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We just had photos taken of the children, and it’s put me in a reflective mood. Norm posted the other day about his experience with information/task management products:

Then it hit me.

None of them, with the notable exception of Tinderbox, seem to store the data in any open format. I was seriously considering one of these commercial black boxes for an important chunk of the data that drives my day-to-day life. The little voice in my head reacted viscerally when the observation was made: “What the hell you thinking, man! Stop that!”

I’ve been experimenting a bit with GTD applications recently, and have the same reaction as Norm. The two tools that I’ve tried, ThinkingRock and FreeMind, can both export to an XML format (and import too), which is great, no doubt about it, but you’ve got to remember to do the exporting to take advantage of it. I know me: I just won’t do it (even with my GTD tool to remind me to). What I really want is an application that natively stores its data as XML, preferably in some nicely structured, standard format. So even after I’ve wiped the original application off my computer, or moved the file from one computer to another, I can still read that file and (with a little XSLT magic) load it into something else.

This is possibly the biggest thing that bugs me about most of the Web 2.0 applications out there. Of course I’ve got to be connected to the ‘net to use them, and I’m not all the time (most particularly at tech conferences, it seems). But more important, they’ve got my data tucked away in their databases, out of reach. Some of them will let me export it, or get at it through an API, but that isn’t enough for me. I want it here, so that even if the company folds or I forget my login and password, or the key I used to encrypt my personal data from potentially prying eyes… even years later, I can still read that file. It’s part of my history, but I won’t remember to keep it until it’s gone.

I’m thinking, you see, about some of the things I did on computers years ago. A half-finished book I wrote when I was about 18. The code I wrote for my PhD. Letters from my university days. These aren’t from that long ago, but now here I am using radically different software, in a completely different world, and these pieces from my past are lost, irretrievable because of the formats used to save them (as well as the hardware on which they’re saved: it’s getting harder to read a floppy nowadays).

I read Glasshouse by Charles Stross a couple of months ago (well worth the read). It’s set in the far future, and contains the following passage:

“We know why the dark age happened,” Fiore continues. “Our ancestors allowed their storage and processing architectures to proliferate uncontrollably, and they tended to throw away old technologies instead of virtualizing them. For reasons of commercial advantage, some of their largest entities deliberately created incompatible information formats and locked up huge quantities of useful material in them, so that when new architectures replaced old, the data became inaccessible.

“This particularly affected our records of personal and household activities during the latter half of the dark age. Early on, for example, we have a lot of film data captured by amateurs and home enthusiasts. They used a thing called a cine camera, which captured images on a photochemical medium. You could actually decode it with your eyeball. But a third of the way into the dark age, they switched to using magnetic storage tape, which degrades rapidly, then to digital storage, which was even worse because for no obvious reason they encrypted everything. The same sort of things happened to their audio recordings, and to text. Ironically, we know a lot more about their culture around the beginning of the dark age, around old-style year 1950, than about the end of the dark age, around 2040.”

I’m looking forward to the end of the dark age. In the meantime, the photos of the children will be hardcopies in the shoebox at the bottom of the wardrobe. And I think I might try the index card version of GTD.