Your Creations Will Not Outlast You

4 April, 2014

This post was originally published on bighumandotcom.tumblr.com

If you work in the creative industries, it’s inviting to think that someday people might look back on the things you made and marvel at the genius that sculpted them. Just as we look at the masterful brush strokes of Starry Night or the sweeping arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, we dream that our own creations too will outlive us.

What we are dreaming of is called legacy. But on the web, the nature of legacy is very different to that of Van Gogh or the Roeblings. What we build will not outlast us as their creations did. In the tech world, old equals bad. In fact, the term ‘legacy’ is used by programmers to describe code that is obsolete and has been superseded.

The basis of HTTP, the internet technology that has enabled you to access the article you’re reading right now, is transience. In computer science we call it statelessness. A stateless protocol means that when our computer requests data from a server it is a one-time thing. Once the data has been sent, both parties cease to be aware of the other’s status. In the space between the server sending you this article and you having read up this point, the entire website could have been wiped from human history with a single keystroke.

This transience means that our creations only exist as long as some machine somewhere is willing to serve it up to us. If that machine breaks down or there’s a power cut or a number of critical underwater cables are damaged, our creations effectively cease to exist, even if it’s for a short period of time.

A few years ago a post appeared on Reddit marveling at the fact that the Space Jam website was still live on Warner Bros server, unchanged from its launch in 1996. People were astounded that something so dated could possibly still exist.

That website is 18 years old. One of the designers of the website, Andrew Stachler, still works at Warner Bros. The money the developers were paid to build this is probably still sitting in their 401(k)s. And yet now the web looks back at this creation and chuckles at how different things were ‘back then’. Months of work probably went into building that website, and now it seems quaint merely by virtue of the fact that no one has bothered to delete it.

By building things on the web we are not artists or engineers or even creators. We are scientists, working alongside each other for an ongoing cause. The things we build today will not be used after our death. They may not even be used after our next birthday. That Space Jam website may look comically dated now, but for the developers that built it and the users that visited it, it was just one of many millions of stepping stones that have helped shape the web we know today.

Steve Jobs summed this notion up perfectly in a 1994 interview:

“It’s sort of like sediment of rocks. You’re building up a mountain and you get to contribute your little layer of sedimentary rock to make the mountain that much higher. But no one on the surface will ever see your sediment. They’ll stand on it; it’ll be appreciated by that rare geologist. But it’s not like the renaissance at all. It’s very different”

This doesn’t mean that we can have no legacy on the web. Almost every computer built during Steve Job’s tenure as Apple CEO is already obsolete, but his legacy is one of the most prominent of our time. Jobs stood on the shoulders of giants like Alan Kay, Alan Turing, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. The legacies of these men and women are not in what they individually made during their lifetimes, but in the fact that you loaded this article in a fraction of a second and read it on a machine of vast complexity now, in 2014.

What we make on the web today will not outlast us. But people can be inspired by what you make, and the things those people make can inspire others, and so on. That can be forever.