Apologies for linking to Medium, but there’s a good piece by Simon Pitt called ‘Computer Files Are Going Extinct’ on the subject of platforms taking over more and more of what we do (and, also, digital enclosure in general). Here’s a quote for you:
The file has been replaced with the platform, the service, the ecosystem. This is not to say that I’m proposing we lead an uprising against services. You can’t halt progress by clogging the internet pipes. I say this to mourn the loss of the innocence we had before capitalism inevitably invaded the internet. When we create now, our creations are part of an enormous system. Our contributions a tiny speck in an elastic database cluster. Rather than buying and collecting music, videos, or other cultural artifacts, we are exposed to the power hose: all culture, raging over us, for $12.99 a month (or $15.99 for HD) as long as we keep up our payments like good economic entities. When we stop paying, we’re left with nothing. No files. The service is revoked.
I know, I know – people find files annoying. Writer and former developer Matt Gemmell wrote a blog post back in 2015 called ‘A farewell to files’, and I remember reacting to it strongly at the time. People find files annoying because they have to manage them and put them in folders and think about them. It’s become so tempting to just say ‘sod it’ and use one of the many library-based, cloud-based platforms that are available today for managing your stuff: Evernote for notes, maybe, and Apple Music for music, and Google Docs for work things. The lords of the cloud would like us to stop managing our own affairs and to hand everything over to them, but this is a staggeringly bad idea.
When you stop using files and start using one of these platforms, you hand control of another portion of your life over to a corporation whose motives may not align with your own. Even if you’re ok with how that corporation does business now, and even if the software does what you want at this precise moment, the future is the future. When everything’s a service you don’t own anything. The cost could increase beyond what you can afford (which recently happened to me with Dropbox; I am no longer a Dropbox customer). The company’s business model could pivot, or greater public scrutiny could reveal their true colours (Google). They could just get too big and profitable and stop giving a damn about the tools you rely on for your livelihood (Apple is doing this right now to the Mac). They could go bust entirely.
That’s the bigger picture, but within the scope of the original post, a file is something that you own, which (ideally) resides on a local storage medium that you also own. You are responsible for backing it up, sure, but – unless it lives primarily in the cloud – you also have full control over it. Nobody can take that away from you.
I have .txt files on my computer that have survived since the early 1990s. They work just as well now as they did then. Meanwhile, I have an Apple Notes database from 2015 that’s corrupted beyond repair, a Lightroom library that’s now so slow that it won’t open on my top-of-the-line iMac, an iTunes in the Cloud library that sometimes syncs if it feels like it, and a Trello account that completely disappeared for no apparent reason. I have twice attempted to use iCloud Photos and twice my photo library has ended up hopelessly corrupted. iTunes is the only one of these services I still use – and I have all my music stored locally as well as in the cloud.
If you want to store a thing on a computer, store it in a goddamned file. Upload it to the cloud for convenience if you need to, but make sure the canonical copy is somewhere you control, on a local storage device, and backed up the old-fashioned way. The cloud is wonderfully useful for collaboration and synchronisation but it would be a mistake to trust it entirely.
The platform-driven computing environment we live in now is not progress. We’re told it’s progress by the corporations who stand to profit from us trusting them with all our stuff. The cloud-based world is more expensive, less reliable, more complicated, and sometimes forces us to change platforms for any number of arbitrary reasons. The only real advantage is convenience.
Anyway, I encourage you to read the original article in full. The death of files has repercussions far beyond the narrow objections I’ve raised here, from chronocentrism to increased dependencies and other issues. Perhaps most importantly of all, it mentions the intangible sense that we’re losing touch with the data we create – ‘my own little world,’ says the author.