News Column

The pdf graveyards can only expect an increase in their undead populations

May 10, 2014

Steven Poole, theguardian.com



What does the kind of email attachment you choose to send say about you? Are you an apologetic corporate slave, a hippie freedom fighter, or a paranoid hacker? We don't often give much thought to the various kinds of electronic file types that zip around the internet, except when they annoyingly fail to open on our computers. But embedded in them are all sorts of political and economic choices.

File types are not generally thought of, for instance, as making much difference to global progress and the smooth accumulation of human knowledge. But could it be that the humble pdf is hurting democracy? That is the question posed by Alex Hern, after a World Bank report noted sadly that few of its research papers (offered as pdfs on its site) are downloaded much, and nearly a third have never been downloaded at all.

The pdf, or portable document format, was invented by Adobe to solve a real problem how to make an electronic document incorporating text and images that looked the same on any operating system. But the problem is that it's hard to get the data back out of a pdf and use it. Text is usually searchable the World Bank report itself notes that Google indexes pdfs to count citations of articles but there's no chance of scraping the underlying data from embedded charts and graphs. Condemn public research to that format and you end up with what White House open data project fellow Nathaniel Manning mournfully calls "PDF graveyards".

Poor pdfs. On this argument, electronic file types are an ecosystem freed from the pressures of natural selection, in which unfit species don't die out but keep shambling around like data-hoarding zombies. But I'm not sure we should all abandon the pdf just yet. It's true that it is a lovably clunky relic of the days when everyone thought "desktop publishing" was the future. (I for one have never felt less athletic than when struggling to make Adobe "Acrobat" fill in a simple pdf form.) But what is the alternative?

Some geek activists would argue, for instance, that Microsoft file formats .docx and so forth hurt democracy much more than pdfs.

Historically, Microsoft has worked hard to make sure that competitors' software can't quite read its file types consistently. It is now moving to replace the standalone Office suite with subscriptions to Office365 (which is the only way, for example, you can buy Office for the iPad), so if you blithely email someone a .docx file you are effectively condemning them to pay rent to Microsoft for ever.

One way to loosen the corporate stranglehold would be for everyone to adopt the set of standards called Open Document Format, designed so the files work the same whatever software or computer type you use. In Britain, the Cabinet Officerecommended in January that the government should use open standards, including ODF, html, CSV (for spreadsheets), plain text, and (sorry, democracy) pdf but only "for static versions of non-statistical data produced for download, archiving and authenticity". Oddly enough, Microsoft complained about this, whining that ignoring its own formats ignored the "benefits" of "choice". Which is true enough, just as requiring doctors to be regulated by the General Medical Council limits citizens' "choice" to have themselves operated on by maniacal saw-wielding quacks.

The true anti-establishment hacker, of course, keeps everything in .txt files, though the drawback of that is that if you want to include images you are limited to ASCII art, and that probably won't impress bosses expecting glossy marketing brochures. Which is why, I fear, as long as we still need glossy marketing brochures, the global virtual necropolis of pdf graveyards can expect an increase in its undead population for quite a while yet.


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Source: Guardian Web


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