Long-Term Thinking

I’ve recently been overhauling my photo backup process (look for an upcoming post on it) and it made me start thinking about the general idea of backing up files. We’ve all heard the horror stories of people who lost an important document the night before it was due, but do we actually respond to that by backing up our own files regularly? I’d bet that most of us don’t.

But do backups really matter? Unless you’re a college student or writing a novel, do your files really need to be stored indefinitely?

Short-Term Thinking

I think it’s common to see backups as protection against short-term loss. If you’re working on a report that needs to be submitted next week, you might copy it to your desktop so that the only copy isn’t stored on an easily-lost flash drive. Maybe your workplace runs a server backup every day or every week in case a hard drive fails and the data needs to be restored.

It’s easy to tell when a file is important to you in the short term, which makes it the most common thing to back up. Fortunately there are several ways to back up these types of files. You could copy the file to another USB or internal hard drive, store it in Dropbox or Google Drive, or copy it to a network drive at your workplace. And since you’ll probably only really care about that file for the next week or two, you don’t really need an organizational system for those backups. If you’re like me, your Dropbox is a haphazard collection of files that have long outlived their relevance.

Short-term backups are important, and you’re being a responsible computer user by doing it. But if you stop there, you’re missing out on a large part of why I think backups matter.

The Memory Box

I have a prediction: I bet at some point in your life you’ve had a parent or grandparent pull out a dusty cardboard or wooden box with a bunch of photos in it. If you grew before digital cameras were common, you might have a box of your own. Maybe the box doesn’t just have photos in it, but other sentimental items too. Most parents have a box full of things their kids made–all of those terrible “art” pieces from school, maybe an award certificate or two, and other memories from the past.

I have another prediction: You’ve probably, by choice or not, looked through pictures from the memory box. Whether you’re a sentimental person or not, it’s fun to look through old pictures and remember the times past. If you were a part of the events, it’s neat to look back and relive the moment. If it was something you weren’t around for (or even alive for), it gives you a glimpse into what life used to be like.

But I’m telling you why memories matter, and I probably don’t need to convince you of that. Perhaps it’s more worthwhile to talk about what a 2017 memory box would look like.

We Have Too Many Files

In the digital age we now live in, everything is less tangible. “It’s a feature, not a bug,” you say, as you move thousands of files to a flash drive without getting a backache from lifting heavy boxes. But there’s a downside to digital files–it’s a lot easier to lose track of things.

I’m not really talking about some kind of catastrophic hardware failure that destroys your data. That sort of thing does happen, but I think it’s a lot more common that you just…..lose track of stuff. I know I have folders littered across my hard drive with orphaned pictures and documents that I’ve forgotten. Once you get enough of those files and folders, everything becomes a mess and it becomes overwhelming.

The problem is that it’s hard to know today what is going to be important to you in ten or twenty years. Sometimes it’s obvious–you probably want to save the pictures of your child’s first birthday party, and you probably don’t want to save the photo you took of a serial number that you needed to type into a form.

But a lot of times it isn’t so obvious. I’ve had several times when I’ve been reminiscing with friends about old times and wanted to look back at a picture from a long-past event. In some of these cases it’s easy to find the picture, because the moment felt significant at the time and I made it a priority to save the photo. But at other times, it was something I didn’t think I’d need to save for later, so I didn’t put it in a safe place.

Long-Term Backups are the 2017 Memory Box

The answer, I think, is to save everything unless you know beyond all doubt that you won’t need it later. If it’s not a picture or document you’d be willing to delete next week, save it. We live in an age of extremely cheap storage, and there’s no reason to not take advantage of that to save everything you possibly can. Between cloud services and personal hard drives, you have access to unimaginable amounts of digital storage space. Use it.

There are a few complications, of course. The first is that you have to have an organizational system for the data. If you’re going to dump every photo you take onto an external hard drive, you better be organizing that data in some way. Even if all you have is a date, that at least gives you a place to start if you want to find a needle in the haystack later. You may not need to organize the documents you’re throwing on your flash drive, but you better organize the files you’re going to save for the next twenty years.

Another complication is that you have to figure out where you’re actually going to store your backups. You could use a cloud service such as iCloud, Google Drive, or Backblaze, but you’ll have to trust a large company to take care of your data. On the other hand, if you store your files locally, you have to trust yourself to maintain the integrity of the backup drives. You also have to consider the cost of various solutions, especially if you record a lot of video. Have you seen how much storage space 4K footage requires?

The final complication is that you have to find all of the things you want to back up. This sounds like it would be easy, but it might not be. Do you have memories on your Facebook or Instagram page? If so, you’ll have to figure if (and how) you want to save those. Do you have a bunch of discarded laptops or external hard drives lying around with old data on them? You’ll have to determine whether they contain anything you care about. Depending on how long you’ve been fully embracing technology and how sentimental you are, you might have a lot of legwork to do to find everything you care about.

Backups Are Worth Doing

The unfortunate truth is that backups are still harder than they should be. Companies like Apple and Google have started to do a really good job of helping you back up all of the files on your phone, but for most people that isn’t quite enough by itself. Figuring out a comprehensive long-term backup solution seems like a difficult and exhausting task.

We’re going to try to help with this by writing a few future posts on how we have approached backing up our files. Photo backup is probably the biggest thing we can give advice on, but we’ll also try to help with backing up some of the other things you might care about. So look forward to that.

But for now, take this as an opportunity to think about the current state of your digital files. Are you backing up everything you care about, or do you need to take steps to save things you may want later? We may not have as many physical memories these days, but the photos and videos we take will probably be just as important to us one day. I think it’s something that is worth thinking about.


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