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The Politics of the Message and the File


If you strip away all of the surface distractions and zoom in on the computing environment using your microscopic vision, you see bits moving back and forth across a wire. If you zoom back out to the macro level, you can see Hewlett Packard and Google making radical changes in strategy and multi-billion dollar bets on how the preponderance of those bits will travel.

Now step into the time machine and move back a few years. The personal computer has just become the business computer. Most of the bits are written and retrieved from local hard drives in the form of files. Files are moved via sneaker-net. Move forward a few years and files are moved over local networks and individual computers are linked together within a single location. Shared files find their way to file servers and now allow multiple users to access and add work product to these common-use files.

Concurrently, the message finds an electronic home in email. Initially email messages can only be transmitted within specific platforms. You need to be on the same network as the people you want to communicate with. Fast forward a few years and email is sent with a common protocol and the networks become a network of networks. Now you only need to know the name of the endpoint to send a message to anyone.

The growth vector of the file’s environment is the size of the hard disk. Larger hard disks in the computing device and on the local network define capacity. As time passes and more files accumulate, they require even more disk space. As computing power increases, file sizes increase as well. As more and more things are digitized, more kinds of things are stored on hard drives in digital form.

The personal computer connects to a local area network, a wide area network and a global network to create a new entity called the Network. Both message traffic and file creation are initiated through the personal computer and start to be pointed at the Network. As the speed of the Network increases, the length of the wire that file bits can workably traverse becomes global in nature. It’s at this point that the message and the file begin to converge. The functionality of the personal computer as a file processing machine begins to be sucked down the wire and reconstituted into the virtual space of the Network. Both the file and computing processes are remote controlled through a set of messages sent back and forth across the wires.

The technology dynasties that were built up around these different ways of treating bits have large investments in both the technical infrastructure and mental models of either files or messages. The roots of these patterns go deep into the corporate structures of these organizations. With the recent moves by HP and Google, we can see the can see that the message and messaging network infrastructure has finally tipped the balance away from the file. The file has become another kind of message for a signaling device pointed at a cloud messaging network. Google attempts to reach across from the cloud to gain a foothold on the device side. HP recognizes that rather than going from personal computer to signaling device, the move from personal computer to custom central computing platforms is a better fit.

It’s worth noting that the message infrastructure has backed off of its most radical formulation and returned to the competing large network platform environment. In the email messaging environment there was an impetus and energy to connect the disparate systems and endpoints so that any two endpoints could connect. The connections between the new era large messaging platforms are purely one-way, instead of the more common “read-only” capability, this is a “write-only” hook up. One has a sense of retreating from a democratic network back to a feudal system of large kingdoms.

There’s a maxim in investing that you should buy at the moment of maximum pessimism. The file, it seems, is on the ropes. The message, messaging networks and signaling devices seem to be firmly in control of the corporate agenda. That’s why it’s interesting that Apple, with its iCloud initiative, is investing in redefining the user’s relationship with the file. The file becomes non-local, it doesn’t travel across the wire, it’s simply wherever it’s needed. Or, at least, it appears that way. All the mechanics of syncing, versioning, reading and writing have been removed from the workflow. The creation device, the file and the file network may be perfectly ripe for rejuvenation as our obsession with the message reaches its peak.

Published in culture difference digital media mobile network politics real time web simplicity value


  1. Once the individual platforms have sufficient scale to create positive economics, there’s little motivation to federate with other platforms. Email seemed to mimic the telephone network, the new platforms look back to AOL, the bulletin board on steroids. It may require an architectural innovation like a P2P messaging network to create change. P2P originally rode on the back of the MP3 and popular music to establish network scale. Since that time, the central platforms have managed to blacken the name of the P2P architectural form.

  2. It is disturbing that the message is intended to stay indoors albeit on a server farm with a single brand on it. Your post makes me wonder if the confederacy of email will occur again, the mega content with first dibs on the mining, the pittance of rent of the cloud and the gatecharge of clients, leeches and cyber pimps. It really makes no sense to be on the network if the message can only go so far. Will the silos insist on being last server standing or will they be satisfied to tag the Post-it with their own RFID when they send it into the wild? If they can still make a buck, I’m sure they will. China wasn’t breached in a day…

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