After about a year of running a purely static site here, I finally decided it would be worthwhile to move the site backend back to Wordpress.
I moved away from Wordpress early this year primarily because I was dissatisfied with the theming situation. While lightword is certainly a well-designed piece of software and markup, I wanted a system that would be easier to customize. Being written and configured in PHP (a language I don’t know and have have little interest in learning), I decided Wordpress didn’t offer the easy customizeability that I wanted in a web publishing platform, and made the switch to generating the site as a set of static pages with hyde. I’ve now decided to make the switch back to Wordpress, and the rest of this post outlines my thought process in doing so.
One of the things that I am most concerned about in life is the preservation of information. To me, destruction of information, no matter the content, is a deeply regrettable action. Deliberate destruction of data is fortunately rare, but too often it may still be lost, often through simple neglect. For example, [science fiction author] Charlie Stross, in a recent discussion, noted that the web site belonging to Robert Bradbury has become inaccessible at some point since his death, and Mr. Stross was thus unable to find Bradbury’s original article on the subject of Matroishka brains.
That comment led me to realize quickly that this great distributed repository of our age (the world wide web) is a frighteningly ethereal thing- what exists on a server at one moment may disappear without warning for reasons ranging from legal intervention (perhaps because some party asserts the information is illegal to distribute) to the death of the author (in which one’s web hosting may be suspended due to unpaid bills). Whatever the reason, it is impossible to guarantee that some piece of data will not be lost forever if the author’s copy disappears.
How can we preserve information on the web? Historically, libraries have filled that role, and in that respect, things haven’t changed that much in the Internet age. The Internet Archive is a nonprofit organization that works to be like a digital library, and they specifically note that huge swaths of cultural (and other) data might be lost to the depths of time if we do not take steps to preserve it now. The Internet Archive’s wayback machine (which will probably be familiar to many readers who have needed to track down no-longer-online data) is a continually-updated archive of snapshots of the web.
It’s fairly slow to crawl, but most pages are eventually found by the wayback machine crawlers, so the challenge of data preservation is greatly reduced for site owners, to in most cases only requiring content to be online for a short time (probably less than a year in most cases) before it is permanently archived. For non-textual content unfortunately, the wayback machine is useless, since it will only mirror web pages, and not images or other non-textual content. To ensure preservation of non-textual content, however, the solution is also rather easy: upload it to the Internet Archive. It’s not automatic like the wayback machine, but the end result is the same.
This brings me back to my choice of using Wordpress to host this web site, rather than a solution that I develop and maintain. Quite simply, I decided that it is more important to get information I produce out in public so it can be disseminated and archived, rather than maintain fine-grained control over the presentation of the information.
While with Hyde I was able to easily control every aspect of the site design and layout, it also meant that I had to write much of the software to drive any additional features that might improve searchability or structure of the content. When working with Wordpress (or any out-of-the-box CMS really), however, I can concern myself with the things that are of real importance- the data, and let the presentation mostly take care of itself.
While Hyde put up barriers to disseminating information (the source being decoupled from presentation and requiring offline editing, for example), my new-old out-of-the-box CMS solution in Wordpress makes it extremely easy to publicize information without getting tied up in details which are ultimately irrelevant.
With ease of putting information out in public comes the challenge of searching it. I try to be selective about what I make public, partially because I tend to be somewhat introverted, but also in order to ensure that the information I generate and publicize is that which is of interest to people in the future (although it seems I was only doing the latter subconsciously prior to now). There are platforms to fill with drivel and day-to-day artifacts of life, but a site like this is not one of them- Twitter, Facebook, and numerous other ‘social’ web sites fill that niche admirably, but can never replace more carefully curated collections
Preservation of ephemera is at the core of some of the large privacy concerns in today’s world. Companies such as Facebook host huge amounts of arguably irrelevant content generated by their users, and mine the data to generate profiles for their users. On its surface, this is an amazing piece of work, because these companies have effectively constructed automated systems to document the lives of everybody currently alive. Let that sink in for a moment: Facebook is capable of generating a moderately detailed biography for each of this planet’s 7 billion people (provided they each were to provide Facebook with some basic data).
What would you do with a biography of someone distilled from advertising data (advertising data because that’s what Facebook exists to do- sell information about what you might like to buy to advertisers)? I don’t know, but the future has a way of finding interesting ways to use existing data. In some distant future, maybe a project might seek to reconstruct (even resurrect, by a way of thinking) everybody who ever lived. There are innumerable possibilities for what might be done with the data (this goes for anything, not just biographical data like this), but it becomes impossible to use it if it gets destroyed.
The historical bane of all archives has been capacity. With digital archives, this is a significantly smaller problem. With multi-terabyte hard disks costing on the order of $0.10 per gigabyte and solid-state memory continuing to follow the pace of Moore’s law (although probably not for much longer), it is easier than ever to store huge amounts of information, dwarfing the largest collections of yesteryear. As long as storage capacity continues to grow (we’ve only recently scratched the surface of using quantum phenomena (holography) for data storage, for example), the sheer amount of data generated by nearly any process is not a concern.
Returning from that digression, the point of switching this site back to a Wordpress backend is to get data out to the public more reliably and faster, in order to preserve the information more permanently. What finally pushed me back was a sudden realization that there’s nothing stopping me from customizing Wordpress in a similar fashion to what I did on the Hyde-based site- it simply requires a bit of experience with the backend code. While PHP is one language I tend to loathe, the immediate utility of a working system is more valuable than the potential utility of a system I need to program myself.
There’s another lesson I can derive from this experience, too: building a flexible system is good, but you should distribute it ready-to-go for a common use case. Reducing the barrier to entry for a tool can make or break it, and tools that go unused are of no use- getting people using a new creation is the primary barrier to its adoption.