Thursday, March 26, 2009

The siren song

“Technology is a siren song I listen to at my peril.” 

When I wrote those words on April 6, 1997, I was wrestling with something I wrestle with yet: the retention of digital media. It was much simpler back then, of course, before photography, music and, to some extent, literature transformed from tangible substances of actual weight and volume to binary codes fashioned of intangible zeros and ones. It was much harder back then, too.

The reason I know I wrote those words is because of a new gadget that technology (and UPS) delivered to my door. It’s called a Fujitsu ScanSnap S510M document scanner, but I call it my little miracle worker. In short order it takes documents—in my case, old diaries—and scans them into Adobe PDF files, the worldwide standard for document preservation. It’s lightning fast, comes with Adobe Acrobat Professional software, and very reasonably priced, though it was admittedly a hard sell to my wife. In this instance I can flatly state that the sirens of technology sang me to a safe haven, and for that I am most grateful.

Back in ‘97 I was weighing the pros and cons of buying a new computer. It would be a replacement for our first, a nameless brand with a miniscule 100-megabyte hard drive. It wasn’t difficult to outgrow such a tiny drive, nor did it take more than a few years before I found myself deleting rarely-used programs in a vain attempt at postponing the inevitable. It was like trying to bail out a sinking rowboat using a cracked coffee cup, an act as futile as it was energetic. The sharks always win in the end.

The model I’d picked out as my dream machine was one of the first production Gateways sporting a speedy 200 MHz processor, 32 megabytes of SRAM, a blazing-fast 33,600-baud modem, 100 megabyte zip drive and a staggering hard drive with almost four gigabytes of storage. The cost: $2,700.

It was, I wrote, a bargain, though we could scarcely afford it.

What really prompted the move was as much technological obsolescence as an inability to complete a comprehensive backup. I had realized early on that writing with a word processor was not only faster than using pen and paper, but easier to read when printed. An added bonus was its ability to be archived digitally, though at the time the word was in its infancy. Once a three-ring binder was filled with printed pages, I’d start a new folder on the computer and archive the old one by burning it onto a floppy disk—the real McCoy, a five-and-a-quarter-inch flexible piece of plastic with a capacity of about one megabyte. And suddenly the computer balked at my ministrations, refusing all backups.

The Gateway also came with the latest in floppy technology: the three-and-a-half-inch version with half again as much storage capacity and a harder outer shell for rigidity. 

Once the new computer was ours, I transferred my diaries onto the new medium and, as CDs became the archival choice, transferred them again. In most aspects I was ahead of the curve in backing up my data, and yet there were hard lessons to be learned. 

And I learned them all. Corrupt data disks? Check. Crashed hard drives? Check. Backups using outmoded software that new software couldn’t decipher? Check. Forgotten passwords to encrypted data? Check! For all its marvels and wonders, technology was remarkably buggy and prone to catastrophe. Keeping your stuff—data, that is—intact was an exercise in disaster recovery.

Thanks in large part to the above-mentioned calamities plus a few shortcomings on my part, after six years of meticulous backups and upgrades I was left with what I began with more than two decades before: printed material. 

Lots of printed material, it turned out. What to do with all those thousands of pages in a digital era has occupied my thinking for years, sometimes to outlandish results. Now that I’ve solved my immediate problem, or will as soon as I find the time (something no amount of technology can provide), I’m faced with a new dilemma, namely, the retention of printed paper. 

It seems almost heretical to say it, but why bother? I stopped printing my columns over a year ago, opting instead for digital copies. If there’s one thing I’ve missed I can’t think of it. Certainly space around here is at a premium; even the old three-inch binder containing my first columns has become a problem in terms of storage. Spiders occasionally weave their webs within the binding and dust bunnies cavort and frolic across its cover. Plus there’s the matter of a half-dozen large plastic tubs that require babying and the concomitant worries of waterproofing and safeguarding from fire or other natural calamities. 

Maybe I’m old-school, but having a hard copy of anything important has always seemed critical, if not logical. With the new ScanSnap, though, the idea of a true paperless office is at last within my grasp. If, that is, I have the stomach for it.

Backing up that data has become easier, and more affordable, than ever with external hard drives and even online storage. I’ve learned through extensive failures that redundancy is the key to success; I now have three copies of everything and will soon have four. One copy is off-site in case the house burns down. And no more using off-brand software—only that which can be read by any computer, anywhere.

In 1997 what I most feared in technology’s siren song was a slavish adherence to upgrading for the sake of newer, faster, better, and going broke in the bargain. Nor has my concerns about data protection changed: speed, space, software, affordability, reliability and functionality. Of them, affordability always managed to trump the others, usually to my chagrin. The focus should be on function. Price is negotiable and, in the long run, negligible. $2,700 for that Gateway? Suddenly, a new MacBook looks like a bargain.


Anonymous said...

Tom-- I totally identified with this column. Progress marches on. Enjoyed this week's photos too.

Dave Leiker said...

It is a big challenge. Maybe it's vanity to hope any of my own work will outlive me, but it'd be nice of some of it does. I have close to 250GB of archives now on a Netgear (raid) storage unit. The best of it is already online - low resolution - but still a record if everything else poofs out of existence. So as long as I keep up my domain payments and the hosting company doesn't tank....
I print some, but that is usually as exciting for me as warming up leftovers.

Tom Parker said...

Dave -- With your dazzling photos, I assumed your walls would be like a gallery. It's odd how we spend so much time taking photos, tweaking them in the computer, and then leave them there to collect virtual dust. I keep intending to frame my better images, and then something comes up and I don't. It begs the question: We do this for what reason?
I'm looking into online storage even as we speak.