I recently read this blog post from Ubuntu Linux Tips & Tricks (found through the author’s identi.ca stream) and it kind of got me thinking. Completely off the tangent, actually.

Yup, calling software “sexy” is kind of weird. But in my typical, completely coffee-headed sense, it got me thinking of a completely different thing.

Can we call software sexy? For the record, I’ll just copy-paste a bit of my rambling here from that blog’s comments.

<blockquote>Software is an form of art that exists for its utilitarian qualities: we need effort to use software, we expect greater results in return. If one could form a relationship with art, it’d be easy to form a “casual friendship” with other forms of art that just exist to bring joy to everyone without any strings attached. But you’re using software, you’re it’s boss; with power comes responsibility. It’s only natural to start thinking that other qualities that actually get the job done far, far, far outweigh “sexiness”.

Software can be elegantly constructed, software can be beautiful in appearance, software can be easy to work with, software can be powerful. But software exists to serve, and things that serve us deserve respect.
</blockquote>I can write some strange stuff when I don’t have coffee. But still, I stand by this.

It just reminds me of one lecture a year or two ago, on information ethics. A professor explained some philosopher’s views on rather tough questions that people might not ask too frequently. Does information have rights? Is it unethical to, say, delete a file?

The first question from the students - quite understandably - was something along the lines of “what the hell, is this supposed to be a real philosophical question?”

And the professor just said “yes, of course”. Weird thing is, I couldn’t agree more.

It’s kind of silly. Common sense would suggest that we shouldn’t be concerned about the “rights” of information: it’s non-sentient material, after all. But really, why wouldn’t it be a valid question to discuss? Why wouldn’t such questions matter?

Recently, a teacher in the school where my father teaches died very soon after retirement. My father had found some of the teacher’s files on a shared network drive. He asked me, “what should we do with the files?” The best I could say was “well, that’s basically up to the organisational policy”. Part of me went “well, why don’t you just keep it there”, but that’s what my own senses tell me: in this day and age, there’s no need to delete a dead person’s files, and I’m an information hoarder who thinks that sort of files would be awesome from historical point of view. But ultimately, I didn’t know how the files are usually treated in that school. Do they keep ordinary files around? Do they archive the stuff regularly? Is all of that stuff ephemeral? Should the files be kept?

Do I demand respect for the data for the sake of the data, or the sake of the people who use it?

We design software to act as our tools. I, for one, think that tools need respect. Information needs respect.

But ultimately, software and data need respect because people use the data and software. The question on “sexiness” of the software is just another part of that: describing a software as sexy can be problematic, because not all people agree that software is “sexy”, or if it’s an appropriate label at all. Software is serious business. It is used to perform respectable things in one form or another. People who use the software expect serious business to happen. People expect respectable results.

And that’s what things basically boil down to: data is important because someone, somewhere, thinks it’s important. Software is important because someone, somewhere, will find it useful. These rules apply to utter crud and broken bits and bobs just as well as it applies to the most important documents ever written or the software that makes the world go around.

Some time ago, I kept lamenting that hosts of information keep deleting the content that criminals posted to the pages before the crime. For example, I think it’s awesome that sites like A Columbine Site exists. AOL may be reluctant to keep around the personal pages of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold - just like YouTube was quick to nuke every video of the school shooters in Finland a few years back. But how the heck should a normal, casual observer like me best view the exact stuff these folks posted? Filtered through some finger-wagging nanny’s tales? Abstracted through a police report? If so, why? Why do the hosts delete the stuff, if it benefits the public? Isn’t preserving the criminal’s side of the tale just as important to maintain the truth of the events? It benefits the public, shouldn’t it be kept?

And doesn’t this, once again, go back to the idea that software exists to serve us and servants deserve respect? Information also exists to serve us, it seems, and servants deserve respect. Right?

Strange questions with curiously obvious answers, I guess. But I still need more coffee to make sense of this all.