ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Conversation With a Dead Guy —

OK, so because I wrote some stuff about my opinion about black-box shared resources and its consequence on data sustainability, I have gotten a lot of attention from a lot of people, some positive and some negative. We’ll set the positives aside, and most of the negatives, as well. Many negatives are from people who confused “don’t trust and don’t assume the best of” to mean “never use under any circumstances and lordy gee this new technology scares me“. Some utilize the term “cloud” in their business plan or career and so we can’t be having anyone saying it’s.. you know, overused and drilled into meaningless at the present time, and in other ways misleading. All well and good. Glad for the chat, people! I’m sure we’ll do coffee and quibble about this more in the future.

But there were a couple, only really a couple, who took a different tactic altogether, much more interesting for my purposes and perspective. That tactic can be stated as follows:

I am happy to say that I don’t care about my data.

This is a nuanced difference from “who cares”, which is more germaine to someone who walks into another person’s opinion and doesn’t agree. You don’t care about the opinion, don’t completely side with the choice of words, but probably have some common ground. You just don’t think it needs discussion, or don’t feel like hearing the discussion. You don’t care.

This is different. This is willful glee/pride in that you don’t care about your stuff.

So here’s the pages by the two guys,  Rob Sayre (Webcite) and Victor Stone (Webcite). Note that I have to include webcitation (archived) links to the pages since they have clearly stated they don’t particularly care about the viability/sustained life of their data.

In both cases I show up and make unpleasant responsive noise. In both cases we either agree to disagree or I am handed a suggestion of medical diagnosis.  What’s also interesting is that one is relatively young (Rob) while the other relatively older (Victor). Then again, perhaps the spectrum of folks who take their position go all over the map.

Either way, the fundamentals are completely skewed from where I come from. To Rob, the desire to protect or maintain one’s creations/data/information is egoism:

Using the Cloud doesn’t mean you have to trust it. The catch is that you have to not care, which is not really a catch, since the alternative is that your Stuff ends up owning you.

To Victor, there is a pride in handing away and not caring about things, informational, physical, or otherwise. 

True story: some months ago my wife and I sold our house. Let the lease expire on the car. Gave away our 500 books. Gave away 2,000 albums. Let go of all the furniture. Berkeley restricts trash pickups to just one can so there were lots of trips to the dump, including all the music I’ve recorded for the last 35 years. I figured I was saving my kids a trip to the dump after I’m dead.

Contrast with my hero Mark Pilgrim’s post which falls among similar lines. He equates divestment of material and things to be the key to happiness, and I could totally see this position; he portrays them as steps along a personal goal, and thinks others should do the same. He makes this point in a cute manner, devoid of judgementalism and (for that matter) context. Where I am abrasive, he is clever and smooth; I totally understand that. As I’ve said in several contexts over the last week or so, you catch more flies with honey, but I prefer to just use a flamethrower. Still, Mark’s posting, more a numbered poem, is a goal for some, just not for me.

In the case of these two other fellows (and ones like them), there’s a sort of approach to life with regards to “stuff” that’s certainly different from mine; fundamentally different. I think it can be stated, quite clearly, that I DO have an attachment to stuff, to things, although I do make an effort to understand the people behind those things. That inherent drive to maintain and collect things is not a point of shame with me; it’s a point of pride, as I like to think it is for any archivist. To tell me not to archive is to tell a musician not to make music, a craftsman to not build, and Jim Aikin to not be a misanthropic jerk. It’s in the blood. It’s not in everyone’s blood.

Now, far be it out of line to point out that someone so deeply associated with the maintenance of open standards and doing engineering in Mozilla would be a little less dismissive about wanting to protect data, but that’s just me way over here.

But Victor, well, that guy’s just dead.

Dead, dead, dead. In the ground. He’s done. What’s left for him is lying about and doing some hanging out with family and friends before he finishes scooping up handfuls of dirt and patting them on his head, gingerly. I feel quite free in making this declaration, just like he decided he didn’t like the tone of my entry, presupposed a series of silly, non-related declarations, and then responded poorly when the person who he names in the entry title shows up to chat. I love people like this, because it reminds me that for all the unpleasant things I am, there are many unpleasant things I’m not.

What I am not is gleeful in my mortality, looking at my time as this sort of placeholder, where I did some stuff and then I’m doing everybody a favor by getting rid of it as quickly, cleanly, and comprehensively as possible. I don’t take pride in that. I don’t look at myself as a sad little consumer tube, pulling in stuff one end and then blowing it out the other, into the trash. This position is particularly silly one for a musician, because musicians are the very heart of creation, just as sermonists are; they bring out things from the air and their minds and make them available to whatever degree life presents them. They literally create something from nothing, save the caloric requirements of a functioning brain. It’s a miracle to behold, one of life’s great examples. As a music guy, you’d think he’d get this. But he doesn’t. He’s dead.

Death comes to us all; this is true. And it’s true that at the end of your life, the remnant traces you leave to others to solve, the puzzles of financial woes and commitments and unpaid human debt might be an unfair bequest, but not all bequests are unfair, nor the act of bequesting itself. I have been through the works of many people who are no longer with us, and I’ve spent times recording and listening to the stories of these people and returned later to find them gone. This is what happens, and yet I do not feel burdened to have known their stories, or, in some cases, given things from their lives by their survivors to help archive or maintain. I am honored.

Maybe my relationship to “stuff” is different from these two guys, but it might go further than that. Maybe my relationship to everything is different. And when I’m done, or finished in some physical or effort-related manner, I would hope that I wouldn’t look at the result as trash to be discarded before someone else must regard it, but a life well spent and a body of work/collection worth sorting through, while I myself am dead.

Categorised as: computer history | housecleaning | jason his own self

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  1. æon says:

    you’re “professional-grade hoarder”, he’s a “all suffering comes from attachments” sort of guy. there’s a basic difference in principles right there. the whole “dead guy” bit is a straw man– buddhism and “eastern philosophy” inspired works have written extensively on how getting rid of desires and attachments is about embracing life, as opposed to embracing death. “living in the present moment” and all that.

    not all artists are hoarders about their work. i’ve known galls who call their old works “trash” and intentionally destroy it (it’s not good enough, they’ve outgrown it, it has some painful memories or history to it). i’ve known more artists who are careless about their work, or willingly parted with it with no concern for historical preservation (giving stuff away, selling it under price to pay rent), then those who carefully preserve it.

  2. ross says:

    you might be interested in the work of Ray Johnson

    Pop-art era artist but didn’t really fit in with Warhol and all that

    well when he died (they are pretty 99% sure suicide) he left his work in his house, almost as a puzzle, the way he arranged it. he treated all of his life this way.

    check out the doc, i think it’s called How to Draw a Bunny.

    also there’s an article i’ll send you about it.

  3. disambiguated says:

    Does water spiral down the drain in a different direction north of the equator than it does south of the equator?

  4. Chris Barts says:

    No, disambiguated, it does not, though it should: It doesn’t because the small-scale effects of the sink completely overwhelm the large-scale effect of the Earth spinning, otherwise known as the Coriolis Force.

  5. disambiguated says:

    So, if I had a big enough sink drain, I could see the Coriolis effect in action? How big a drain would be required?

  6. Ingvar says:

    Jason, I find your attitude to archiving intriguing. I must say, though, that these days I am primarily interested in “data preservation” than “physical artefact preservation”, since most of the things I care about are most easily stored and reproduced as sequences of bits.

    In that respect, the physical CD, DVD, book or what-have-you is merely a physical representation of the core idea, as it were. Not meaningless, maybe even more meaningful than the “mere data”, but for archival purposes so much more cumbersome that the artistry and/or craftsmanship that may have gone into producing the physical representation is far outweighed by the convenience of heaps of bits.

    Any thoughts?

    • Jason Scott says:

      I find value, personally, in both aspects. The data itself contains the nature of the communication or idea as regards the programming, while the packaging or physical item might tell another tale. Everything from the manufacturing process to the hand-written notes, to the artwork/layout comes out of what our data is contained in.

      Of course, more and more of what we’re releasing or collecting does not contain any physical form beyond the console or computer it ends up in, but for the moment let’s just say that the packaging continues to play a part.

      When people send me packaging of, say, old shareware CD-ROMs, the packaging belies a whole little fad/era when all these shareware CD companies were trying to make a buck at the local store with brighter and brighter packaging and promises. will have some of these scanned in soon, but for now, as you see, the first thing grabbed was the data.

      For the purposes of my “crusades” and what I discuss, I figure just asking people to regard their data is enough, but yes, I am a fan of archiving it all.