 'Well, that'd take huge amounts of storage space and processor power.' It might very well do, but didn't I mention earlier the ridiculously fast rate processing power is progressing at? And you can't deny the fact that storage space is huge these days. You think your hard drive is big because it's measured in gigabytes? How about a hard drive one thousand times as large, measured in terabytes? I don't think you'll be too surprised to hear that hard drives such as those could very well be released within the next 3 years.

It's not computer power or storage space that's holding us back. It's the continual assumption that the way we work with computers now is the way it *should* be. The attitude is, if you don't like it, well, that's life. It doesn't take a genius to work out that computers are here to help us, not hinder us. An approach that has echoes back to the way we have written on paper for thousands of years might pave the way for other methods by which we could make work easier and quicker to complete. Who knows what kind of new ideas a truly friendly computer might allow us to develop and flower?

We'd better do it soon though, because I've got a feeling that I'm just about due for a cra-