Digital Attrition

Naively, one might assume that digital artifacts, such as software, are not subject to decay and attrition, processes that affect physical objects. After all, any digital artifact reduces to a sequence of ones and zeros that -given durable storage- remains completely unaltered and would therefore function in exactly the same way even in ten, hundred, or a thousand years. However, this notion disregards an important aspect of digital products, namely that they don’t exist on their own. A digital artifact almost always exists as part of a digital ecosystem requiring other components to be available to fulfill its function. At the very least, it requires a set of conventions and standards. For example, even a simple text file requires a standard of how to encode letters.

This became once again painfully clear to me, when the WordPress software, on which this blog runs, suddenly started behaving erratically a few weeks ago. It produced 404 page-not-found errors that were impossible to diagnose and fix. I had not changed anything, being happy with the look and functionality of the blog, so the WordPress installation had reached the ripe old age of three and a half years. The cause had to be sought somewhere in the operating platform, which in this case means the web server configuration. Upon contacting the hosting provider, I was told that this problem had been diagnosed with older versions of WordPress and could only be cured by an upgrade.

Previous Blog ThemeI had no choice but to upgrade WordPress and the result is before you. Since the old theme, which can still be seen in the thumbnail image, is not compatible with the latest WordPress version, I derived a new theme from the included twentyeleven package. It takes into consideration that screen resolution has increased over the last few years and it also provides a display theme for mobile devices. Curiously, while still offering the same set of functions and features as version 2.3.1, the WordPress software version 3.2.1 has increased significantly in complexity. I ran a quick sloccount analysis, which told me that its codebase increased from 36,895 lines to 92,141 lines, not counting plugins and themes, and the average theme has roughly doubled in code size.

I am sure that this phenomenon is not unfamiliar to anyone who has worked with computers over a number of years. Remember how MS Office 97 contained every feature you would ever need? Since text processing and spreadsheets reached maturity quite early in the game, some people would even say this for the prior versions of Office. Yet, Microsoft has successfully marketed five successor versions of MS Office since then, the latest one being Office 2010. Needless to say that the more recent versions have gained significantly in complexity and size. But who needs it? Studies have shown that most people only use a small core set of features. Unless you are a Visual Basic programmer or have specific uncommon requirements, you would probably still do well with Office 97. Or would you not?

Upon closer look, you would probably not, and this is where the attrition factor comes into play. In case of Microsoft, it is safe to say that this effect has been engineered for the sake of continued profits. Not only are older version not supported any longer, but they do actually become incompatible with current versions. The change of file formats is a case in point. For example, do you know the differences/advantages of the Office x-fomats (such as .docx and .xlsx) over the older .doc/.xls formats? The new ones are zipped XML-based and as such easier to process automatically. However, most people using older office versions of Office or competing products cannot read these formats and are thus forced to upgrade or obtain software extensions for compatibility.

This does not only apply to Microsoft products, but -as previously mentioned- to digital artifacts in general. Remember floppy disks? Not long ago I found a box of them in the storage room. They contained sundry programs and files, reaching back into the Atari and MS-DOS era. Not only don’t I possess a floppy drive any longer, but even if I had one, I could not read these files. To access my earliest attempts at digital art and programming, for instance, I would have to read .PC2 and .GFA files on the GEMDOS file system, which would constitute a major archival effort. Perhaps I should keep the them until I am retired and find some time for such projects. The surprising thing is how fast attrition has rendered digital works useless in the past decades. While I can still find ways to play an old vinyl record from the eighties, for example, it’s almost impossible to access my digital records from the same era.