Why Has Digital Gone Bad So Often?

(this page is a part of the essay I wrote for the Open Government Book. For copyright info, see the introduction)


Why Has Digital Gone Bad So Often?

There are several reasons for this mess, but a particularly important one is our ignorance as a society. Software is still so new in our culture that most of us (including many people who consider themselves “experts” because they spend lots of time using office suites, computer games, or social networks) haven’t actually realized yet the roles played by formats and protocols, and how they can run against our interests. Consider how people refer to office files.

Nobody would talk about a handwritten letter by mentioning the name of the pen used to write it; saying “I sent you a Bic letter” or a “Mont-Blanc letter” would be a sure way to have everyone laugh at you. Yet most people regularly say “I’ll send you a PowerPoint” or “I need to check the figures in that Excel file,” which is the same thing, but with no embarrassment. Such phrases would trigger concern if the public knew why and how software is different from Obama’s pen. Not only do people use the software without regard for compatibility and future access, but worse still, they make schoolchildren addicts to that software because “everybody else does it,” or to learn what advertising says to be the best the industry offers, or to “have more opportunities.” This is at least counterproductive, if not actually dangerous.

In every generation, automobile companies go out of business. It becomes difficult to buy spare parts for existing cars, but at least the disappearance of the product line has no effect on your ability to buy and drive cars in the future. You don’t lose all your memories of trips made with the old car, or have more trouble dealing with the businesses you drove to. And your new car need not be “compatible” with any other, old or new. But when a software company goes out of business, or simply discontinues a product, all the documents you created with it could go out of your reach for good. All it takes is a switch to a new computer. (Modern proprietary software licenses make it hard to run an old program on a new computer even if they’re technically compatible.) The software is similar to a nuclear plant without any waste management policy, or to depleted uranium weapons: they hurt people who weren’t there when they were used, for a long time afterward. A company or government agency that uses software in nonstandard formats constrains without any real reason not only its own choices, but those of everybody who interacts with it for all of history.

Software developers have two ways to make their users come back for a new version of their programs. One is to keep writing software that’s actually better than the previous version: faster, easier to use, more flexible, and with support for new contexts such as the Web. The other way is not to struggle for improved quality, but to create secret file formats or protocols and change them without a really valid reason every year. People who stick to the old versions of the software find they can’t do business with people who bought the new version, so everyone is forced to upgrade.

Once a movie, contract, or business report has been saved in a format that can be read by only one software program, you can forget copyright. That document now belongs to the developer or company that developed that program. If you still want it, you must accept their conditions. That’s how Word/Excel/PowerPoint and AutoCAD became de facto monopolists in their respective markets: their file formats, not the software itself, are secret. People who were already using those programs could not get rid of them without losing the files they had already created and distributed to other people, who, in turn, were forced to buy the same programs to open them, and so on. Had the file formats been really usable with other programs, no one would have cared about those programs being secret. Which is why I declared at the beginning of this chapter that software is less sophisticated than pens, because pens create none of these problems. What they produce is 100% guaranteed compatible with all other pens and sheets of paper in the world. You don’t need to own the same pens as Obama to read what he writes, or to write a letter to him. There are two foundations for this openness: first, pens are tools that are completely independent from the document format, which in their case is the alphabet, that is the shape and meaning of the characters in which languages are written. Second, alphabets are not secret and no one needs permission to use them. Software should work in the same open way.

Standards are meant to ensure that data can be accessed in a variety of ways so that no single program or software vendor is indispensable. There’s an art and a science to writing standards, of course. If they’re ambiguous, incomplete, or poorly written, they won’t do their job. That’s why standards committees sign up a wide variety of experts to write standards, and it takes years to do.

Formats and protocols are often more important than software, because most programs are worthless without other programs to talk to (imagine if you were the only person in the world with an email program) or without data to process (like if you had a word processor that couldn’t open or save a file). We run software to manage data, not the other way around. The only way to guarantee that our data remains ours, and always immediately available, is to store it in file formats which are really independent from any single software product.

Go to part 5: The Huge Positive Potential of Digital Technologies