Byte me

It’s happened to me before, and I’m sure it will happen to me again, unfortunately. I’m talking about data rot, and it’s harder to prevent than tooth decay or osteoperosis.

Although most people, other than professional archivers, probably don’t think about it too much, it is now more difficult to conserve precious data than ever before. While we still have access to Benjamin Franklin’s accounting books, Galileo’s observations of the night sky, and even Roman hate mail, it is likely that most documents from the late 20th and early 21st centuries will be lost, probably within our lifetimes.

Any schoolwork I did up to age ten is stored in the aptly named “paper box” in my parents’ house. While storage conditions are probably not optimal in their upstate New York basement, I have a better chance of recovering my second grade spelling tests than I do of accessing the first research paper I ever wrote, in Mrs. Vertiak’s ninth grade English class (“Pythagoras: Greek Mathematician, Greek Hero”). That paper was stored on a floppy disk, now lost, and for which I do not have the corresponding floppy disk reader. How is the hypotenus related to hubris? We will never know.

Nor is their much likelihood of my ever again reading the contents of the two Zip disks that house high school and a fair amount of college work.  I don’t know where those disks ended up. I do not own a Zip drive.

It seems that CDs, DVDs, and hard drives are also victims of data rot, with known lifetimes that are much shorter than you might think. So all those pictures you burned onto DVD and then thought, “Whew, I will never lose those babies again!” Wrong. You should make backups of those as well, ideally on yet another type of media, and then update as new technologies replace the old.

Sound exhausting? It sure does to me. But it’s the only way to make sure that you will have pictures of your grandparents and pictures of yourself to show to your kids in twenty years. It’s the only way that you will be able to analyze your growth as a writer from age sixteen to age sixty. It’s the only way to ensure that You 1.0 survives as long as You 2.0 and all the other versions of You in your lifetime.

There is little chance that history will mourn the loss of my undergrad thesis about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But what about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s personal correspondence, his first drafts, his accounting books? (Okay, we could probably do without those.) In an age of high per capita personal exposure via Facebook and Twitter, we are exchanging meaningful insight for instantaneous and superficial soundbites (soundbytes?).What’s worse, we seem not at all concerned that most of this data is stored on servers owned by outside parties, which can delete or erase our data faster than you can say, “Damn it I wish I had backed up my data.”

Gabriel García Márquez once wrote, “Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.” Even if history doesn’t care about my thesis, those close to me might want to read it someday, just as they might get a kick out of my iTunes library or those pictures from my trip to Stonehenge. What files would your secret self be heartbroken to lose? Back them up, before they rot away.