In the Path of the Information Highway

What is a home? A home is a place with which we can identify ourselves. A home is a place to which we can return with reasonable confidence that things will be the way they were when we left. It is a place to safely keep our belongings, and a base from which to conduct our activities. It is a place of shelter and privacy, although we may invite others in to share it for a time. A home is an extension of ourselves, which we may change and improve to suit our needs and whims.

By the above definition, in the virtual world which we call the Internet, our computer accounts may be considered our homes. Some may be only college dorm rooms, occupied for our terms at school and then emptied and left behind. Some may be offices, used strictly for business purposes (but still containing a few personal touches). And some may be warehouses rented to store things which we would otherwise lack the space for. But each computer account we acquire gradually becomes as much a reflection of ourselves as any room or building we occupy.

When we first acquire our virtual homes, we find them empty except for the bare minimum of directories and utilities: the walls, electricity, and plumbing, as it were. The mail will be picked up and delivered, but we often have to install the phone and cable ourselves. But we inevitably set about making the place our own: filling it with our furniture, creating new rooms, perhaps building an addition. We install things that will make it more convenient. Gradually it acquires its own set of personal mementoes and signs of our presence that make it familiar and comfortable.

And just as inevitably, sometimes we are forced to leave. It can be a planned, orderly move, in which we pack up our belongings and ship them to our new home. More rarely, it can be a disaster, in which we lose some or all of our belongings, perhaps beyond recovery. Who will say that the crash of a hard drive which wipes out megabytes of personal files is less traumatic than a fire which destroys the family photo albums? Certainly not I.

I came to the realization of this analogy in the fall of 1989, when the Association for Computing Machinery chapter at Rensselaer decided to expire all of its old former officers' accounts on MTS. This was done for some fairly good reasons: the ACM felt that it was using up too much disk space on the mainframe, most of the former officers in question had other accounts they could use, and Rensselaer was de-emphasizing the use of the mainframe in favor of distributed workstation based computing.

The ACM gave plenty of advance notice that the accounts were being expired, and I did indeed have other accounts. The account that was expiring was not one I had used very much, but it did come in handy at times, and I had put a few files in it. On the day before it was set to expire, I signed on to the account and transferred those files to one with a longer life expectancy.

As I prepared to sign off the account for the last time, the thought struck me that this felt like nothing so much as moving my furniture out of a summer home which I had not used much, just prior to that home's being demolished to make way for an extension of the local highway.

So this essay is a memorial to all of my lost accounts, and by extension, to everyone who has ever had their home demolished to make way for a bypass on the information highway.

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