Category Archives: Storage

The death of a time and a place for everything

Diary date: 12th May, 1985

Amazon LockerI did two utterly unremarkable things this week in 1985, but they were exactly the kind of things I started followthehumming to help me spot.

First off, I went to the university library twice to do some research on Swedish canals (sounds odd I know, but don’t be alarmed, I’ve written before about how this forms part of my secret superpower). The library itself was about three miles away, so going there wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, eating as it did into valuable drinking time.

Secondly, I waited at home all evening for a phone call that never came (don’t worry, I’m over her now – or at least I was until I started re-reading my diaries!).

What on earth was I thinking? Why didn’t I just turn on my tablet, connect to the nearest wi-fi and do my research sitting in Starbucks? Or just put my mobile on vibrate and head to the nearest bar to drown my sorrows in anticipation of what was about to happen?

Clearly the fact that the technology involved was a distant dream at the time didn’t help, but what these stories really bring to life is the very different relationship we had with ‘place’ in the 80’s.

Back then, place sat high on the list of stuff you needed to keep an eye on. If you agreed to meet someone somewhere at a certain time, the arrangement was locked and loaded. Once things were under way, you couldn’t alter your plans without leaving someone stranded. Today, we don’t even agree to meet up, we just agree to agree to meet up later, details to be confirmed – with at least the one consequent benefit of it now being very hard to be late for anything.

Activities happened in predictable places. Phone calls were taken wherever the phone was  plugged in – a draughty hall in my case. Watching TV happened in the living-room with everyone crowded round, rather than in isolated pockets of the house and on lots of different devices. Books were browsed and bought in a bookshop. ‘Computing’ happened three feet in front of the television into which you’d plugged your ZX-81. Video games were played in a seedy arcade. Listening to your music library happened wherever your parents had set up their ‘Music Centre’ – the enormous record-and-cassette-tape-playing monster that has now been replaced by the ubiquitous iPod. Even living itself was location-specific, and took place either in the kitchen or the living-room, probably the only two rooms where your mum and dad thought it was acceptable to turn on the central heating.

Place continues to evolve. With Amazon Locker, the world’s largest online retailer has decided that even the home is not sacrosanct. The items you’ve bought from them can now simply be delivered to you as an individual – wherever you are.

As technology changes, so the idea of place is gradually becoming more fluid and more personal.

Place feels less and less like something external with which we interact.

Instead, it has started travelling with us.

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Belgium, man! Belgium!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy tape boxed setDiary date: 20th March, 1985

On this day back in 1985 I am not happy. One of my cassette tapes has broken, beyond even the ability of a rewinding pencil to repair it.

Understand please that this was not just any tape. To record it five years earlier in 1980, I had plugged a tiny microphone into my portable cassette recorder, and propped it up against the speaker of my bedside radio alarm clock. The squeaky-sounding reward for my efforts had eventually been the full second series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I then listened to on a fairly perpetual loop every night for years afterwards. The lost episode was the one in which Zaphod utters the most obscene word in the universe (‘Belgium’, in case you were wondering – fortunately here on Earth we don’t know what it means) – not once but twice.

No such trouble these days, with the entire five Hitchhiker radio series available for download from the likes of the iTunes store, stored in the cloud if I need to access any of them, and syncable across as many devices as I can afford.

It can feel as if this sort of ubiquitous availability is somehow also equivalent to  permanence – that Douglas Adams‘ work is now saved and secured forever. But that’s surely a mistake. Who’s to say what the world will be like years from now, and whether we’re even capable of building a digital infrastructure that will stand the test of time?

Interesting then, that when the Long Now Foundation – an organisation dedicated to long-term thinking and the originators of the wonderful 10,000 year clock – were considering how best to preserve a record of the world’s many disappearing languages, they decided to etch the information onto a nickel disk in addition to committing it to the potentially ephemeral ones and zeroes of the cloud. Copies of the disk will be sent off into the centuries to come in the hands of individual owners across the world – a physical, distributed, analogue storage system far more capable of surviving a journey of thousands of years into into the future than anything the digital world currently has to offer.

If we want to avoid on a grander scale the kind of sad end that befell my cassette, we’re going to have to work a lot harder at managing both our data and the platforms that allow us to access it. Within a year or two – possibly less – the technology required to play my remaining Hitchhiker tapes will probably have departed the house – unlikely ever to return.