My Life on a Hard Drive

I wanted to call this essay, “My Life on a Terabyte Drive” because it sounded cooler and more specific, but then I’m thinking about buying a netbook and they only come with 160 gigabytes of hard drive space, something less glamorous to say in a title.  I can’t even fit my music collection on that, so it wouldn’t be true either.  If you read to the end of this essay, you’ll see I could have called it, “My Memory Book,” but that title wouldn’t mean anything to you until I explained it all. 

Either at work, or with friends, I’ve had to help many people move their personal data from one computer to another.  When I started this kind of support years ago, all I needed was one floppy.  The last time I moved my stuff to a new machine, I bought a 750gb USB drive.  No, I didn’t need to fill it up, at least not then.  My Mozy.com account says I have 193.3gb backed up with them, but that’s only my life from one of three home computers, and I’ve yet to complete the epic task of scanning all my family photos.

When I contemplate putting my life on a hard disk many fanciful ideas come to mind.  I like to compare this goal to mind uploading, a science fictional concept that deals with transferring a person’s personality to a computer.  I first wrote about this idea in “My Life in 75 Megabytes,” which lets you know how long I’ve been thinking about this concept.  Back then my own expanding universe was much smaller, and could fit on a zip disk.

I find I have seven discrete concepts I’d like to explore in this essay:

  1. What goes into a digitized life?
  2. How is a digital life organized?
  3. How do we synced ourselves across many machines?
  4. What role does the media player play?
  5. How to we span living across local and network drives?
  6. What do we need to protect our digital memory?
  7. And do our files define our personality?

Thinking about buying a netbook that will be my carry-around auxiliary mind, a Mini-Me, so to say, I’d like to think about it’s full theoretical potential.  Let’s just play with the idea of what we’d like to have on a computer if one day we found ourselves orphaned from home with only the clothes on our back and a computer in our hand.

What Goes Into a Digitized Life?

Photographs have been the primary artifact that people want to protect and preserve.  Photographs are what people cry over the most when their CPU bytes the big one.  Next up is music files, either ripped, stolen or DRMed.  Few people stuff their machines with essays and fiction like me, but many folks like to maintain a wordy autobiography in the form of an email archive.  A few $-minded souls, horde tax records like misers.  And I’m starting to see hard drives become the new shoebox for home videos.  I myself, have hundreds of audio books that I’ve tediously ripped from cassette tapes and CDs that I’d hate to lose.  My wife wants to preserve video games, and their activation codes.  I’ve met a few people who maintain databases of things they love to collect.  When it comes down to it, there’s an almost endless variety of things people junk up their hard drives with and want to save forever.

All this digital junk can be broken down into two extremely distinct types:  Unique, owner created data, that can’t be found anywhere else, and copies of stuff other people created, either received free, stolen or bought.  It’s far more painful to have a laptop stolen with five years of digital snapshots than one with hundreds of dollars worth of songs bought from iTunes.

For the purpose of this essay, let’s not worry about the actual size of the hard drive on your buddy computer, but instead imagine this device will contain everything you want to save that can be digitized and if found in 30 years by your grandchildren, or 300 years by a scholar of the 21st century history, would make a statement about who you are.  Think about this super-netbook as your library of personally created data, plus copies of your favorite songs, books, audiobooks, movies, TV shows, paintings, poems, short stories, novels, etc.  Just think of it as the memory you wished your neurons could records.

The File Structure of Our Lives

I don’t know if you’ve ever gone into someone else’s computer and tried to extract what they desperately want to save, but it’s a fascinating task.  Microsoft, Apple and Linus all make provisions for storing user documents in a specified place, but users do their damnedest to squirrel important files all over their drives.  And even when they stick to the Home directory concept, everyone creates their own folder structure and naming system.  In recent years the idea of standard music and photo folders have emerged, which is great, but I think we need to convene a panel of Nobel prize winning eggheads to develop a worldwide standard, to be used across all OS systems, so future archeologists poking through our private digital junkyards can easily find our treasured entombed memories, and make sense of them.

We need to organize our auxiliary brains and keep them tidy for ourselves too, because as we toss more stuff into our net noggins, finding what we want becomes harder and annoying.  I love the fact that most applications in Windows now open My Documents as default when you mouse click Open File.  It drives me nuts that people want to override this and put their crap all over the desktop or in folders they created off of the root drive. 

I’m also glad Microsoft simplified “My Documents,” “My Music,” and “My Pictures” into Documents, Music and Pictures.  But now we need to expand on that to include Videos, Movies, Books and other categories.  This is where things get tricky, where arguments start, and OS turf wars begin.  Under “Jim” on my Vista machine I have:

  • Desktop
  • Downloads
  • Links
  • Pictures
  • Searches
  • Documents – Shortcut
  • Contacts
  • Documents
  • Favorites
  • Music
  • Saved Games
  • Videos

This is how Microsoft divides my life, and they’ve made some mysterious choices to me.  I wish I had a Mac so I could see how Steve Jobs wants the same job accomplished.  Ubuntu just gives me a home folder, leaving me free to make my own decisions from there   Since our computer will define our personality and I said we could save anything digital document that defines us, this means the home folder will become a library of digital files.  I’m not sure if the structure set out by Microsoft is a workable Dewey Decimal system for this task though.

What folder do I file my digital audio books?  Where do I put my ebooks or .pdf files for magazines and articles?  And should I save Gattaca, my favorite science fiction movie under Videos, the same place where I would store my home made clips?  And if I collected favorite YouTube videos, should they also be filed with my personal videos?

I think we need to rethink the \Home\ folder concept.  \Jim\ should be just for documents I created, and another folder called \Library\ should be used for all files I collect that were created by other people.  And the two might even have sub-folders with the same titles, like \Videos\,  \Photos\ and \Music\.  (That’s assuming I become more creative than I am now.)  Thus the new \Jim\ might contain these sub-folders:

  • Audioclips
  • Banking
  • Blogs
  • Bookmarks
  • Data
  • Diary
  • Emails
  • Essays
  • Fiction
  • HTML
  • Lists
  • Medical
  • Numbers
  • Photos
  • Timeline
  • Video

This isn’t perfect yet, but I hope you see where I’m going.  Under \Library\ I might have these sub-folders:

  • Art
  • Audiobooks
  • Books
  • Lectures
  • Magazines
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Photographs
  • Podcasts
  • Television
  • Video

In my personal folder, I have Photos, for those I take, but Photographs under Library, for pictures I buy.  Art would be for digitized artwork I like.  My desktop gallery program could be set to pull from Art, Photos and Photographs.

How to Keep our Digital Life Synced?

I have two desktop machines and laptop at home, and various iPod and MP3 players, including a iPod touch, and I’m planning to buy a netbook.  Plus I have several computers at work with years of programming code I created that I never want to loose.  At work I have USB drive I brought from home that has a backup of all my home files, but in particularly, my music library so I can play songs at work.  At times I also bring USB drives home, so my work is backed up.

The absolute ideal file storage solution would a 100% reliable gigabit network to a federally protected online databank with all my computers accessing one file system library that was perfectly safe until the Sun goes nova.  Plus, my data would be preserved for ever and ever, even after I died, for historical researchers.  I’m watching The Tudors – don’t you wish the producers of the show had access to Henry’s and Anne’s home directories?

Unfortunately, we don’t have such an ideal solution.  The trend is toward owning multiple computers, and by computer I also mean cell phone, iPod, and even video game units, anything that processes and stores digital data you create.   And we’re already seeing syncing solutions.  You can backup cell phone directories to your home computer, or if you have an iPhone, you can get your email, contacts and calendar from an Exchange server at work, thus syncing your phone numbers in one database.

In fact, the iPhone is a marvelous device, in that it can sync songs, photos, audiobooks, television shows, movies and other files from your mothership desktop to your lifeboat phone.  Apple doesn’t seem to like the concepts of netbooks, hoping you will use an iPhone/touch instead.  However, I find their amazing little screen too small to be my carry-around computer companion.

The Role of the Media Player

iTunes is also a fascinating program and concept.  It’s a program that attempts to manage the \Library\ portion of your file system, and a media player for playing songs, television shows, movies and audiobooks from your library.  With a bit of tweaking from Apple, it theoretically could handle my Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher and PDF documents too, if we wanted one file librarian to manage all my computer files, including the personally created \Jim\ files too.  Wouldn’t that be cool?

Right now we generally have one program that creates each kind of content, such as a word processer for writing, a spreadsheet for playing with numbers, a database for handling data in tables, a publishing program for making magazine content, web editors for creating web pages, audio programs for recording voice, and so on.  But on the other hand, there are two classes of programs emerging that show us the results of what these other programs produce.  The first general class of file viewers is the web browser for looking at data files on the net, and the second program is the media librarian for looking at files on your computer.

I’m not sure if media librarians are a good idea or not.  They are designed to make life easier for the user and isolate the user from knowing about the file system.  The entire Macintosh philosophy seems to follow this belief too, that things are easier if you keep the user from needing to know too much about the file system.  I’m not sure that’s a good educational goal.  Both the web browser and media librarian work to replace the operating system.  An emerging class of Linux netbooks work to create an easy-to-use visual menu that sits on top of the OS and hides things from the user too.

The trouble is, if users work directly with the file system and double clicks on one, whether word processor document, or mp3 music file, those files will be launched into an editor program, rather than a player program, assuming the user created the files.  Media librarians like iTunes, Windows Media Player, Rhapsody, Audible Manager are great for organizing and playing certain kinds of files, producing playlists, sharing media with other users, etc.  The trouble is to select one universal media library program that does everything perfectly.

When I download an audiobook from Audible.com, it goes into my iTunes and Audible Manager, and I can have it also go into my Windows Media Player.  Sometimes the download gets messed up and the audiobook doesn’t get filed in one of the players.  So I have to find the file and manually add it to the library.  iTunes files all MP3 files under Music, so songs and ripped audio books get mixed together.  That annoys me.

Plus iTunes only wants to work with iPods, so it doesn’t help me when I use my Zune.  But then my Zune Media player won’t have anything to do with my iPods.  And all my media librarians fight to own my MP3 collection of 18,000+ songs.  It’s a huge pain.  I also have multiple programs willing to play my videos too, but none are universal, thus I have to have specialty programs like Amazon Unbox to view videos bought from Amazon.

Right now you can set Windows to launch any program you choose for a particular file extension.  Thus if I have Rhapsody set for .mp3, it will launch when I click on a song or an audiobook or a podcast, all of which share the .mp3 extension.  I wish Windows would allow a folder override to this system, so for \Audiobooks\ I could set Audible Manager as a my player, and for \Music\ I could set Windows Media Player, and for \Podcasts\ I could set iTunes.

Now that we’re slowly moving away from DRM enslaved files, we will be less reliant on media librarian programs like iTunes.  Also, why does your favorite program to play songs also have to be your program to load songs onto a MP3 player?  And why can’t I have one librarian for all my devices, including iPods, Creative MP3 players, Zune, phone and netbooks?  Every portable device has a limited amount of storage space, so wouldn’t it be great to have a librarian on my largest computer that could talk to all my lesser computers and help me manage a subset of files I want to maintain on each?

I would love a librarian where I could rate my content 1-10, whether songs, movies or word documents, and then when I plug in a portable device, the librarian would show me how much that device can handle by telling me, “This device can hold all content rated 8 and above, would you like me to load it?”  Or I could set it to always load personally created data first, then songs as a second priority, and only sync television marked unseen, and to manually sync movies.

Even still, I’m not sure I like one program to do everything for me.  I like choice.  I like the Unix philosophy of having a tool for each job.  I think I’d prefer to pick each app that played each kind of file.  That way I could have the perfect ebook reader for me that might be different from my perfect music player.   Hell, I might like one kind of MP3 player for playing albums, another for playing playlists, another for random playing of songs, and even another program where I play and manage my all-time favorite 1,001 tunes.  And all of these would work from the same \Music\ folder structure.  I’d also like a program that would generate reports on the \Music\ folder by listing all albums, artists and tracks, and keep statistics on each.  I have no idea how many albums I own, even though they are all on a computer.

Hard Disk Driving versus Network Driving

As the Internet get better, meaning faster and with more features, space on our local hard drives will be needed less, until we only need to store personally created data.  If Rhapsody’s library had every song my personal music library did, I’d never mess with a \Music\ folder again.  If the network was fast and always dependable, I wouldn’t even worry about putting songs, television and movies on my devices because I’d just stream them from Lala, Rhapsody, Pandora, Zune, Netflix and Amazon.  A netbook with a 160gb hard drive would be fine and dandy as my auxiliary brain until I took too many photos or videos.  And if I could store unlimited photos and videos reliably online, I’d again be free of hard drive space limitations.

If the the broadband and the network were that great I wouldn’t even need a \Library\ file system at all.  However, any experience with flaky network connections will make you horde your favorite content locally.

There’s a reason why they call these cute little computers netbooks.  They are gadgets designed to depend on the Internet for their content.  I’ve never wanted a smartphone because I’ve never wanted to pay a broadband cell phone bill, but I’d be much more likely to want broadband service with a netbook.  And all the cell phone providers are quickly ramping up to sell netbooks with two-year broadband contracts. 

Laptops were supposed to be on-the-go computing, but they have been too big, too expensive and don’t last long enough on a charge, to be the always on-the-go computers.  I just don’t want to carry an expensive laptop everywhere, afraid I might break it, lose it, or have it stolen, but I might carry a $350 machine everywhere I went, especially if it’s charge would last all day like a cell phone, and I could get access to the net.

I’ve set up a half-dozen netbooks so far, all for women who want these purse size computers.  I’ve had several grown women in my office all squealing like girls over purple and pinkness.  They don’t even understand the potential of netbooks, all they see is pretty and purse-able.  They even buy netbooks with their own money for work use.  I’ve talked to other women that bought them for home use at Walmart or from the Home Shopping Channel, and they tell me their kids are buying them too.  Netbooks are hot.  $250-$400 seems to be the right price for portable computing.

I’m waiting for 8 hours of battery life, which many models have now, and better video processing, which is coming this fall.  I’d also like faster processing and I’m torn on deciding between a 10” or 12” screen, and what resolution it should have.  I’ve set up a Dell Mini 10 with 1366×768 resolution that’s super sharp but teeny tiny  But the Dell’s was properly proportioned at the resolution, something not true of all netbook screens I’ve seen.  I hate squashed or stretched fonts!  

Netbooks are getting very close to showing 1080p video, so they will make great on-the-road theaters that can replace portable DVD players and iPods, plus they make great Skype video phones.  Combined with broadband and Bluetooth headsets, they can be cell phones too.  The implications for this auxiliary brain as a communications tool is immense.

Backing Up is Hard To Do

As we put more of our life on our netbooks, or should we steal a trademark, our Lifebooks, it will be vital to back them up.  If netbooks are synced with desktop computers, that’s one level of backup.  Asus even sells their netbooks with 10gb of online storage.  And there is always services like Mozy.com that backup files to Internet servers.  But the main thing to remember, these devices will become our heads we can lose, and we’ll hate the day we experience a digital lobotomy.  I’ve always said the Internet is our real sixth sense, and netbooks will only reinforce this belief.  Once we all got addicted to electrical devices like computers and televisions, we’d get pissed when electricity went off.  After I became dependent on the net, I actually get jumpy and depressed when the net goes down.  If we become addicted to our little buddy computers we carry everywhere, losing one will be painful indeed.  Like losing part of ourselves.  Being able to quickly replicate our digital life onto a replacement netbook will be extremely important.

Do Our Files Reflect Our Personality?

If a team of psychologists with AI tools, found my future netbook with all my writing and all my favorite photos, art, books, movies, television shows, songs, on it, could they analyze the content and produce a description of my personality?  If netbooks had been around for hundreds of years, and we could study the content of our ancestors, how much would we know about them?  My father died when I was 19, and there has always been so much I’ve wondered about him.  I would love to have a copy of his auxiliary brain.

Also, imagine kids starting school with netbooks and keeping all their schoolwork, photos and videos they make throughout their K-12 careers.  Boy, I wished I had such a childhood treasure.  I wished I had taken photos of all my classmates, all my classrooms, hallways, schools and teachers.  I wish I had taken photos of all the homes I lived in, with photos of all the rooms, furniture and the streets I walked.  We always focused our cameras on families and friends, but I wished I had also taken photos of objects, like houses, rooms, streets, cars of my life, to aid my memory.  I’ve forgotten so much that I’d love to recall.  Maybe it has little true value, because I did forget all that stuff, but now I wish I had more evidence of my earlier life.  I wish I had photos of every dog and cat I owned.  I can barely picture my furry friends now, mostly just recall their names, like Blacky, Chief or Mike, and some I can’t even remember, which is sad.

I seriously doubt there is much real detail to download from our brains, if such a science fictional reality is ever possible.  I don’t know if personality profiles can be resurrected from netbooks, but I think my sense of personal history would be much stronger, and my self awareness, far more vivid, if my poor old brain had more solid evidence.

The Future of Netbooks

Thinking about these seven concepts of how we could store our life digitally and have it readily at hand, to help us with day-to-day activities, makes me picture all kinds of possibilities for netbooks.  I doubt our futures will include jacks in the back of our skulls like the people in the movie, The Matrix, but the netbook could become the mind-computer interface between ourselves and the net. 

With Bluetooth, we could have cell phone like headsets, so we could make calls, but also use our netbooks for dictating voice recordings, to aid our memory with verbal annotations.  Photo and video cameras could be combined with Bluetooth so anything we snap or video is immediately recorded to our external brains.  Medical monitoring devices could be combined with Bluetooth, netbooks and broadband for new kinds of health tracking and assessment.  Netbooks will only expand social networking, and if our youthful population is so close now because of cell phones, think what constant video phoning will do to their generation.

Netbooks might finally bring us into the age of videophone that’s been predicted by science fiction since Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon entertained tykes in the 1930s in the Sunday funnies.  Computer pundits thought we’d all be wearing computers by now, but maybe a good device that’s easy to carry will do instead.  This makes me predict purses will become common for men, at least leather over-the-shoulder pouches, or we’ll see more men with messenger bags.  But netbooks are so easy to carry, they may never get to far from our hands.

If netbooks had reversible LCD touch screens as a standard feature, so they could function like Tablet PCs, netbooks could replace the emerging ebooks devices like the Kindle and Sony Reader.  Right now I find it easiest to carry a cell phone in my pants pocket and a Zune in my shirt pocket, one for phone service the other for audiobooks.  But if I have a netbook with me wherever I go, or nearby, then all I would need to carry on my person is a Bluetooth headset.  Should I predict the demise of the iPhone and iPod?

The deciding factors on buying a netbook is how big the screen and keyboard, and whether or not they are useable for long periods of typing and reading.  I bought an iPod touch to be my carry around computer, but I didn’t like typing with a single finger, and the screen was too small for browsing the web.  It’s pretty nice for reading text email, terrible for HTML email, very nice for checking movie times and looking at previews, pleasant for reading ebooks, although I might like a slightly larger screen, and very nice for Pandora and Wolfgang’s Vault. 

When netbooks first burst on the scene in 2007, their appeal included solid state storage over spinning hard drives, so, “My Life on a Hard Drive” might be a poor title soon, but if spinning drives disappear, I predict we’ll still call solid state devices hard drives too.  Technology is evolving away from moving parts, so we might eventually call netbooks, memory books, the name I want to use for them.  If the right technology pans out, and the right pricing for broadband emerges, memory books might be very common indeed. 

What will you put on your memory book?  How will you organize it.  How can a memory book improve your life?  A good portion of our population has been able to avoid the computer revolution, but if a memory book becomes so personally useful, will anyone choose to be a Luddite in this revolution?  As I age, and my memory falters and skips, being able to query a memory book becomes a very useful mental crutch.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  Will it make me weaker or stronger?

I do know organizing my thoughts for this blog helps me retain words, and even learn to use new words.  Writing these blogs help me refine and distinguish discrete ideas and concepts.  In the past year I’ve met a number of people, usually young, who have asked me what my favorite movies, books and songs are, and I had a hard time making a quick list.  That disturbs me.  Maybe if I constantly worked to maintain a library of favorites on my memory book, or even just keep my memory book handy and constantly annotated a list of favorites, I would feel better.  Who knows, I might not even need to open my memory book, but my real memory of such lists would be fresh enough to have something to say in casual conversations.

I don’t know if my memory weakness is normal for someone my age, or if it portends Alzheimer’s in future years.  My wife already gets impatient with my slowness to respond, and hates when I tell her she better start acquiring more patience in case I get worse.  “You better not,” she warns me.  Having a memory book might become the glasses of my memories someday.  Or my memory book might become a very large hand to write notes on.  Or it my memory book might become a gym to exercise my neurons.   This is all fascinating to consider, and I can’t wait to test out these ideas.  I’m just not ready to buy a netbook yet.

JWH – 6/28/9

5 Responses

  1. “My wife wants to preserve video games, and their activation codes”

    I think I’m in love! ;)

    I haven’t spent much of any time transferring these off of other peoples’ computers, but I can imagine that it would be both a fascinating and annoying process, depending on what they saved and how they had it organized…or disorganized.

    On several occasions throughout my computer-owning-years I have went through and tried to lend some sort of organization to the things I’ve saved. Image files and whatnot. I also occasionally get a wild hair and organize all my bookmarks into themed folders to save some space once the list gets too long. For me it holds the same kind of nostalgic fun as going through old photos or scrapbooks. Fun to rediscover things.

    I do find it funny how much storage capacity has changed over the years. In just a few decades what seemed like a big deal in regards to computer storage is absolutely nothing now The fact that storage amounts get larger and the physical object present to store them on keeps getting smaller just thrills the nerd in me. Love it.

  2. [...] geared for on-the-go tech users.  That’s part of what I was getting at with my last post “My Life on a Hard Drive.”  It appears that netbooks should kindle the same excitement as [...]

  3. Wanted to make sure you had my new email address:

    poegeek (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t know if you got the email I sent out about that awhile back.

  4. Back in 1990, while overseeing some P/As at the University of Chicago, I realized that the Mac, which we were using then (even in Admin) should not to be thought of solely as a computing machine but as a computing telephone (for better words then).

    We, like all universities were on the ARPANET connecting to others with bang addresses, using listservs.

    I wrote a paper, I guess we would call it a blog now considering how it was passed around that all future implementation of computing at UofC had to be concerned with connectivity and not soley with power.

    How does this relate to your Life on an HD?

    We need that same connectivity to get into the nooks and crannies of out various laptops, notebooks, netbooks, iPods, iPhones, Zunes, so we know where we have placed that priceless thingey so it is where we need it when we need it.

    Apple is the only company that can provide this as Microsoft is too hierarchical. We need the AI aspects of which you speak, we need to be able, as you spoke, to re-arrange or to put things where ever and to have a program much better than IE find the thingey and maybe even incorporate it into a a different library via a tag.

    The program must do this for your women friends’ pinks and purples without them thinking anything about it.

    By the way, I did an IA analysis on your breakdowns above, and you are definitely a dog person (or wish you were.)

    Peter Hayward

    peterhayward.wordpress.com

  5. Apple is the only company that can provide this as Microsoft is too hierarchical. We need the AI aspects of which you speak, we need to be able, as you spoke, to re-arrange or to put things where ever and to have a program much better than IE find the thingey and maybe even incorporate it into a a different library via a tag.

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