Sunday, 11 March 2012

vows of poverty

This is sort of a missive on the change from the tangible to the intangible. While what I have owned may become increasingly ethereal the concept of ownership sort of hasn't.

One of the things which many religions seem to have is the notion that
giving up material possessions is a benefit to the spirit. The ideal of being a free spirit with nothing more than the clothes on your back is appealing. It makes sense in some ways as the more stuff you own the harder it is to keep it clean, safe and housed.

Over the last 10 years or more I've increasingly moved over to a digital world where the things I own are of lesser consequence than the record of them. Increasingly my writings are digital, my photographs are digitised (even the large format negatives). Increasingly its not about what gear I have (which camera, which film, what stereo, which car) its instead about the content. Digital has sort of helped me move from being about the gear to being about the experiences.

This has been facilitated starting back in about the year 2000 with my move away from desktop PC's to a preference for ultralight laptops. The lighter the better, the faster the better. Desktop users often criticised my move saying that I'd get better bang for buck with desktop PC's, which is of course undeniable.

What I would of course be is chained to the location, and for someone who did not live in the same place for long it quickly became apparent that having less stuff was indeed a release of burden.

The internet of course extended the usefulness of computers, so my PC has extended from being a typewriter and programming tool (essentially another sort of typewriter, writing things for other computers to use). One could argue that without internet access connecting computers together they would be far far less useful tools.

{note: for the paranoid Mac users out there, PC means Personal Computer. So a Mac is a PC just as a Windows OS is a PC or a Linux box can be your Personal Computer}

The nature of internet access of course shapes how we see mobility. It may be less than obvious for young folk today to grasp this point, but before there was WiFi one connected to the internet via fixed line connections (be they dialup, ISDN, ADSL or via your phone). We still thought very much of the internet as being a connection for transfer (email, chatting, skype) and access to information (websites).

Even email was on a server only for transfer and you'd used POP (Post Office Protocol and then later IMAP) to get and then transfer your mail to your PC where it became mine.

So we get back to my point ... the ownership of what I'm interested in, my documents, my pictures, my emails, my receipts, my business dealings. On my PC they remain mine. Mine to access at my choosing, and my responsibility to look after (backups). I have transferred my stuff from machine to machine over twenty years and via a variety of media.

Not only is it mine to access any time,
but by having it in my possession I also get something else: privacy. I can be more sure that noone is looking at my data because I have it on my machine.

Back for a moment to the Internet Access, in the last 5 years there has been quite a revolution in Internet Access, particularly access to internet via phones.

Things have transformed from using your phone to allow your PC to access the internet to your phone being a PC in itself.

Seriously, my humble Nokia (well I say that to keep the iPhone users happy, its really quite powerful) has more grunt than my first IBM Thinkpad laptop.

My IBM had a 266Mhz CPU and when I bought it had a massive 64MB of memory on it. With that I could write documents, design and publish web pages, edit photographs, run a photo scanner, and use Skype telephony to make calls via the internet.

My Nokia here has about double that memory, can load an external 16GIG micro SD card, and do much of what I was doing on my PC ... heck you can all sorts of things if you want to harness this power, you could even run Windows 3.1 on it.

Clearly more phones are becoming more powerful and bringing internet access to become so accessible as to increasingly blur the bondaries between stuff you have and stuff you don't have.

For instance, I wonder how many people now directly upload their photographs to Flickr, have their documents on Google Docs, their email only on Gmail (Yahoo, Hotmail or yadda) and what ever manner of stuff only on 'cloud' based services. Heck internet access is so pervasive and nearly totally dependable that you would even wonder what the hell would you keep it (your own data) for yourself?

Well for one thing, as soon as you stop paying for these services (such as Flickr professional) they stop giving you access to them (don't forget to back them up ... and how long will that take?).

Increasingly these devices are just about useless without the online services back them up and make them useful. Apple "voice recognition" only works when you are online (and paying for that data).

Its essentially a massive subscription industry. As long as you subscribe you get to have access to your stuff.

But this is not how it was for most of my computing history.

Sure, most people will want the latest and greatest device. Having one of the new Tablets / Smartphones will be tantalizingly dangled before you, offered as "free" as part of the contract to pay for the "service". So for as long as you are willing to pay your data will be there ... or will it?

Nokia just recently announced the closure of Ovi Share, and Google has recently withdrawn Google Notebook. Many new phone / tablet systems like Microsofts new incarnation with Nokia as well as Google Android and Apple iPhone iPad encourage you (nay often constrain you) to have nothing on the phone and everything on the cloud. This seems odd when you consider how powerful these devices are. So while these things may seem attractive they are not without penalty.
  • Do your care about that data?
  • Can you afford to loose that data?
  • Can you migrate that data somewhere else (do you know how and where to?)?
Heck, even the devices themselves become useless without the 'net access'. In contrast my laptop still has its software, my phone can still use IMAP or POP to access any mail service I point it to and I still have all my documents, photos and emails.

So while it looks like I have nothing much when I'm walking through the airport with my laptop, I do actually have my stuff. Like the ideals of the monks freeing themselves from the tyranny of ownership with my move to digital life, I have not as a result become bereft of my stuff because a free service I entrusted it to has vanished.

So when you look at the contract you may take up for latest and greatest, ask yourself this question:
is it liberating you or is it working towards impoverishing you.
it could be that you're starting to take vows of poverty ... which aren't even free

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