“Future” spelled backwards is “404”


Parse just announced that they’re shutting down. And while I really loved what they built (yes, infrastructure and communication are things I love…), this announcement sheds light on a challenge.

It’s an extremely old challenge. Possibly one of the oldest. And deals with the domains of context and translation.

So with this in mind, let’s consider the future we’re rapidly hurtling towards!

Over 2 Months

“…this won’t be an easy transition…” — someone at Parse

When a piece of key, outsourced infrastructure is removed, “easy transition” is not the first phrase that comes to mind.

Rather, I’d wager that if words were momentarily made of thread, the tapestry woven from the collective swears of developers would create a masterpiece itself; fit for preservation in its own right.

Many, many hours will be devoted to the migrations about to happen.

But over the next 2 months the migrations will indeed happen. Companies that relied on Parse will figure out another way.

As engineers, we know the risks. Any outsourced piece of infrastructure might cease to exist at any time. But if that happens, we’re able to respond; to keep things running.

It’s a hiccup in the scheme of things. But from this frame of reference, it forces us ask an important question:

“What happens when we lose access?”

In this case, the context switch is minor, and a little data is possibly lost in the shuffle. Translation is not a huge concern, and this event doesn’t really register on the global scale.

Over 2 Years

“…this isn’t as easy to use…” — some engineer

In 2018, engineers will still be building things. They’ll still be deciding on which technologies to use for projects.

And it is reasonable to assume that, on the whole, they’ll continue moving towards the tools that are the most empowering for what they want to do.

As they’ve done to date (which is what advances technology), the makers will continue to say, “This old(er) tool isn’t as easy to use as this new(er) one.”

And where possible the new tool is used.

From every individual decision comes a slow, bottom-up, deliberate swell towards the (currently inevitable) future where new tools won’t easily speak with the old tools. The considerations are, for many reasons, largely immediate.

But the broader effects of this continual, larger migration are long-term and far reaching. So let’s ask our question again, with this new frame of reference:

“What happens when we lose access?”

In this case a lot more is lost. Major swaths of data, possibly important to the societal whole, are at risk. Missing contexts and challenging translations continue to plague the lives of those trying to span the increasingly widening gap between old and new.

Over 20 Years

“…this won’t be recoverable…” — some anthropologist

I suppose we’re talking about error-correction in a way.

Today we’re at one end of a channel. The future awaits at the other. And the time between holds a lot of guaranteed noise and unreliability–generated by the natural movements of technology.

I’m not sure what the year 2036's equivalent to the 404 page is, but if we continue to blindly move forward, the resources from our domain and context might not be accessible to those who need them.

Large dividends will be yielded to the societal whole when we design for a future that considers the scope, inevitability, and impact of this ongoing shift.

Now in the 20 year context, let’s consider our question again:

“What happens when we lose access?”

Our ability to view entire states of the world, at specific points in time, will be lost as we lose our ability to understand context and translate between systems abandoned long ago.

This is a relevant and intriguing challenge.

Alan Kay, one of amazing humans involved in inventing modern computing, recently wrote a paper proposing one way to approach this large, ambiguous problem space.

200 Years and Beyond

“…a 404 error again!? What the f…” — nobody, hopefully

Hopefully 404 pages don’t exist at this point.

Future societies will likely study us; attempting to learn about us. And I’m hoping that they don’t keep receiving the proverbial 404 page in their learning process; ultimately letting frustration prevent the sharing of important insights.

In parting, let’s consider this last question:

How might we preserve knowledge for the use and benefit of people in 200 years?

It’s worth thinking about…