From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

March 25, 2001*: The Promise of Ubiquitous Access.

I still have my first computer - a Macintosh SE with 4 (count 'em, FOUR) MB RAM, and a 20MB hard drive (later switched to an enormous 40MB after my first hard drive crash). It sits on a shelf next to my father's first typewriter, an Underwood that looks like a wonderful collector's item but apparently has no worth beyond its sentimental value. Both of these machines work, though I very rarely have any reason to use them.

Next to the computer at home from which I write these columns (and do almost all the rest of my home-related work) sits a Power Macintosh 6100/60 with an additional 486 PC processor inside. It was State of the Art back then, and close to worthless now. What's more, it's presently dysfunctional, and I haven't found (or taken) the time to repair it. It has a 500MB hard drive which to my surprise (back then) filled up incredibly quickly.

There's nothing particularly special about this, or about the three drawers of floppy disks and Zip disks in the desk upon which the computers sit, nor the additional disks and CDs that clutter whatever little desk space should be available to me. But the fact that they sit as they do tells a number of stories. One of those stories relates to the promises of compatibility and preservation that somehow have remained unfulfilled in our digital lives (though precisely why I've decided to tell it now is a different [and perhaps the main] story).

It should come as no surprise, that my Macintosh floppies can't be read by my PC. That means that, if for no other reason, I have to keep my Mac around in order to be able to read journals that I've kept since I've had a computer, or view projects I've worked on, or access any of the many letters I've sent. Being digital has been, for me, a desirable goal, and I sing the benefits of digital access to the many classes I teach. But I still have to admit that even with my filing cabinet bulging with paper, having all of the aforementioned items available on paper might make life a great deal easier.

Of course it wasn't only the computer that was supposed to change things. When we were still using version 1.0 of Netscape, the World Wide Web was touted as being cross-platform. It didn't matter what operating system you used, went the claim, when you clicked on a URL you were able to read the page in front of you. And it was, and is, almost true. Until we discovered that we need slightly different versions of HTML for a Mac than for a PC, and that Java applets have to be prepared for a particular operating system, and more. Numerous solutions were suggested for this sort of problem. Among these were special sites where you could view your page as it would appear in different browsers. But though different solutions were offered, not enough people dealt with avoiding the problem to begin with.

So here we are, well into the digital era, encountering problems that might even seem trivial in print media. Not everything, after all, fits on the same size shelf, but squeezing an oversized book onto a rather tiny shelf isn't really much of a problem. From well before the digital era I've encountered more than my share of information losses: I've misplaced papers which I'd love to be able to find again; I've lost books to waterlogging (though I can't claim I'm lost them to fire); I've forgotten what it was that I wanted to write down, even though I ran from the shower quickly to find a pencil and paper; I often can't remember the name of someone with whom I'm speaking.

Losing things and forgetting them seem to be rather common aspects of our daily lives - digital, analog, or whatever. But I seem to recall that one of the central promises of digitality was that everything was retrievable and nothing would get lost. (I don't think that promise dealt with things getting misplaced, or forgotten, or confused.) Promise or no, as digitality continues to penetrate into our daily lives we've learned to adjust to a specifically digital aspect of this rather constant human predicament: not only can we lose and/or misplace things, we can also have them almost right there at our fingertips and still not be able to access them. Rather than simply losing information, that sort of inaccessibility seems to be what's happened to me more often than not. It's reassuring to know that the digital age is constantly enhancing our ability to access information. It would be even more reassuring to know that what we access today will also be available tomorrow.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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