Have you ever given serious thought to just how ephemeral life is? I was reminded of this yet again last week when an important file — containing hundreds of documents and graphics — disappeared from my computer. Poof! Just like that, years of work vanished.
Since Neolithic times — i.e., the era when floppy disks were considered hi-tech — I’ve been obsessed with backing up my computer. I had a super-organized system of floppies in those days, with each disk containing different groups of files.
Finally, I evolved into tape backups (Ugh!) … then CDs … then zip disks … and so on, until I finally started using an external backup drive. At first, I backed up manually. Then, I progressed to Cobian, which backs up my entire computer every night while I’m sleeping.
But after a time, it occurred to me that if my external drive was ever destroyed … or stolen … or simply damaged beyond repair, my backup files would disappear as well.
So, in addition to my external drive, I added an offsite service (Carbonite) that backs up my computer every night to a server located somewhere between my office and the moon. But Carbonite isn’t perfect by a long shot.
For example, if you accidentally delete a file from your computer (Who hasn’t?), Carbonite only keeps it for thirty days — and, yes, my file apparently missed the Cobian thirty-day cutoff. This is a glaring shortcoming that the company should address.
So when my important file disappeared last week, it was like losing a finger — gone forever, I lamented. Fortunately, however, as another layer of protection, I periodically back up my computer manually to my external hard drive and date the backed-up file. Some users might call it compulsive. I call it not trusting myself.
As a result, I was able to go back to a January 2015 manual backup of my computer and restore the file. I was lucky, but, even so, I can’t be sure if I added or deleted anything from the file over the past six months. In any event, I at least have the file as it existed six months ago.
All this got me thinking about the unthinkable: There’s no such thing as a 100 percent failsafe method when it comes to protecting your digital data. Everything in life is a tradeoff, so when you make the decision to digitize most of your business and personal life (a lifetime project that I finally began in earnest about six months ago), the tradeoff is that if one or more of your digital files should disappear, there’s no hard copy to fall back on as a last resort.
On the other side of the coin, of course, is that hard copies can be stolen or destroyed by fire, flood, or other natural disasters. Which is why, in this day and age, digitizing most documents is a necessity.
Just know that no amount of digitizing and no backup system are foolproof. That said, I find it amazing that very few businesspeople — or even techies — seem to give digital Armageddon a thought.
What could destroy all your files, both in your computer and on backup servers? For starters, how about terrorists taking down the entire power grid? That’s something that is probably a likelihood rather than a possibility. And who can say for certain that the average person’s data will survive even if the grid is eventually up and running again?
Or how about those nasty hackers who are plying their nefarious skills in Russia, China, and other parts of the world? Or nuclear war? Or perhaps a monster solar flare that could zap everything in an instant? (Of course, a flare of that magnitude might also take you and me out, in which case losing our data would be a moot point.)
What about the Cloud, you ask? Good question, and here’s the answer: The Cloud is a fantasy created by marketing minds. It’s nice to be able to grab any file you want from anywhere in the world, but — sorry to break it to you — the Cloud is nothing more than a marketing term for giant servers. Some of the things I mentioned above could totally destroy them.
Finally, here’s one I’ll bet you never thought about: What if Microsoft so drastically changes its operating system sometime in the future that you can no longer upgrade your files? Sure, there have always been ways to convert old files to new operating systems, but what if the administrative types at Microsoft screw things up and unintended consequences put us all back in the Dark Ages?
The truth is that there is no foolproof method for guaranteeing that your files are 100% safe. Digitizing your office is a monumental project that can take years and endless man hours to accomplish, assuming it’s done properly.
But, even so, it’s worth it. Entire file cabinets can be emptied and disposed of, with their most important contents taking up virtually no space inside your computer or on a backup server.
Just don’t get lulled into the Normalcy Bias Trap (underestimating the possibility and extent of a disaster) and believe that you have nothing to worry about. Your best bet is to do a manual backup once every week or two, then take the backup with you when you leave your office or home.
It’s not a 100 percent solution, but it’s the closest thing to it that I’ve been able to come up with. And, remember, that’s on top of backing up to an external drive on your desk and an offsite backup service.
Now, let’s set aside computer catastrophes and extend this same line of thinking to other aspects of life. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but the truth is that there are no guarantees in any area of life.
You can exercise seven days a week, but there’s no guarantee that you won’t lose your physiological “data” — heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, etc. (Think Jim Fixx.) You can eat fruits and vegetables till they’re coming out your ears — and never eat a hamburger, hot dog, or slice of pizza — and still lose your physiological data. (Think Nathan Pritikin.)
And in addition to body parts unexpectedly wearing out, there are outside forces such as automobile accidents, natural disasters, sociopathic killers, war, and diseases that are ready and willing to screw up your best-laid ”backup” plans. Most people have had one or more of these culprits take out friends or family members at one time or another, so I needn’t belabor the point.
The takeaway from all this is that my losing that important file last week was a reminder that nothing about life is permanent. Which is why being born is the biggest risk you will ever take.
On that happy note, let me close by saying that there’s a fine line between caution and paranoia, and I believe the only strategy that makes sense is moderation. Experience has convinced me that it really is the best policy. By all means, enjoy life, but always be on the alert for a bad surprise coming around the next corner. Never — ever — fall victim to the Normalcy Bias Trap.
As Katharine Hepburn once put it, “Life is hard. After all, it kills you.” How right she was. Unfortunately, there’s no system for backing up your life.