Backing up your life

As more and more of the world becomes digital, a new problem arises: how do we save our memories? Take this blog, for example: it only exists in one place: on the server hosting it. It’s true, I can log onto the server and download a backup to my local computer, which I try to do every few weeks, but I seriously doubt most bloggers bother with such measures. When a service like shuts down, even temporarily, the outcry is huge. Even places like have become vibrant communities, with thousands of members posting hundreds of thousands of comments to its active forums. What would happen to the relationships formed here if it were to suddenly shut down?

Closer to home, we now have our photos, our music, our recipes, our finances, our correspondence all saved on computers. I suspect most people back these things up infrequently, if at all. CDs are impractical for backing up, as our digital lives expand to take up more and more space. Even DVDs can’t contain the vast digital archives some of us have begun to accrue. And because so many people don’t even understand where their computer stores their information, they don’t even understand what they should back up. Even people who do regularly back everything up usually put their backups on the shelf above the computer, so if a fire destroyed their homes, it would also destroy their digital lives.

As virtual reality becomes reality for more and more of us, it’s amazing that more of us don’t realize how tenuous that reality is. We become chained to a system that may or may not persist. I have fifteen years of taxes saved in Turbotax format. Just changing tax programs would be a substantial life change for me. I’ve bought 30 or 40 songs using the iTunes Music Service. What happens when I’ve bought three or four thousand and then Apple decides to stop supporting the service? Do I lose all my music?

Virtual relationships can be incredibly strong and robust, but they can also disappear in a flash. I read a fascinating discussion in the MacRumors forums a while back about what would happen if a member of that online community died. How would other members of the forum find out? Would there be a grieving process, or would everyone just move on, as if nothing had ever happened?

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2 Responses to Backing up your life

  1. Kevin Rasp says:

    My senior thesis addressed in some of its more interesting tangents these questions of tangibility in the digital medium. When the permanence of information becomes entirely tied to the static continuation of a fluid medium, we’ve got trouble. Not only will you be unable to access your tax records in a post-TurboTax world, but the larger society suffers immensely as well. Nicholson Baker—a little too Luddite for my tastes, but smart on this point—challenges his readers to imagine back fifteen years. Take the technology of the day, the two main forms of preserving information, and lock them in a closet. So you’ve locked away a book and an Apple IIe computer. Cool. Open that door now. From which one can you access the information? Sure some guy, glasses taped at the nose, can work the Apple, but everyone can read the book. Open that door fifty years from now and it will take an IT historian to even switch on the Apple, if the motherboard isn’t corroded by then. But there’s a pretty good chance we’ll still be reading English and opening books.

    It’s a cute story until you imagine what information you’ve stored. A generation’s poetry? A collection of political essays? Medical records describing procedures of the 20th century? So in this scenario, we lose our information. But more importantly, we lose our literature, our record of who we were and, by the continuity of time, who we are as a country.

    Now I’m too young to creak away on a porch and complain about the good old days in purple, hyperbolic prose—I love my computer and love what it does for language—but the point the Munger makes is worth rolling around in our palms a bit. We shouldn’t be so excited over technology that we loose sight of what technology essentially is: change.

  2. Dave says:

    You’re right, Kevin — the problems in archiving in a digital world are immense. I imagine the ancient Greeks and Egyptians believed they were making incredible monuments that would be remembered forever, yet precious little survives. Without the chance find of the Rosetta Stone and the uncovering of the tomb of a third-rate Pharoah (Tutankhamon), we’d know practically nothing about ancient Egypt. And though a few books from ancient Greece have survived, much more was lost forever in the fire in the library at Alexandria. We have no examples of ancient Greek painting, though they were avid painters. And as Kevin points out, these archives are comparatively stable compared to digital archives.

    There is an advantage to digital information — it’s so easily copied and transferred to other media such as books. And with digital photos, I actually know when I took my pictures, while I’ve already forgotten when and why I took most of the photos that are rotting away in a shoebox in my office closet.

    We all vainly believe we’ll be remembered, but most of our memories will probably get thrown away within 50 years after we die when our great grandniece cleans out her attic. King Tut was lucky: he was important enough to be buried in an elaborate tomb, but obscure enough to be temporarily overlooked by grave robbers.

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