I loved my first car. It had only one drawback: the trunk would lock on being closed, so you'd better not put the keys in there while unloading. I've always wondered why somebody would construct a car this way, it seems to me like a disaster waiting to happen. An irreversible process, resulting in a potentially expensive, and certainly annoying, need to unlock a lock to access the key to that very lock.
This Fiesta feature has come back into my mind repeatedly. After my move to the USA I called a customer service hotline (see also) to figure out how I was supposed to configure my dial-up connection. The customer service person told me to download the required software from the internet. "Great," I told the women, "but I want to set up the dial-up service for the very reason to connect to the internet." - "Yes," she explained, "You go to the website ..., click on ..., and follow the instructions..." - "Listen," I interrupted her, "Are you telling me I can't use your service to connect to the internet without downloading a software that would already require a connection?" After some back and forth we were both sufficiently pissed off not to continue this inspiring dialogue long enough for me to find out whose ingenious idea this was. (I ended up connecting through my former university's dial-up connection which did not require additional software, paying more than 50 bucks for a long distance call. The dial-up company went bankrupt 1 year later.)
Another example for this specifically smart way to store the key in the locked trunk are system administrators (which shell remain unnamed) that provide the FAQ on how to connect to the internal network from the outside in the internal network, or files that contain information on what to do in case you can't open the file. Also nice is the typo in Joe Polchinski's big book on String Theory - the typo in the URL for the website with the errata, scissors sealed in wrappings that one can't open without a scissor, and manuals that can't be accessed without first reading the manual:
I was recently again reminded of the closed-trunk problem in a larger context through the Nature review on the previously mentioned 'Open Laboratory 2007':
"The Open Laboratory 2007: the Best Science Writing on Blogs (Lulu.com, 2008) takes the curious approach of using dead tree format to highlight the diversity of scientific ideas, opinions and voices flowing across the Internet.
Being a self-confessed treehugger I am all for reducing unnecessary paper waste, and I am a dedicated recycler. But the trend to online storage of information of almost all kind is not without drawbacks. Consider the incredible amount of data that is today stored on computers harddisks, on CDs, magnetic tapes etc. Data that is stored there only. In contrast to a book that one can just open, read, and extract the information it contains, none of the bits and bites in the virtual world are accessible to human senses without further help. And where do we find today information on troubleshooting. Well, on the internet. And if that doesn't help, call customer service. You find the phone-number on the internet. Hey, Wikipedia knows everything, why pay several thousand bucks for an Encyclopedia Britannica. And even if, you can have it on CD, isn't that more timely? Well, CDs have a lifetime of 30-100 years, besides that you can't read them without an appropriate device. And if you think burning CDs is a good idea to backup your data, think twice.
Most of the products of our daily lives are incredibly complex. Take a simple lightbulb. How many single processes, how many people, how much technological knowledge was necessary to produce it? And how much of that knowledge do you have - without Googling for it? The screen you are currently staring at, the harddisk in your computer, are several orders of magnitude more complex.
More complexity isn't necessarily good, though many people seem to consider it as an indicator for 'progress'. I don't know much about cars but if my ex-boyfriend's VW broke down, one could open the hub and check the vitals, V-belt, battery, ignition plug. Almost all of the bugs my parent's new cars have are malfunctioning automatic 'helpers', problems that sit on microchips the engineer has to identify via a complicated diagnose system, problems that despite their ridiculousness can render the car completely useless (try opening the stupid door if the battery in the remote is dead, try driving during rain if the wipers don't work, try starting the car if the security system won't let you). If one opens the hub all one sees is a plastic cover with a huge arrow pointing to the dipstick to check the oil level. To me this isn't progress. This is regress. It is an increase in complexity that lowers resilience of the system, as a result it can break down suddenly, abruptly, and without you being able to fix the problem on your own.
Realizing the complexity on which our daily lives rest is a recurring story in Robinson-themed movies like 'Cast Away'. The hero is suddenly faced with the task to make everything from scratch, thereby usually telling a story that praises human ingenuity.
Most of us are realistic enough to understand that there are limits to how much of our modern society's knowledge we can possibly reproduce on our own, in a single lifetime. Extrapolate the current trend to rely on the eternal availability of information on the internet, and consider in 50 years from now some unfortunate accident occurs, a natural catastrophe, a world war, a disease that leads to lacking maintenance and a breakdown of vital resource flows. How much of the previous decades technological and scientific insights would all of a sudden become unavailable? And how much of that knowledge would be needed to reaccess it?
"Dead tree format" might seem old-fashioned, and the term appeals to the ecological consciousness that is currently en vogue. But do you really think it is a good idea to store information about our research, especially on information networks themselves, entirely on this very network? It's like putting the key in the trunk. A disaster waiting to happen. It is plainly against any responsibility we have for coming generations to let our society run into a situation where a small regress would imply a following even larger regress, because information on how to deal with it is not accessible.
After my Ford Fiesta died, I bought a new car. It was a white Ford Fiesta '91 with the same trunk lock. Against all probabilities my distracted self never forgot the keys in the trunk. I guess that means the disaster is still out there, waiting to happen.