Futureproofing My Work

This is part one of a two-part series, written together. The first part explains how I chose the ultimate destination medium for my creations. The second part shows how I plan to create them in the first place.

It is rambling, self-indulgent, and without a real conclusion. However, if by some chance a reader makes it through the entire essay, perhaps they will understand why I’m not worried about that.

In my search for truth in all aspects of life, I tend to look for patterns and systems that will allow me to go beyond mere philosophy and actually apply principles to each day. My passion lies not in the creation of statutes, but in the aid of a successful lifestyle.

Recently I have been playing with the computer language XML. XML, which stands for eXtensible Markup Language, is hailed by some as the ultimate futureproof language for computers. It allows you to create an item once, with rich descriptive and categorized information, and forever transform it by linking these descriptions to new structural and stylistic patterns. For instance, you can use the same XML document to show a webpage, a PDF document, email, Microsoft Word page, or almost any other computer response you can imagine. It’s a beautiful achievement, a marvel of architectural foresight.

So XML, written semantically and flexible enough to evolve, seems like a very nice alternative to HTML, which is suitable only for webpage usage. But is that enough? After all, even XML has its limits. XML is still just readable by machines, and though a printout of an XML document is easier for a human to read than an printout of HTML code is, it is still far inferior to the content presented as a plain text document.

Some people, then, have begun archiving webpages as plain text. That’s a good step, although you lose any of the formatting that the author may have felt was essential to understanding the content. You’ll also need a computer, which was still a pretty rare possession last time I checked (just over 50% of people in the U.S. have one–and we’re a pretty small minority). My personal next step would be to print out all of my computer work onto nice, durable, time-tested paper.

I think I just heard a tree cry.

I’m quite serious, though. Paper is a stand-alone, platform-independent, cheap, portable, available-worldwide, zero-learning-curve technology that has been enough for Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed to ensure their teachings would live on (well, I guess Moses tried stone tablets, but fortunately they were copied onto paper). Printing my work onto paper and preserving it appropriately will ensure that I will be able to share my life’s greatest idea to the future, “if by random whim one occurs to me.” (TMBG)

Paper’s a pretty stable technology, and it would get my message to the future, even without being networked and linked to the hilt. But then the question just shifts: would the message be understood?

I write in the English language, which limits my influence to the subset of humans that know English. Certainly machines will be able to translate these ramblings, but it is still limited by those that can understand and codify language in general. A better approach may be to convey my ideas symbolically. By creating imagery instead of language, I extend the circle of influence to those who can see. Still not universal, but better. And it also transmits emotion much better than words alone.

A friend of mine is experimenting on his website with an ever-increasing array of colors and shapes. This is not to distract from his content, but rather to highlight and reinforce it. He assigns a color to each post relating to his emotion at the time of writing, and places items on the page visually according to their meaning. Some you scroll sideways for, others are diagonally down to the right, still others overlap and hide each other. A printout of this would be understandable worldwide, and perhaps universally–aliens come to conquer us would be able to understand his work, if they had some sort of visual sensing.

So physical, printed artwork and imagery may be the most futureproof visual medium. But that still assumes physical existence and material possession. Take away that and the entire concept is lost. It turns out that embedding an idea within a physical medium, whatever that medium is and however it may be embedded, still makes the ideas contained into its prisoners.

The one societal practice that I see as closest to futureproof is oral tradition. Speech and hearing are such universal senses that a story from one culture easily transfers to another, despite language and distance barriers. Oral tradition is responsible for all knowledge we have from before the invention of writing, and for most of our creation stories and religious traditions. We can count on hearing and speech continuing on far beyond our own culture and technology, since it is a universal human need to feel connections to others through speech and hearing. Csikszentmihalyi writes that the everyday interactions we have with other people on the street–waving, a tip of the hat, a “hello” in the hallway–reassure us that we are still alive and validate us as a part of human culture. The “personal touch” is truly something we cannot live without, and therefore I believe that we can count on speech being around to carry our knowledge forth.

My choice for the ultimate futureproof technology, then, is friendships. Other people, as they have been for millenia, will continue to be our link to the world and its most reliable resource. People are dynamic and evolving, constantly taking the knowledge they have and seamlessly upgrading it to fit their surroundings. The work of conversion is thus decentralized and done by workers that require no additional hardware upgrades or maintenance.

People are the ultimate platform. And yes, that will scale.

One question remains, however. If people are the ultimate storage tool, what is the optimal creation tool? Once I get my knowledge from people, how do I use it to create something I can contribute back to the cultural brain? That’s another topic, one which I’ll explore next.