A Brave New World..

August 03, 2020  •  Leave a Comment


As we struggle out of the lockdown we start to come to terms with what may be a whole new way of working.

Long before the internet expanded, people working at home, with a brand new PC and an A4 printer, were predicted to herald the end of over the counter printing. More recently the 3D printer was expected to be in everyone’s house so that rather than buy anything, people would just make it themselves. Well life is never as certain as the pundits predict.

So now more people will be working from home through necessity, in a brand new virtual world that would have been science fantasy even ten years ago, meeting in computer chat rooms, collaborating in cyberspace.

This may be a practical solution short term if large numbers of office workers can no longer be accommodated in close quarters and businesses may be attracted to potential savings in high city centre rents. But is it sustainable in the longer term when the full implications of the changes have not been thought through? There may be more at risk that the loss of the business lunch.

People are social by nature, and society has developed by co operation and personal interaction. We also learn from that close contact through observation and example, and in so many ways pick up pointers from each other which were not directly sought or expected.

This process of serendipity has been very central to human progess since one caveman watched another banging rocks together and thought of a way of making basic tools.

Thinking outside of the box rather than being constrained by it is the key to evolution at every level. But is that going to be encouraged, or even allowed, in an environment that sees what it wants to see, and shows what it wants to show. 

Group chats with long lost relatives may be fine to exchange news and gossip without the inconvenience of actually meeting them, but it may not be ideal for a progressive, forward looking working environment, where you may only meet the people in your group.

One of the limitations of the internet is you only find what you are looking for, and this self confirming circle can produce quite negative results. While it’s great to have so much information at your fingertips, if you don’t know which button to push it’s like taking a dab in the dark, and picking things that you can’t actually see and touch is potentially flawed as we already know through experience. 

In a world when we are supposedly trying to cut down unnecessary journeys, it is perfect madness to have a large percentage of delivered goods returned as a matter of course.

Even working from home, office workers will still needs goods and services delivered somewhere as there are still plenty of things that cannot be provided by purely digital information. The often predicted demise of paper is still a long way off and while the specifications may be changing, the need for hard copy is still very much with us. One of the reasons is that information still needs to be recorded and preserved so it can be kept and shared over time, not just with the temporary members of a chat room.

Printed papers have been with us and preserved for centuries, and hand written manuscripts for many centuries before that. Digital information has no such track record and many experts fear it may prove to be far more fragile.

Backing up and storing all the vast amounts of digital information in different file formats is enough of a challenge, but there is also the problem that you still have to sort through it all to find anything.

It’s surprising how quickly the general public has accepted digital information without question, and more worrying that it is assumed to be indestructible. The fact that they will commit valuable items, and even entire life history to small pieces of metal and plastic, reveals a faith in technology which is way beyond actual reliability. 

The continual deterioration of digital files through saving and transfer is a potential nightmare described as data rot. And as nobody has any form of digital format older than fifty years, no one really knows if it will survive more than a generation.

Now that the technology is literally in the hands of the general public world wide it is much more of an issue because there is, apart from the basic binary mathematics, no standard for language or coding to interpret the information contained.

Of course out of all of the millions of images uploaded daily on social networking sites, if the vast majority of cute kittens and culinary masterpieces were lost to future generations, it would not be such a great tragedy for human history.

But on a personal note there are things that are worth preserving, and records that need to be passed on to generations to come, and for that there is one obvious solution and that is print.

In the light of this I am designing a storage device that will be able to contain these priceless prints. It will be simple, affordable, and made from recyclable material. It will be easily accessed and quickly searchable. I am going to call it a shoe box. I think I am on a winner here. Just have to work out what to do with all the shoes !

In contrast, we have yet to see digital information survive more than a generation, and worse experience difficulties in transferring and sharing it with others. 

Apart from the short term unreliability of digital information, the longer term concern is literally how long it will last. This has two aspects. There is the potential degradation of data over time and continual save and resaving. This is recognised, but impossible to quantify. The second aspect is the obsolescence of the software and hardware need to read and reproduce the data. 

But being able to use it doesn’t mean you have to understand it, much like driving a car doesn’t necessitate an in depth knowledge of the internal combustion engine. However, when there is a problem, like it won’t start or is making an unfamiliar noise, then you have to take it to an expert for advice. 

So the newly created generation of home workers may have mastered Zoom, but how are they going to save all the information other than playing back endless video episodes and editing the important bits. Will we see a new role for the copy typist turning all those words of wisdom into word documents ? So many things have not been thought through in the rush to form a short term solution.

There also many things that cannot be properly be viewed. Large detailed plans, lots of lists of figures all become difficult if scrolling through a limited viewing device, and the potential for missed information is increased. Putting all of the practical issues aside, there is of course one fundamental quality in favour of print, and that is the shere pleasure of holding something substantial and permanent, not a fleeting view of a screen grab or snap shot. Ironically as it may same, in the future the very fact that we are all doing so much on line in the virtual world may make actual print more respected and valued. 

Print still has a future as long as there are professionals available to preserve it. To misquote William Shakespeare “Oh brave new world that has such people in IT”



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