NS Internet column
Written 15 December 1999 for the New Statesman
The diary I really wanted for the year would have all the information I might keep on a web site, and be as easy to access as a paper one I could stuff in my pocket. There are lots of companies trying to work on this. The problem is not the technology but the privacy. The technology is easy enough and by the end of the year it will be commonplace. Using my Psion organiser and a mobile phone, or perhaps a wireless palm-pilot, I can connect almost anywhere to the Internet, and thus have in my hand something physically smaller than a Filofax, which is of virtually unlimited size. Already there are services which will download whole books, stock quotes, or sports results to such devices, which will in the foreseeable future become indistinguishable from mobile phones. None, except the Psion, have very good input devices, because nothing beats a keyboard for inputting text, but this does not matter very much, because the diaries I am talking about are those whose prime purpose is to distribute information, not to receive and store it. If you want to be Alan Clark, any old laptop will do.
The need for diaries which live in cyberspace has been obvious ever since the first personal information managers got started. These are programs, like the Lotus Orgnisaer, which mimic the action of a Filofax. Lotus Organiser even looks like one. Within an organisation, they can be linked up and used to schedule meetings and do all the other wonderful things that highly effective people do. They can also be synchronised like a palm pilot, so that the copy in your briefcase computer and the one in the office compare notes from time to time to decide what you should be doing.
But these programs are all proprietary. I can't synchronise my Psion with the organiser program I actually use. I couldn't synchronise either with my palm pilot. And there's lots of information on both I can't transfer. What would be wonderful were if all the information on my machine at home were somehow mirrored on a web site, so that I could download or change it from anywhere in the world. In fact there are lots of companies which offer this service or something very much like it. Some will also offer to store a backup of all your data there. The question, however, is whether to trust them.
I don't mean they are crooks. Nothing on someone else's computers is ever entirely private, unless you have encrypted it, but there's no reason to suppose that these companies would peek for the love of it. They would, however, if they caught on, be a repository of enormously worthwhile information and so a tremendous target for electronic burglars. There is an analogy here with Hotmail, a transparently insecure service. Most of the insecurities of Hotmail come from the ways in which it is used in public or semi-public by people who leave their passwords lying around , but it was still very thoroughly hacked in the traditional sense earlier this year by a gang of Swedes who got hold of a system password. Making secure systems is really difficult. It can be done, but I would rather that the experiment were made using other people's data.
The second problem with storing your life online is that it would take a very long time. My own backup strategy is crude but largely effective. Once a week I burn a CD containing just about everything that I have put onto this computer that isn't a program. It takes about half an hour from beginning to end, costs about 70p and if I go anywhere, I take the most recent CD with me. If the house burns down I won't be in utter despair. But data can be written to a CD eight or nine time as fast as it can be send up an ISDN line. It would take me four or five hours to back everything up onto a web site.
The third problem is that once it's there, there are no good ways to search it. The search engines across the web spit at Microsoft Word documents. This is partly Unix snobbery — the web still really runs on Unix — and partly Mr Gates's fault. He wants people to read, and index their Word documents in Windows. Either way, it means that if I want to find something I have written in the last few years, I have to do it on a Windows machine, preferably my own. So there really isn't much point in backing up when the data I can back up is so little use on the far end.
All these are the meditations of a private citizen. If I worked for a large company, there are all sorts of ways in which my data would be accessible and searchable to me anywhere in the world — and just as accessible to my superiors. I think I'll stay luddite for a while yet.