The Cult of Data Backup

In seeking help for a computer issue online, I recently created a bit of a controversy among the forum’s members.

My problem is a wonky (dying?) hard drive, and the universal solution was to back up everything to external storage before its inevitable final crap out. First I was to buy and run a diagnostic program specific to the operating system. All told, this solution would have cost me “only” $400.

Since the computer cost only $500 in the first place and since disposable income left my vocabulary a good three months ago and doesn’t appear to be returning anytime soon, I thanked them for their solution, but noted that not everyone could afford to follow their advice. One forum member implied that I was irresponsible for not doing so. Another asked how much I could afford to lose.

And while I appreciate that responsible computer owners, much like pet owners, should perform routine maintenance and must accept that there are additional costs beyond the purchase price, I question the wisdom of blindly backing up entire hard drives’ worth of information on a nightly or weekly basis and the necessity of purchasing further technology to do this.

Since my laptop hard drive died autumn 2005, I have routinely backed up any new music, photos, files, mail folders and preferences to CD. As soon as a disk is full but no more than every two months, I make sure I have an external copy. My problem is that the hard drive that is now dying is my backup drive. There are files on there from my recent laptop death which even zipped far exceed the capacity of a CD. My other major loss would be my music files, which have all been ripped from CDs I own but which are located in the U.S. In that case, the music is safe but I would lose all the time it takes to rerip hundreds of CDs. So it must be noted that while I would mourn the loss of that data, it is not essential to my livelihood.

One forum member responded to my post by noting that his data was his daily bread. In any case, every bit of data we create represents time and energy spent — some quite a bit more than others. For that forum member to recreate an entire web community or for me to rewrite my entire thesis is a different level of energy than the tediousness of reloading my music into iTunes. It is understandable that the more we “produce” in the digital realm, the more we seek to “protect” our work by backing it up somehow.

It is the same way that our possessions, our homes, our savings also represent time and energy spent to earn the money to purchase them. In a similar way, we protect those investments with differing levels of security. In either case there is no guarantee that a fire or a power surge or a mechanical failure will not leave our data or our things exposed or unusable.

The question remains — when the reaction to their loss is so violent — whether our possessions own us or whether we own them. Our bytes as our primary source of income is one reason why data loss can be devastating. But there are a lot of other reasons too, many psychological. Our data is our digital footprint, our online presence, its intact wholeness a security blanket. Over the holidays, I heard a radio program about clutterers, people who cannot separate themselves from items because they form an attachment to them. The founder of the organization Clutterless talked about his house burning down as a turning point: like anyone would be, he was devastated at losing everything (perhaps even more so, as he was emotionally attached to his possessions); yet at the same time, he felt an incredible release.

I would not wish such a loss on anyone, nor am I myself immune, having asked for help to prevent this from happening. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that our data, which seems more of a construct distinctly because it boils down to 1s and 0s, has come to hold the same weight in our society as our other worldly possessions. Further I eschew the purchase of additional possessions to maintain our data — and while finances currently play an admitted role, this is also form of conscientiousness. It is a realization that this cycle carries a physical and psychological (not to mention financial) burden that I cannot fully support at this time. Simply put, when did data become something else with which we have mindlessly begun filling our lives and collecting on shelves?

Another user also found the proscribed maintenance orthodoxy dogmatic, astutely writing:

I imagine any anthropologist would recognize more than a hint of fetishism in some of these genuflections before the digital gods. Substitution of compulsive maintenance rituals for careful observation, reasoned deliberation, and the thoughtful application of common sense may break as many things as it fixes.

How do you choose to protect your data? Which data is most important to you? How much physical space is your data currently taking up? What would happen if it all disappeared tomorrow?

-posted by poetloverrebelspy


2 Responses to The Cult of Data Backup

  1. TheGnat says:

    My data is fairly unprotected. Even though I know better (as a former helpdesk person), I don’t bother backing things up. I eventually burn things onto DVD, but not programs and certainly not the OS (both of which would be included in a full backup). Physical space? Well, a spindle of DVDs, and then I’ve got 2 200-cd cases with all the anime I downloaded before I got a DVD-RW drive. So, it takes up quite a bit. I’d be pretty mad if all the “hard copies” of stuff disappeared.

    On the other hand, although I’m a packrat, I really wouldn’t care much if my harddrive conked out tomorrow. It would be a nuisance, and an expensive ordeal, but I would feel no emotional loss. I think this is because there’s a distinct difference for me between data and real objects. I collect real objects because either I think they’ll be useful, or as a memory aid since my memory is extraordinarily bad. The objects become a little reservoir of the emotions of whatever event or person I associate them with. I can’t remember the person anymore, but when I hold the object, I remember the feelings associated. With data, it’s just “stuff” that I find useful or amusing on a daily basis. No memories are attached, and their usefulness can be duplicated on someone else’s computer.

    The data that is most important to me? Hm, my vast quantity of Winamp skins, desktop wallpapers, and random pretty pictures. They’d all be very hard to replace (some impossible), and represent many, many hours of poking around the internet looking for something new to look at. I’m very visually-oriented, so I change the entire look of my computer screen every week, to fit or counter my mood. Which is how I ended up with 500 winamp skins and 1000+ wallpapers (and I’m very picky!).

  2. Jennie says:

    But what about the data we create? What about the data that represents our creative process.

    Losing my music was a painful wench (especially as large portions of it was not easily re-rippable) and that fact I almost lost my pictures… also, not replaceable.

    What would really kill me though is if I lost the various short stories and novels in progress. Those cannot be replaced. They represent not only the countless hours of work, but the outpouring of creative thought that cannot easily be reconstructed…

    I selectively back up. My word files, my music, my photos… the rest I can do without or replace easily enough…

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