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
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
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
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
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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