PERHAPS it was performing three computer equivalents of a memory transplant in a week. One way or another, Babbage recently found himself contemplating where the soul of a machine really lies. On one interpretation, the machine dies with the final unplugging of its physical shell. In a sense, though, it lives on in the software and data transferred to new pieces of kit.
Babbage has a tendency to anthropomorphise his hardware, as when he shed tears after shutting down faithful servers in 2010. As the owner of dozens of physical bits of kit over 30 years, from desktops to mobiles to servers, he has always ascribed a personality to each, though rarely a name. Computers are ornery beasts, as many readers will no doubt concur. This one likes to lock up and require the power cord be pulled to effect a restart. That one continually corrupts a preference file for only one software package, like a nasty boy scribbling on his desk when no one is looking. A desktop of recent vintage decided vociferously that it would not accept the installation of Apple’s latest operating system update, Lion, despite many hours of arguments over several days, even enlisting help from its maker. A coddled few seem to provide their owner comfort. They receive praise—and glossy cases as a reward.
But software is no better. In troubleshooting one persistent software niggle some months ago, Babbage was told by the software developer that a detailed software report showed a program installed years before continued to chew at CPU cycles despite having no purpose since perhaps 2006 or 2007. A visit to the terminal command line and the invocation of ancient curses was required to rid it of the restless spirit.
In the latest round of transplants Babbage opted to wipe the sins of past installations clean. The Lion-rejecting tower, an oversize portable and Mrs Babbage’s failing laptop were replaced by new models each boasting a factory-installed copy of Apple’s new beast. For Mrs Babbage and himself, he used Apple’s Migration Assistant, a tool that in previous years was abjured because of its abject failure to assist in migration, though it excelled at assisting migraines by causing Babbage’s head to throb. Apple has improved it quite a bit, and it worked flawlessly in replicating accounts, files and applications without dislodging the fresh system it interacted with. The Lion rejecter had already shown its ability to transubstantiate across reinstallations, and Babbage copied more gingerly to avoid bringing along whatever foul spirit had possessed his tower. It seems to have worked, at least so far.
This kind of migration, even when it works, is awfully finicky. Babbage has a unique set of photos, files and other data on each of his computers as does his wife, despite his extensive use of Dropbox and a central machine into which images and video are ultimately copied. The personality of a computer derives in part from that unique data combined with quirks. The new machines run substantially better than the older ones. Yet they seem a bit sterile.
Migration should ultimately disappear and be replaced with a combination of synchronisation, whether from one’s own hosted data stores in a company or home, or via cloud-based services, such as those operated by Apple and Google. Both firms’ mobile platforms differ in that Apple likes to sync media from computers on a home or office network whereas Google prefers streaming on demand.
In such a scenario, the operating system remains “thick”—that is, it is rich and fully capable whether on the desktop or a smartphone in contrast to the past notion of stupid, “thin” clients that leaned largely on operations performed on servers to carry out tasks. (This transition has happened in web apps. Such apps now rely on browser-based scripting that uses local CPU power offsetting the load from central web servers, which act more as conduits to data stores.)
Babbage sees this when he sets up a new computer for temporary use, as when he has one on loan. Log into Apple’s iCloud service, and contacts, calendars, photos and his music collection appear. Install a small Dropbox software agent and enter credentials, and gigabytes of personal and shared files download in minutes over a fast connection, including encrypted stores of passwords and keyboard macro settings. Another few clicks, and your correspondent’s CrashPlan backup account is linked in for internet-hosted archives.
Some will reject the final transmigration of the computer’s spirit to the cloud. They will voice valid concerns about eternal access to the unique files that make up the computing experience and the privacy and security associated with putting personal and professional data in the hands of others. And perhaps local clouds, stored on one’s own networks and secured with one’s own methods, will be seeded and grow. But the soul of a machine seems relentlessly to be ascending to the cloud—even while its physical embodiment remains as pernickety as ever.
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