While visiting the USA, I came across a delightfully bizzare TV show - Doomsday Preppers.
For those who don't know, this pseudo-documentary follows the lives of certain... eccentric... families who believe that the end of civilization is coming and they better get busy preparing for that eventuality.
Whereas you and I might keep a bit of spare cash hidden away, along with some out-of-date cans of food, these guys go the whole hog. Vast basements packed with food, gallons of oil to run generators, bomb-proofing their buildings, and training with guns. Lots of guns.
It's easy to laugh at these folk - their paranoia seems completely off the scale compared with the likelihood of the threat. And yet - I find them admirable. Come the apocalypse, I would likely last all of five minutes - whereas the "preppers" could survive indefinitely. They have the resources, the training, the experience, and the mental fortitude which comes from relentless preparation for the collapse of their world.
Which, naturally, brings me on to Google Reader.
Last week, Google announced that it was killing off its popular Reader product. Howls of anguish from the loyal users of Reader - it was as if someone had announced the collapse of civilization.
As we come to rely more and more on the Internet, it's becoming clear that there is a real threat posed by tying oneself to a 3rd party service. The Internet is famously designed to route around failures caused by a nuclear strike - but it cannot defend against a service being withdrawn or a company going bankrupt.
It's tempting to say that multi-billion dollar companies like Apple and Google will never disappear - but a quick look at history shows Nokia, Enron, Amstrad, Sega, and many more which have fallen from great heights until they are mere shells and no longer offer the services which many people once relied on.
See, for example, this article from 2007 - Will MySpace Ever Lose Its Monopoly.
Even if the company survives - and there are remarkably few 100+ year old companies - we are at the mercy of third party services being shut down - witness Ping, Mobile Me, Buzz, Wave, Reader, etc. etc. ad mortem.
There are two questions that we need to ask when considering whether to adopt a new service.
Firstly - can I export my data? Secondly - is there an alternative which I control and therefore isn't at risk of collapse?
I like to pose this question to my photography friends - "What would you do if Yahoo! suddenly decided to delete all your Flickr photos?"
Some of them have backups - most faint at the thought of all their work vanishing.
Luckily, services like Google, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter offer users a way to export their data. This is something you should do regularly - because you may not get much notice that a service is disappearing.
Sunday, March 31st will be the last day you’ll be able to ask questions or post content on Formspring. You’ll be able to export your responses from now through Monday, April 15th, after which the site and apps will go offline, and any content will be permanently deleted.
That's a month to grab your stuff and go. Are you on a long vacation? In hospital? In prison? Otherwise without Internet access? Tough - your data is toast.
Now we come to the "digital preppers" section. What can you do to ensure you never need to rely on anyone else?
Here's my rough guide to how you can self host many of your essential digital services.
Before Google Reader, we had RSS readers running on our computers. We can now recreate the Google Reader experience by running Tiny Tiny RSS on your server.
TT-RSS is a web app just like Google Reader - it fetches your feeds, lets you read them, share them, save them, etc. The only difference is that it runs on your server rather than Google's.
It's open source - so it will keep working even long after the original coders have left the project.
Run this on your server and never worry about the bottom dropping out of your world.
The Open Photo Project is the perfect resilient replacement for Flickr and other image sharing services. Indeed, you can export your photos, tags, and comments from most major platforms. You can host your photos - and a community - on you very own server.
OpenPhoto also has smartphone apps and is open source.
Google offer Maps - for now. There are other mapping providers out there, but they are all at risk of companies going bust or deciding that they no longer want to provide a service.
Enter OpenStreetMap - think of it as Wikipedia for maps. A crowd sourced map - continually updated, with mobile apps, navigation, and beautiful imagery.
There are multiple providers who use OSM as their back end. If you are really paranoid, you can download the entire planet's map. A mere 27GB (compressed). Not an insignificant download - but manageable. Subsequent downloads are much smaller.
This is where we start moving off the beaten path and head into the wilderness.
One of the lovely things about DropBox is that they provide a very simple way to synchronise multiple computers - complete with a range of apps for mobile phones.
Rsync is exactly the same as DropBox - only a lot more complicated. You can use it to keep multiple computers in sync with each other. When files change on one machine, those changes are securely pushed to another machine.
There are limitations - few mobile clients, and no easy way to share files with others, for example.
There are a huge range of services we use which are operated under the capricious whims of distant companies. This is by no means an exhaustive list of every option available to you. What services do you use which you would like to see decentralised?