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The illusion of infinite storage and digital legacy
Hello — I feel like this week in technology was like waking up on another planet where the gravity is much more punishing than on Earth. I am absolutely sick to death of getting an update of what Sam Altman is doing every twelve hours. Talk about something else ffs.
I know that I am definitely part of the problem in that I’m one of the people who won’t stop talking about AI and its grand-high creator (Altman) so this week I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t. Instead we’re going to cover:
Google and Twitter’s new plans to delete old accounts
Software companies are fickle; the internet is not a good storage system; please stop using it for your memories
The most desperate among us will only leave a legacy consisting of a pile of old Apple products — including their latest overpriced headset
On your internet travels, you may have seen that Google will soon delete inactive accounts that are more than two years old. This was even going to include the Youtube videos associated with these accounts, but there was significant outcry over the unfortunate hole this would leave in the internet, so Google have decided to let us have our culture-defining videos. They’re so generous.
Elon Musk also announced recently that accounts which which have been inactive for ‘several years’ (whatever that means) will be deleted. The common theme running through the replies to this announcement is ‘pls don’t delete dead people’s accounts’.
Yes that’s right: the internet is not the bottomless storage pit we once thought it was. In a way, this is a hard realisation to get your head around, especially if you’re the kind of human who fears their own mortality (which is pretty much all of us). Sure, you may have already accepted that you’re going to die, and that’s really great for you — congrats on being so mature I GUESS. But: I think that there’s still a temptation to assume we can live on, in part, via some kind of digital legacy.
This is a fair assumption, especially considering how much stuff you leave behind on the internet without even trying. This article in Technology Review describes a woman mourning her dead Mum, and remembering her by looking through old message threads.
“Caplan, a researcher at Data & Society and an assistant professor at Duke University, guards her text thread with her mom fiercely. The conversation is saved in multiple ways, but she panics each time she gets a new phone, worried it might disappear.”
But a huge problem here is that one of Caplan’s chief mourning methods relies on the continued delivery of myriad digital services that she has no control over. Her mum’s messages, emails, and voice notes are stored on servers which are run by companies who, technically, do not need to care over the data left behind by dead people. Companies like Google have shifting business interests to satisfy, so the indefinite storage of other people’s data is definitely not a priority, and Caplan kind of just has to hope that none of this stuff will disappear.
In Google’s account purge announcement, they say that a huge driver of this decision was security, and the reasons they give are pretty flimsy. I think it’s more likely that they’re just freeing up server space to save money. They’d obviously have to do something like this eventually; they can’t keep flattening large chunks of Europe to accommodate their data centres forever.
What’s annoying about all this is how web2 platforms, for a very long time, kind of spun an illusion of infinite inconsequential storage, even though its completely unrealistic. Did you really think your old Facebook photos were going to be there forever? Well they’re NOT. I’m guessing you don’t want to look at them anyway because experiencing that level of cringe would likely kill you.
Just FYI, I don’t do paywalls; I’m just here to write. But if you can afford to support me in using Substack to try out my ideas, then you can donate £4 a month or £40 a year :)
Using a service to back up data (like iCloud or something) is just paying to store your precious digital legacy on someone else’s computer. I’m not 100% sure how we got here, but services that take your money just so that you can ‘back up’ data represent the most deceptive part of the infinite storage solution: that your own hardware is not good enough to store your own data. This means we will happily jettison our personal memorabilia into third-party storage systems that are notoriously unreliable. In 2019, Myspace failed to take proper care over a major migration project and therefore lost twelve years worth of media. If you ever had a Myspace account, it’s probably not there anymore. Just this year, Imgur announced they would be deleting content that is not associated with an account, which will leave a gaping meme hole in Reddit.
Personally, I don’t even trust Dropbox — a company who’s sole purpose is to store data on behalf of users — to actually keep my files forever. All of my important stuff is backed up to hard drives that I bought myself and I keep in my house. Is there really anything wrong with just doing that? What if my house catches fire, you ask? Leave me alone, ffs.
The drive to build a digital legacy is futile, horrifically shallow, and bad for the environment. It is of course very easy to dump streams and streams of content into a giant bucket and then forget about it because the costs are invisible and/or diffused in fiendish ways. Also, the illusion of infinite storage and online permanence means that you don’t need to become rich and influential to be remembered with a statue or a hospital wing with your name on it. You can just make a TikTok that shows people how cool you are. And that’s fine, but prepare for it to be deleted at some point.
I think that the need to be remembered is intrinsically linked with the need to stay relevant. This is why the ones among us who are most desperate to postpone their own deaths by building a legacy are tech bros who spend all their time over-hyping the latest gimmicks (like AI or crypto), and submitting themselves to a grindset mentality. They build their mediocre personalities around predicting glorified futures, or purporting to disrupt whatever path civilisation is currently on. They crash head-first into our Twitter feeds and tell us that if we don’t get in on this Big New Thing right now, we will become societally illegible and die of malnutrition. They talk about creating change, but always in such a rigid way: they always say that the latest gimmick is going to change things forever; they dream of a new status quo, which will also be ‘the new permanent’.
But that’s ridiculous, because nothing’s permanent. The very technology they tend to get so excited about is often cumbersome, rudimentary, and not fit for purpose — and its form fluctuates so rapidly that it’s vulnerable to becoming obsolete or at least extremely niche in a very short space of time. The tech bro never predicted that ‘the new permanent’ would entail people exactly like them ‘upgrading’ their iPhones every year, and thus leaving a legacy that consists only of old Apple devices.
Speaking of Apple devices, let’s look at how their new $3500 headset fits in to all this
There was a time when consumer electronics were more like individual tools that served certain purposes, and less like a net of connected devices that form a larger system — which is what they are now. Before, if you went to switch off your TV or PC, and it stayed on, you’d be pretty freaked out. Nowadays, everything seems to be stuck on ambient mode. Your phone is always on; your laptop is always on; your smart watch is always on. It’s comforting to know that those things are always going to be there, ready for you to use. The internet is also always on, which is why it’s fair to assume that it should be able to store everything you need indefinitely. We know that we are going to die one day, but at least the machines will keep going.
The allure of ‘always on’ tech pushes us to create products and devices that are less and less physically disruptive to our daily lives. Gadgets are more like appendages, and less like new appliances that you have to find room for in your house. This is in part why smart watches are so popular: you just wear it and it passively collects health data about you so you can study it later and incrementally become a more optimised human. You don’t notice it after a while. In the technology acceptance model, the smart watch has moved from having “perceived usefulness” to “perceived ease-of-use”, where using it does not require any effort. Technology that you do not notice does not ‘change things forever’ in any meaningful way — it’s just another channel through which money drains out of your bank account.
This is exactly why Apple’s headset, the Vision Pro, is the most laughable new piece of technology I’ve seen in a while. Let’s put aside the price — we all knew it was going to be expensive, so let’s just get over it. The glaring high-level problem with this headset is that it’s just another way for humans to assign more skin surface area (which should be touching grass) to a piece of hardware, while making technologists richer.
The other problem is, it will never get to being effortless to use, because it does not meet the ‘always on’ standard. You have to physically affix it to yourself, and it’s cumbersome and makes you look like a dweeb. I honestly do not see the point in any kind of headset, whether VR or AR or both, that is for anything other than gaming. Apple have spent years designing a piece of hardware that does everything your iPhone does, but in a much more annoying way. Who would want this? I will never in a million years default to strapping into a headset, plugging it in (yes you have to plug it in), and blinking at it, just so I can check my messages.
This, again, is an example of taking something that was traditionally meant for play, and forcing it into a productive work context. I see this going one of two ways: people may try the Vision Pro and say ‘yes this, but easier’ and then we will see the development of wearable technology that is even more discrete, and that you probably can’t remove — we’re already seeing this with Neuralink. OR, as has been the case for decades, no on will ever care enough about mixed reality to make it ubiquitous. Let’s hope it’s the second one. I really can’t be bothered to learn gestures that I only do with my eyes.