My latest Guardian column, “Digital failures are inevitable, but we need them to be graceful,” talks about evaluating technology based on more than its features — rather, on how you relate to it, and how it relates to you. In particular, I try to make the case for giving especial care to what happens when your technology fails:
Graceful failure is so much more important than fleeting success, but it’s not a feature or a design spec. Rather, it’s a relationship that I have with the technology I use and the systems that are used to produce it.
This is not asceticism. Advocates of software freedom are sometimes accused of elevating ideology over utility. But I use the software I do out of a purely instrumental impulse. The things I do with my computer are the soul of my creative, professional, and personal life. My computer has videos and stills and audio of my daughter’s early life, rare moments of candid memoir from my grandmothers, the precious love letters that my wife and I sent to one another when we courted, the stories I’ve poured my heart and soul into, the confidential and highly sensitive whistleblower emails I’ve gotten from secret sources on investigative pieces; the privileged internal communications of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a law office to whom I have a duty of care as part of my fellowship (and everything else besides).
Knowing that I can work with this stuff in a way that works is simply not enough. I need to know that when my computer breaks, when the software is discontinued, when my computer is lost or stolen, when a service provider goes bust or changes ownership and goes toxic, when a customs officer duplicates my hard-drive at border, when my survivors attempt to probate my data – when all of that inevitable stuff happens, that my digital life will be saved. That data that should remain confidential will not leak. That data that should be preserved will be. That files that should be accessible can be accessed, without heroic measures to run obsolete software on painstakingly maintained superannuated hardware.