How Do Humans Cope With Unlimited Digital Storage?


Saturday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Ken Thompson has an automobile which he helped design. Unlike most automobiles, it has neither speedometer, nor gas gauge, nor any of the other numerous idiot lights which plague the modern driver. Rather, if the driver makes any mistake, a giant “?” lights up in the center of the dashboard. “The experienced driver,” says Thompson, “will usually know what’s wrong. – Anonymous

I was browsing through some of Jeffreys Copeland and Haemer’s articles and came across one that talked about Zipf’s law, which leads to the idea that words you use a lot are short.

That makes sense – we’ve all listened to people who speak using big words and say nothing worth hearing.

As Churchill said, “short words are best, and the old ones, when short, are best of all.”

A few, seemingly unrelated things have come together in a way that seems worth thinking about.

First, have you ever thought about what the concept of digitalisation is going to do to the world around us?

There’s a 3Ds concept floating around, something that’s tries to capture the energy transition we’re going through – focused around decarbonisation, digitalisation and decentralisation.

And there’s another D – for dematerialisation somewhere as well.

But, does digitisation save energy?

This came home to me as I thought about email.

For one reason or the other I keep trying out terminal based mail programs like mutt.

What using one of these shows you is the amount of rubbish you get in the typical email.

It’s all prettification code wrapped around often forgettable content.

But, do you delete any of those emails – in these days where you can simply archive everything?

I don’t – and that got me thinking.

A single sheet of paper produces apparently 0.0092 pounds of CO2.

The content on that sheet could be stored digitally – or sent as an email, in which case it would have around one-sixtieth of the footprint – it seems.

But, what happens if you store that email on your cloud service for the next thirty years – because that’s what happens by default.

There will be a point where the paper starts to look more environmentally friendly.

And email is just one symptom of the never ending clutter that affects our lives – and which just doesn’t get deleted.

So, as an experiment, I’m now going to delete emails once they’ve been read unless I want to keep them for reference.

Because the only way we’re going to deal with the world the way it’s shaping up is to get better at ignoring most of it.

Which takes me to my second point.

I bought a android tablet at a charity shop for a few quid some time back.

You can get a small GNU/Linux system working on there, called gnuroot with a couple of variants, wheezy and aboriginal, that give you a small toolkit to play with.

The thing with GNU/Linux systems in these modern times is that they don’t ship with the standard text editor “ed“.

I guess ed is just too old fashioned for the hip people out there – in fact, that’s what it says in the ed source code.

Well, anyway, it did in version 1.4, which had these lines

GNU ed is an 8-bit clean, more or less POSIX-compliant implementation of the standard Unix line editor. These days, full-screen editors have rendered `ed’ mostly of historical interest. Nonetheless, it appeals to a handful of aging programmers who still believe that “Small is Beautiful”.

Clearer minds have replaced this in version 1.15 with the following:

Ed is the ‘standard’ text editor in the sense that it is the original editor for Unix, and thus widely available. For most purposes, however, it is superseded by full-screen editors such as GNU Emacs or GNU Moe.

But they have also used a new, fancy compression format called lzip in that version, which doesn’t ship with the distribution on my very old tablet.

So, I’m stuck with a version that can be unzipped and compiled on my tablet and fortunately the views that people have matter less than whether the code works or not.

Now, you are probably wondering, what is my point here?

The point is that editors that have “superseded” ed in the main need you to have a full keyboard with control and escape keys and all the things needed to control the editor.

In a little tablet with a phone style keyboard that doesn’t exist – or is very hard to make work – but ed simply works like it should because it uses none of that.

On such devices, Zipf’s law matters as well, because long file or folder names are a pain to type without an tab/autocomplete feature so you remember why frequently used things should be short.

So ed actually a very useful tool to use on low spec devices or when you haven’t got a full keyboard.

And for a writer, who really needs something that is close to a typewriter I’d say that ed is the ultimate distraction free writing device.

But – it’s written off by the world – laughed at.

The quote that starts this page is about ed.

And that brings me to my third point, which is about autonomous cars.

I’ve just finished Autonomy: The quest to build the driverless car – and how it will reshape our world.

This is the future of transport – the thing that is going to radically change the way we move around over the coming decades.

One of the prime movers in this space is Google, which wanted a vehicle that could be used by operators of transportation-as-a-service operators.

They came up with an autonomous car code named “Firefly”, a friendly little thing that was easy to enter and had no controls at all – after all it was meant to drive itself.

It had two buttons – one to start your ride and one as an emergency stop – and a screen telling you how long was left until you arrived.

The future, in other words, takes away everything that doesn’t matter, letting you focus on what you need to get done – which is get from A to B.

Much like ed.

All the way from 1969 ed seems to have known where the future was heading half a century later – and that mocking quote seems rather more prescient now.

Which is why, in my view, it’s still too early to write off ed – because the minimalism and lack of fluff this tool shows is the kind of thinking we still need to combat the never-ending tide of clutter that’s overwhelming us physically and virtually.


Karthik Suresh

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