The Pleasures and Perils of Going Digital

By  |  Monday, February 9, 2009 at 5:25 pm

Ed Bott[An introductory note from Harry: I’m pleased to say that Technologizer’s Digital Media Central will be publishing some posts from guest bloggers over the next few weeks. The first to drop in is Ed Bott, whose work I’ve long admired at Ed Bott’s Windows Expertise and Ed Bott’s Microsoft Report, the latter of which lives on ZDnet. Ed and I are also almost-colleagues: He was managing editor of PC World a few years before I showed up there. Welcome, Ed–it’s good to see your byline on Technologizer.]

If you had just two minutes to outrun a fire or tsunami and could take only what you were able to carry from your house, what would you grab first?

Assuming the family and pets were all safe, my first instinct would probably be to start stuffing hard drives into a sack. Especially the ones that contain precious family photos and videos.

But on reflection, I think a smarter move would be to run out the front door with an armload of photo albums and some VHS cassettes. Just about every memory I have from this century is in digital format, but those old photos and tapes are still hanging around, gathering dust and daring me to convert them to bits.

Those old-fashioned media collections, on paper and tape, are like geological markers that define major analog-to-digital transitions in my life. My honeymoon in 1996? Analog. Our 2001 return trip to the same Hawaiian island? Digital, courtesy of the Kodak DC240 camera we began using in 1998. Wedding videos? Trapped on VHS tape in analog format. Videos of our new puppy’s first bath in 2006? Digital, in standard def. This summer’s trip to see Yonder Mountain String Band in Colorado? Digitally documented in high-def, thanks to a new Panasonic Lumix camera that also captures HD video.

Having all that digital media hanging around has its advantages. In most respects, it’s easier to share today’s digital media. I can e-mail a photo or share it on Flickr, and I can upload a video to YouTube in a couple clicks.

It’s much easier to manage, too. Back in analog times, I haunted used record stores and built a collection of more than 500 vinyl LPs. The whole collection weighed several hundred pounds and took up most of one wall in my living room. My music collection today is four times as large, yet it fits on a single hard drive with room for all my digital photos and videos as well.

But with that convenience comes the risk of sudden, catastrophic loss. One hard disk crash can literally wipe out a decade’s worth of memories, including pictures that simply can’t be replaced and a music collection that would take hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to rebuild.

Which is why I’ve become something of a fanatic for digital backup. Every digital media file I own is stored on a home server, which uses  in turn is backed up to an external hard drive. I’ve got copies of those videos and photos safely stashed away on Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3). Every so often, I burn those photos onto a couple DVDs and mail them to a friend for safekeeping. That way, if my house burns down at exactly the same time as an earthquake levels Amazon’s data center, I’m still covered.

Is that obsessive? Maybe just a little. But I’ve talked to plenty of friends and clients who have lost months’ or years’ worth of files because of a sudden hard disk crash. I can’t imagine losing all those memories, nor can I imagine how I’d explain it to Judy.



4 Comments For This Post

  1. whhira Says:

    I have to admit I have way too much stuff still on analog (svhs). I still have hours of mini dv tape not captured to hard drives yet. I think I’ll have to show my 11 yr. old how to capture those tapes to my external drive and pay her to do it for me.

    Off site backup does sound like practical solution for us common folk. I hope you can write about how you back up your media to S3 and what kind of costs you have to deal with.


  2. Andy Says:

    If you are on Windows you can use CloudBerry Explorer freeware to backup/copy files to Amazon S3.www cloudberrylab com

  3. Ed Bott Says:

    Thanks for the question, whhira! I use a program called Allway Sync as my all-purpose file syncing program. It works with local drives, networks, removable media, and (tada!) Amazon S3. Very cool and easy to use, once you set it up initially. I have more info about this program, including download links, in an article I did last year:

  4. Kent Says:

    I’m a great believer in RAID mirroring. It saved my digital files on one occasion. I also believe in belt and suspenders, so I have a USB drive to backup all the media. But where to stash that drive?

    My vinyl is still mostly on vinyl, but I estimate it would take me three to four months just to rip my CDs back onto a disk. Videos are disposable as far as I am concerned, but my music is another story. I’m a collector. Photos are simpler — I have less, but they are far more important than anything else. It would be a blessing to lose my email archive. 🙂

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