I’m a data hoarder. Not afraid to admit it. Hard drives groan and buckle beneath the weight of countless gigabytes of vital information, fun datasets, invaluable photographic memories, stupid memes and completely worthless crap.
If my Cloud started raining, it would be Noah’s fucking Flood.
As I was moving stuff onto yet more secure hard discs, I got to wondering why I do this.
Data permanence, of course, is a massive technological and philosophical subject that very smart people think about for fun. My interest in the subject is much, much shallower.
I’m a minimalist in every other aspect of life. My apartment is clean, my closet organized, and I just finished getting rid of 90 percent of my personal belongings, which was a completely liberating, nearly spiritual experience that helped me understand myself on a deeper level. Also, coworkers who visit my desk are convinced the lack of clutter in my workspace is a certain sign I’m a serial killer.
And yet, none of my proclivities towards cleanliness and less being more in IRL translates to the digital world.
Several things are at play. First, digital storage is cheap and infinite, unlike physical storage, so I’m never forced to choose between two files like I am two couches.
Secondly, I’m used to things going away. Most of the best things in my life have disappeared before I was ready for them to, so if I like it and I can save it, it stays.
Along those lines, Internet information decay is real. Ask anyone working for the Internet Archive or someone wishing they could retrieve their Geocities pages. Websites and online apps are constantly being updated, overwritten, removed or simply abandoned, so pages are here today and digital dust tomorrow.
Keeping things solely on social presents its own privacy dangers, and the risk of a platform going away and taking all my memories and information with it. This happened with MySpace long ago. And I’ve definitely shifted my blogging exploits away from things like SquareSpace, Medium or Tumblr because I don’t feel ownership of my own information in those places like I do somewhere either self-hosted or easily transferrable. It’s part of why I’m so appreciative that Google, Facebook and Twitter allow me to download my whole posting history.
News orgs also archive the living shit out of things periodically. Rather than rely on someone to lovingly save old articles in free and easy-to-access places forever, I would rather save PDFs of stuff I find interesting.
A dangerous flip side threatens our civilization’s gluttonous digitization of all human knowledge though. Unless data is engraved onto golden records and shot into space on a probe, every bit of information on Earth is in danger of permanent oblivion in the case of nuclear war or some disaster that either kills power sources or damages global electronics. In that case, books will live longer than iPads.
Also, cybersecurity is a constant issue. Just ask Equifax or Facebook right now, as they lose control of mass amounts of our personal information. And my own networks are laughably insecure anyone else’s, despite my best efforts and due diligence.
And as cheap and helpful as the Cloud is, keeping things on someone else’s computer instead of my own doesn’t fill me with confidence.
But I guess the upsides to digital information storage vastly outweigh the hypothetical doomsday downsides.
In the event of global catastrophe giving way to a Mad Max hellscape, whether or not we can access old YouTube videos will be the least of our worries.
So I guess I’ll just keep saving stuff until the lights go out.