Data: What Was / Will Be Always Lost

When we look at humans and their progress, it is the story of information which was condensed to become human-knowledge. It is easy to overlook the tools invented along the way to preserve and retain this knowledge easily. We have gone from writing letters on sand and mud tablets, to storing entire libraries within a grain of sand. Each one of these tools of storing information has its benefits and drawbacks – the latter is often neglected only until the next new medium and method becomes available.

Atleast for the things in the physical realm – paper, sculptures, carvings have a longer chance of surviving if they find the right environment. Even in its degradation – physical data, I feel, is more forgiving. There is real effort involved in destroying information represented in a tangible medium. More time, if not less, is also required to create this information in the first place. It is possible to salvage from physical ruins which could only be created by thousands over decades, to see traces of drawings that once a playful child scratched on a rock, to find an act embedded on a path or the foundation of a house as a footprint, or smoothened by wear – all of these convey some part of the information about that place and time. The physical world provides a greater range of media to leave information into – and it is always available and being written on.

Language is that offshoot of the physical realm towards abstraction, which is the most familiar to us. Abstraction offers speed, efficiency and fluidity, but also relies on more complicated and specific tools to create and unpack it. The tools themselves can be lost, or become unrecognizable. Even within language, one could make a scale from what is the most tangible (writing) to what is the most intangible (speech) – another reason why we might have a greater number of written material available to us (even if we might not interpret it correctly) than spoken languages – this applies especially to the pre-electronic media era. Interestingly, the electronic media could be considered to be another distant cousin of language itself.  This abstract medium offers the most utility in storing the more intangible of our physical experiences (like sound and vision).

Digital data, to me, is fragile. And even though it enamours and offers a great convenience of packing so much information available at the speed of light, it stands on a structure which doesn’t take much to fail. It is not just the issue of data’s validity and accessibility, but also of the methods to retrieve it. Firstly, data in itself can get destroyed because of environmental factors and physical damage to the storage medium – both of these, even at a reduced rate can cause the data to decay to a point of becoming completely unreadable or inaccessible. And even if these factors are being accounted for, there is always the common risk of hack attacks, password lockouts, overwrites and accidental deletions. Not that the equivalents of these risks do not exist for physical media, the intangibility here allows for a greater level of ease for all of these to occur. And then there is also the physical world this intangibility relies on. It takes one mass-hack, power grid failure, a skipped backup, a broken phone, a mysterious account shutdown or just a forgotten password to realize how distanced we might be from this realm than we really think. Just like language, digital data offers an ease to transmit information compared to other physical media, but it can also quickly die out if there is no one left around to speak or understand it – this is the case of obsolete software and code, where we lack the tools and the hardware to even read the data from just a couple of years back.

Another way information is lost, especially at a larger scale of availability, is when it becomes too common. In this scenario, everyone assumes that someone else will have the data saved, but no one really does. This is becoming frequently visible in the digital domain as large networks like the internet begin to age. Closely related to this information loss is the common practice of removal on purpose.

But all of these issues are known, and we are still riding on trust, now attempting to decentralize data storage – which might just be the best possible way for us to retain the information we are generating at an ever increasing rate. Most of us do not think that the most personal of our chats, memories, movements, images, secrets and thoughts are residing on multiple hardddisks across the world, hooked in and being swapped out constantly in a warehouse.

But, I also think of an unknown genius of our times, meeting an untimely death, leaving behind thoughts and ideas locked up in a disk or a cloud account. These will never be revealed to others even when some services allow for retrieval, not many will bother and sifting through a person’s lifetime’s worth of data will atleast take another lifetime. His ideas would have had some fighting chance to be found, if they were written up in a diary and hidden in a hole in the wall.

If you are for maintaining your own or humankind’s legacy, and in preserving it, you will not enjoy the ride that’s ahead – no doubt that the tools and media will definitely improve, but a lot would have already been lost by then and inbetween the increments. If you are concerned about privacy, you can take comfort in the fact that your data will eventually be lost. Someday, this post too would become obsolete enough to be moved to a sole backup disk which is not cared for enough, and all that I have written here will be lost.

No, There Need Not Be An App for That

In this post, I would like to talk about applications for digital devices, or anything on a screen for that matter. This topic does not really require an introduction like how it did ten years back, and most of this has been mentioned in places elsewhere but I will ramble because I must. Applications have managed to become a part of almost everyone’s lives, whether they wanted it or not – even the ones who were once very anti-tech find themselves staring at a screen for hours everyday (my mother who once used to blame the computer to be the source of all evil now cannot get by without YouTube and WhatsApp). Since our relationship with technology has changed, so must the degree at which we analyze and criticize it.

For Users:
Privacy –
Our devices have a good number of apps; and apart from the two or three which are essential to going about our lives, most of them are what we did not use after that one time we needed a discount code, or because everyone else was using it and we did not want to feel left out. It is not possible to use all the applications on your phone and function as a normal productive human being, as often promised by their developers. There is more to this compromise – these applications linger on with their bloating updates, keeping an eye over what we are doing till we either uninstall them ourselves or lose/break our phones. Enough has been discussed on this and I would not drag this along further but, in short, – the service never really ends with the transaction.
Attention –
Even if we can view more of what is going on in our screens than ever before, our focus on tasks is diminishing – more tabs and more sources of notifications lead to a complete saturation of our senses and attention. And then, there are apps for improving productivity and focus as well, or that is what they claim. Some have even crossed over on to keeping one enriched through audio while we are doing some other task – I am not really sure how much of that content is retained in our minds compared to sitting down and, say, reading an actual book. All of this seems to perfectly complement a population that is getting increasingly dependent on focus enhancing medication. This only gets worse when expensive smart e-learning packages are sold to institutions – these are nothing but more applications, each with its own set of distractions aimed at the youngest of our populations.
Life-
With that, we have come to a point where the interactions of our existence, directly or indirectly, rely on a digital application of some sort – whether the goal is achieved by downloading an app for a particular task, or is realized by going through multiple layers of digital media to achieve a goal (an example would be – turning your computer on, dealing with its interface and then pulling up a browser that leads you to the website delivering the solution/information required). In this flood, our modern and smart living experience is nothing but us looking at one screen and then moving onto another. The real world just doesn’t have room in our lives anymore and it is just not us who is to blame but also the creators who see an app as an end, or at least a supplementary essential, rather than as a means. People have often talked about how real conversations do not exist when everyone is looking at their phones, but I wish to prod this along even further – do real conversations even exist nowadays without phones? Do most conversations not eventually spiral towards someone pulling out a phone to look up something that would make things more interesting? And when the conversation is in an exciting scenario or leads to a great moment, the need to capture it through photos becomes essential (the real world interaction leads to a great experience which must now be put into and validated through the application realm). The phone gets pulled out regardless. Not to forget that the phone and its make also influences how we are perceived.

For Designers:
To designers and product developers, apps seem like an intelligent & quick solution to what were previously insurmountable problems. The evaluation of a product’s worth is mostly centered around the digital experiences it has to provide, even when that isn’t primarily the focus of that service. The seamlessness of its interaction with the real world and its changing dynamics is one of the key barometers to make this said experience great. This seamlessness also involves the success of that application to keep the user absorbed/pulled in within its ecosystem, away from other ecosystems (which also includes the real world). This competition for attention is a deadly game we are playing with our society and is not really expected when every other design group uses feel-good words like ‘social responsibility’ etc.
I feel, this is something we are not talking about as a community, maybe because of how much it has simplified our living and has achieved a status where it need not be questioned. Also, not to forget, that a lot has been built upon this and a huge industry with its numerous specialized jobs depends on the screens which keep us distracted and unsatiated. For every young designer, having visualized apps and interactions to some extent has become almost like a rite-of-passage. User interface/experience and visual communication design, fields with immense opportunities for research, have somehow gotten fixated for too long in this trap of the app – everyone is focusing on ‘crafting’ these experiences and great products in the form of phone or tablet applications. It is almost as if these designers, by their own will, have forced themselves and the experiences they seek into the guidelines set by the corporate giants. But, if at the end of the day, one is held hostage by a leading device platform developer, and if that is where most of the bread and butter is at, how can one really solve problems beyond the screen? This is an honest question – in a walled garden with a limited number of playing blocks provided (to which the platform developer regularly adds or removes), can you really innovate for the real world beyond a certain point?
If the ever-present and unquestioned goal is to push for a digital product that solves real problems, all the research and the decorative post-its are, thus, useless.

Businesses & Products:
New and old businesses alike, whether big or small, fall prey to the app trap. The reasons are many: it might be because of their desire to try out a new technology without a huge investment or risk, or a push to keep up with the times, or just finding the app-marketplace to be a level ground when competing against big players. The last one probably is stemmed in the overnight successes of independent app developers that became multi-billion dollar corporations. Even within the established digital services domain, some businesses have already ditched their online websites completely for apps while others are slowly phasing them out or are downgrading their capabilities. The reasons for these are both economical and socio-technological, and hence the snowball of applications only gets bigger with every passing year.
One does not need apps to control or manage light-bulbs, shower-heads or keys – these objects serve their own purpose by themselves. A device with apps for that is the intangible equivalent of a purse with all the keys to your home, your passport, your bank account info, your nail cutter, hair trimmer and your toolbox – all of it, in one place, all the time. You have to carry it around and take these objects out every time you need them, must have it all in there regardless. Losing your purse also gives away all of these to someone who finds them, or at least takes them away from your reach, even if the loss is temporary and recoverable. Just because there is no physical weight to it does not mean there is no weight to it.
Apps also encourage obsolescence – while physical parts might be, to some extent, easier to source and create (or at least replace) – code is difficult to break into for repairs by an average user. Open source alternatives completely depend on how impactful the product was during its run and they too might stop once the interest of the community dies out or the overall use of this gets absorbed and closed off as a small feature by the larger fish (discussed below). This effect magnifies if you have a physical product that relies on an app to run. Imagine having a perfectly functioning ‘smart’ light-bulb which cannot function anymore because the application is out of development; or the application now only serves a newer line of products; or it works only on newer operating systems for your devices. To turn that damn bulb back on again, what would you throw and what would you replace?
Apps should be replaced by relevant interfaces that only become salient to the product’s scenario of use and context. And there need not be an app for everything. Even in situations where an application or a digital experience seems to be the absolute necessary for a product or a service, it need not be so at all. All the designer needs to do is step back and look at things through a new perspective.

The Unified Interface & Its Coming:
Usually, there would be a software capable of performing a given set of tasks, anything that would expand its capabilities would be done through a plugin or another software that would use the application in a certain manner. These handy plugins or widgets are suicidal by nature in these times, because once they gather enough user-base, they are rapidly absorbed by the system they rely on or work within. Things which are the USP of these smaller products get picked up and added as extra features to the main apps they rely on. Take for example Maps, you can now call for a cab, lookup places to eat through this single application on your device – sure it might rely on another installed app for this feature to be available, but once enough people start to use these features on this ‘mother’ app, the economic incentives of piggybacking for these food and taxi aggregators become high enough for them to discontinue their standalone applications. Right now, these things happen slowly within an ecosystem or in between applications that work with each other, but soon this will expand into entire operating systems. What we are headed towards is an experience where independent (not independent in the development sense) software would not exist – it would be the part of the operating system where it shows up only when needed.
The focus of the industry is also on VR or personal home assistants, but the song remains the same for this new medium. In fact, it only gets murkier with this – the simple action of whipping out a phone will be completely replaced by the presence which is actually beyond one’s control, we would be incapable to really turn it off. It will soon extend itself to the devices we will interact with or shall be present through someone else we interact with (asking people to put down their phones nowadays is an escalated situation by itself, imagine asking someone to turn off their personal assistant or such entities). The user will become an extension of the interface. The strings of control just became tighter – good luck coming up with socially responsible designs for that.


So simply put, things look bad and will only get worse. And I am not really big on changing this, because there is no other way either – it is just that we can only be cautious and know about the consequences of what has us smitten. The signs of it already show up indirectly through the court hearings, political conspiracies and corporate leaks we frequently read about. Such is progress and it does not come without sacrifices. Behind all disappointment is a hype, behind all utopias is absolute control.

Cliché – ‘Feel Good’ Business Terms

Whenever my job search takes me to a website of a company, there are a few words I absolutely expect to see – the careers section is, of course, the one I am looking for but then it comes with the others, sometimes nested within and sometimes they sit right around it. Businesses trying to put on a human face is an old and overused act, but since these words span the size, business ethics, industry and ideology of the business it is something worth mentioning. That said, these terms are unavoidable in these times where almost every one is projecting their virtue but my reason for writing this, as a designer, is that we can do perfectly well without any of it – it is an unnecessary practice.

Diversity and Inclusion – Usually shows a person of color or someone in an ethnic attire (or wearing some part of it) standing in a corporate boardroom surrounded by people in suits or business casuals. This has almost become an icon for diversity for websites of businesses. It reveals a fantasy of the inclusion and the ratios to which it is desired. Never have I come across such a photo of one white guy in a room full of, say for example, Indians – I am sure some of these big companies have offices in Mumbai where expats work. Is this inclusion only based on the race or the sexual orientation of a person (the latter only when it is very much visible in a photo)? Why do they miss out on the countless people who have a disability but still are a part of the workforce?

Sustainability – Any human activity, whether it is the production of goods or service, is unsustainable towards the environment. Sustainability is just a word for lean production practices where costs are saved while also avoiding penalties from the EPA or its equivalent. Yet, places where these regulatory authorities are missing, things are very different. The only thing that is being sustained are the profits, nothing else. It only gets worse as the businesses scale up in size. I think a better and more honest alternative for sustainability should be ‘damage control’.

Corporate Social Responsibility – This is an old one and most people know about it – photos of kids from a third world country in a school equal tax breaks.

It is often tempting as someone creating content to be carried away by these terms. Though no casual client or applicant would check whether the statements made are true or not, but this practice does add to the overall redundant and ever-growing clutter that most information on the internet comes with. And it gets all the more painful when some really sophisticated design firms can be seen doing this.