Thoughts on open formats and kids…

Recently my oldest son was accepted to a private high school that he has been wanting to go to for the last few years. How a 5th grader knows where he wants to go to high school I’ll never know but such was the case. Needless to say I am very pleased for him. I am not so pleased for our budget.

His acceptance however, was not achieved without the written and verbal recommendations of some very kind and generous mentors he has garnered some admiration from. Their influence was significant. So over the last week I my wife and I began urging him to put some brain power into what he will say in the thank you letters to each of those individuals. He made his rough draft last night and sat down to his iMac this afternoon to finish the task. As I passed by in the hallway and saw him sitting at his keyboard I wondered the process he would use to go about writing and saving each file in a technical way. I used the opportunity to give him some advice on being efficient and this led me to thinking about how young he is and how he will over the remainder of his live amass a great deal of digital content and history. I thought about how much I have accumulated over the years and pondered the huge amount a young person today will have later in their life. I guess being a Linux user and firm believer in OSS and free software philosophy led me to consider how the data he creates and uses may or may not be of any use to him in the future. Of course now you rightfully question why he is using a Mac and not an open system; I have no legitimate answer to that other than its mostly related to my laziness and my kids desire to participate in the mainstream in a way that open systems sometimes don’t afford i.e. WOW, iTunes etc…

My intent here is not to start a flame-war or debate on Linux vs. x bur rather to simply raise the question of long term viability of our digital assets, and to consider how I should counsel my kids on things they should be doing regarding what is becoming their past saved in bits. I have attempted previously to relate some of these concerns but appropriately, given their age, that advice has fallen on deaf ears.

Do we as technically inclined parents have an obligation to include these lessons along with what has been more traditional child rearing values? Do we live in an era in which we should be teaching our children what they do on-line with their computers and cell phones can and will have immutable lifelong consequences? I’m sure the answer is yes, we must be guiding our kids on these technical and digital matters. But, what is the lesson plan, how do we do it? We are pioneering in this regard, we are ‘those that came before us’.

And what about asset viability and longevity? My grandfather recently passed away and I am aware of the huge amount of his life he left behind in the form of paper archives. Everything from photos, checkbooks and bank statement, notepads with doodles and thoughts scribbled in them, tax returns and business contracts, gas receipts and letters, real estate documents and construction material invoices. These are physical, tangible memories, they can last for a very very long time sans some sort of disaster. Anyone who gains access to them will be able to understand them. What will the equivalent be for my grandkids, what will they reminisce over after my kids are gone? Whatever that is, will they be able to see it, be moved by it, or learn things about mom and dad they never knew? I don’t think we know, but I’m pretty sure the chances are far less if we continue archiving our history and documenting our lives in proprietary data formats. I’m comfortable betting that all the Microsoft Office or iWork documents created today will not be usable in their original form and intent on Feb. 9 2060. Contrarily, I’m not at all convinced that the opposite is true of any document created in an open format. I suspect an open format document will fare the test of time better but only time will tell. I think for now, open formats are our best chance for a digital legacy.

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