Today my digital assets are spread out all over the place. Some are on various websites that I control, and a lot more that I don’t. Others are on various local hard disks that I control, and a lot more that I don’t. It’s become really clear to me that I’d be willing to pay for the service of consolidating all this stuff, syndicating it to wherever it’s needed, and guaranteeing its availability throughout — and indeed beyond — my lifetime.
The scenario, as I’ve been painting it in conversations with friends and associates, begins at childbirth. In addition to a social security number, everyone gets a handle to a chunk of managed storage. How that’s coordinated by public- and private-sector entities is an open question, but here’s how it plays out from the individual’s point of view.
Your teacher assigns a report that will be published in your e-portfolio, which is a website managed by the school. Your parents tell you to write the report, and publish it into your space. Then they release it to the school’s content management system. A couple of years later the school switches to a new system and breaks all the old URLs. But the original version remains accessible throughout your parents’ lives, and yours, and even your kids’.
On the class trip to Washington, DC, you take a batch of digital photos. You want to share them on MySpace, so you do, but not directly, because MySpace isn’t really your space. So you upload the photos to the place that really is your space, where they’ll be permanently and reliably available, then you syndicate them into MySpace for the social effects that happen there.
You’re applying to colleges. You publish your essay into your space, then syndicate it to the common application service. The essay points to supporting evidence — your e-portfolio, recommendations — which are also (to a reasonable degree of assurance) permanently recorded in your space.
You visit the clinic and are diagnosed with mononucleosis. You’ve authorized the clinic to store your medical records in your space. This comes in handy a couple of years later, when you’ve transferred to another school, and their clinic needs to refer to your health history.
You use your blog to narrate the key events and accomplishments in your professional life, and to articulate your public agenda. All this is, of course, published in your space where you are confident (to the level of assurance you can reasonably afford) that it will be reliably available for your whole life, and even beyond.
Although this notion of a hosted lifebits service seems inevitable in the long run, it’s not at all clear how we’ll get there. The need is not yet apparent to most people, though it will increasingly become apparent. The technical aspects are somewhat challenging, but the social and business aspects are even more challenging.
In social terms, I think it’ll be hard to get people to decouple the idea of storage as a service from the idea of value-added services wrapped around storage.
On the business side, my conversations with Tony Hammond and Geoffrey Bilder have given me a glimpse of how these issues are being approached in the world of scholarly and professional publishing. But it’s not yet apparent that the specialized concerns driving these efforts will, in fact, generalize in important ways to almost everybody.