Data loss and noble truths.

I don't remember the first time I lost data. I don't even remember what it was. I do remember the feeling of utter despair though, and the declaration that I wouldn't let it happen again. Since then, so much of my time and mental energy has been spent thinking about ways to prevent this from happening and creating layers of redundancy around my data and in many cases the data of those close to me.

Of course, no matter how careful you are, things can happen. All you need to do is listen to any recent episode of ATP and it becomes apparent that I could still be adding layers, checking backups, making sure. Checking disks. More. Verifying. I could always be doing more.

But I've started down a path that calls into question – or at least forces me to examine – the ways in which I think about the preservation of data. It began when I was in our kitchen, absent-mindedly staring at my wife's small box of recipes – written on index cards, as is often the case in many of our homes. Certainly she's always using the devices around our house to look up new recipes online, but this box contains things from her mother, her grandmother, relatives, and friends – things given to her over time. And it suddenly dawned on me:

This is the only place where this information exists.

I immediately began developing a strategy. We will digitize the recipes. We both use Dropbox–no. She has an Evernote account; I would simply have to get them in there somehow. Probably take photos of the cards, let them sync that way. That would be the easiest. Yes. I would talk to her about it later that night, and such it was set in my mind as I drove into work.

And then I stopped myself and began an attempt to trace back in my thinking to a point at which I could see the inception of this obsession with redundancy. I thought about what might happen if that box were lost. I suppose she'd be upset, but she could probably retrieve many of the recipes again from the folks who provided them. It would be work, but it was possible and certainly not the end of the world. Then I extended this to all the other places where I obsess about data. What were the things I truly couldn't live without? I have spent so much time actively creating elaborate architectures for the preservation of my personal data, that everything has fallen into this bucket of “must retain”. Certainly things like pictures of our daughter's birth are worth saving and having in many places. But I sometimes feel like I've taken the preservation of data to a strange new place.

For example: It all starts with Dropbox. Copies of all my files, online and on multiple machines. I can't trust iCloud, but I use it for contacts, calendars, and reminders – so I individually back each one of those up with manual exports. I love Evernote, but once a week, I manually export and save a complete set of my notes in Dropbox. When browsing for apps, I often won't even give an app a chance if there's no Dropbox sync or backup component. It's partially because I want to save time in the future with setup tasks, but there's also a voice in my head always reminding me how transient these bits I'm pushing between my devices truly are. I'm writing this on the iPad in a text editor hooked to Dropbox, but I'm not sure exactly how often it saves my document, so I stop every paragraph or so and move the view around to see that it is in fact, updating and saving. All our music and movies are available for streaming whenever we want, but I always download and store (and back up) a local copy of everything I buy. Stuff for the business? No brainer. Of course. Cloned copies as far as the eye can see. It's sort of a sickness, and sort of a well-oiled insurance policy, but it's already saved me countless hours of aggravation.

There's a large part of me that's proud as hell that I do all this. There's another part that wishes I could care a little less and just be more relaxed about things. I am by no means a practicing Buddhist, nor would I claim to be a student of it in any regard. But I do find reading about it to be very interesting, and I find myself doing it from time to time. One of the tenets of the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism involves the individual's inability to let go as part of the cause of suffering – the anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing. This is an idea that is core to the religion, but this concept also exists outside of Buddhism as well. I accept the inherent impermanence of the things with which we often concern ourselves, and realize that all my efforts are but a fleeting stab at self-placation. I try to always remember this when I find myself perseverating on small issues and physical objects (not an easy task for someone who is always eager to play with new electronic toys). This idea however, is in direct opposition to my philosophies on preserving my data, which border on good-natured zealotry in the eyes of most of the people who dare engage me on the topic.

Which brings me to the core question: is data – and the memory, time, and emotion we etch into it in our lives – more valuable than the physical objects with which we surround ourselves? Can we draw a line of distinction between the two that squarely places an iPhone below the photos I took with it of my newborn child? Attachment to anything is the key factor. I often wonder how life would be different if I were to lose all the things to which I ascribe value. Life would certainly go on if we were safe, but all our things were gone, so how important are these invisible, psychically tangible things? I would be lying if I said that I haven't stayed up in bed thinking about backups at one point or another, mulling over my machinations, unsure of just how good they were. I suppose it's more of a theoretical debate than something one can put into practice, but I can't stop thinking about it. I suppose as with most things, there's a balance to be struck between managing data and preserving what is necessary or important to you, but understanding at a deep level that it's another thing tying you to a potentially stressful obligation in your life.

I hope I don't sound like some nitwit who would put his family in jeopardy and throw away a mortgage and a home to run free among the flowers unencumbered. Nor did I want to take a fundamental precept of one of the world's major religions and apply it to a triviality like where my phone numbers are in iCloud. We all take on various levels of responsibility and as providers to those we love, we shoulder the burdens that come with those choices. That wasn't the point of the thought exercise. I just happened to reflect on this concept and follow it to this point. I plan to continue backing up and safely retaining all my data, just as I am today. I may even become more neurotic about it. I haven't gotten around to the recipes yet, though.

But I probably will.


Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.