File Formats Rule the World
File formats rule the world. They are the procedural means by which unintelligible blocks of code are rendered intelligible, actionable, and transmittable. Embedded in a file format are assumptions about how data can or should be used. Jpegs discard information assumed to be unimportant to human eyes, and replace it with best-fit estimates, so long as they can save some room on your hard drive. Mp3s assume, through psychoacoustic models, what counts as an acceptable rendition of a song. Other file formats are proprietary, such as .excel. Through their technical specifications, they require programs to be bought in order for files to be used. But the file formats experienced by the average user only comprise a small percentage of the the file formats that the economy and culture of modern society depend upon.
I have been playing a game recently, where I pick a file format at random from the Wikipedia list of file formats: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Listoffile_formats
Then I try to imagine what the would be like if the file format never existed. Though I have never heard of most of the file formats on the list, many are essential in their own banal way. For instance, the first file format I opened was OTA Bitmap — a file format created by Nokia for displaying those highly pixelated images exemplary of the mobile phone circa Y2K.
This file format enabled Nokia phones to display simple pictures and logos.
The website for the file format that undergirds banking information exchange is remarkably transparent:
“If you’re not participating in Standards Development, then you’re either re-inventing the wheel or playing by somebody else’s rules!”
The vast majority of us are not participating in Standard Development. But we all rely on file formats to turn what looks like random sequences of 1s and 0s into intelligible information. Whenever computers manage to pull off the task of representing value, they are likely doing so with one of a handful of file formats. We trust — through blind ignorance — that companies responsible for producing these file formats represent value faithfully, but as their website forewarns, companies create the rules by which everyone else has to play.