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In my basement, for instance, I have a collection of eight-inch floppy disks. These disks hold all of the papers and letters that I wrote in high school on the first computer that I ever owned. Alas, that machine has long since departed from the face of this planet. I doubt that I will ever be able to read those disks again, and I don’t have a copy of the documents anywhere else.

The MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory had the same problem with a large collection of magnetic tapes made in the 1970s and ’80s. Even the National Archives has had problems with computer records: you can’t just leave them in a box. Instead, you need to copy them every three or four years from older computers to newer computers. Failure to do so risks losing the data as the magnetic medium deteriorates.

This endless cycle of copying is the approach that I now take with my home computer. On my computer there are three electronic folders that contain all the digital data from the last two decades of my life that I truly care about. There are three gigabytes of e-mail stretching back to 1983, another gigabyte of articles, letters and papers that I’ve written, and one more gigabyte of programs that I’ve coded, photographs I’ve taken, financial records and electronic keepsakes. Every time I get a new computer, I painstakingly copy this data from one machine to the next.

Organizing this data store over the past two decades has been a major challenge. But even after I got all of my directories set up, a continuing problem was software churn. For example, today’s Microsoft Word can’t read the letters that I wrote on my Macintosh in 1994 with WriteNow. Similarly, today’s e-mail programs can’t access the mailboxes of my old e-mail files, even though the messages themselves are stored as pure text. As a result, on those occasions that I need to go back and search for things, I usually end up using Unix and Linux tools that are comfortable working with pure text files, rather than the fancy Windows-based applications that can’t handle even minor variations in file formats.

Another fear of mine is losing the data due to some sort of hardware failure. Like most computer users, I don’t do a particularly good job of backing up. In all of last year, I made but a single tape backup. Instead, I protect my data by using multiple hard disks. The computer is set up so that every piece of information is recorded simultaneously onto two matched hard drives; if one drive fails, I still have a copy. As a second level of backup, at the end of each day my computer automatically copies the files that I’ve modified since the beginning of the month to a third hard drive. This archive has saved me on numerous times when I have accidentally deleted an important file. Even with these safeguards in place, though, I still manage to lose information from time to time.

All of this is a lot of work, but that’s the price I pay to make sure my data is safe. Unfortunately, as hard disks have become more and more reliable, many people and organizations have forgotten the need to constantly back them up. In the old days, when hard drives might be expected to fail about once a year, you had a clear incentive to do your backups. Now that disks fail only every five or 10 years, keeping up sound data practices seems like busywork.

A growing number of companies are now trying to help businesses and individuals deal with these data issues. Retro Box, based in Columbus, OH, picks up a company’s aging computers, properly sanitizes the hard drives and then helps to redeploy the computers within the corporation, sell them on the open market or donate them to charity. Several online backup companies, such as SkyDesk (www.backup.com) and Connected (www.connected.com), will back up your files over the Internet to their own data vaults. Of course, if you actually use one of these companies, you need to trust them more than you trust yourself.

I’m sure that over the next 20 or 30 years we’ll finally get the hang of this data thing. Years from now, when my grandchildren go to clean out my safe deposit box, they’ll probably sit down at a computer terminal somewhere, have their eyes scanned by some kind of biometric reader and transfer the data from my data vault to theirs. Either that, or they’ll just hit “delete” and wipe it all away.

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