The other day, my computer started acting up. It froze in the middle of an ordinary operation, and I had to restart it, losing a bit of work but not feeling more than annoyed. Then it froze again a few minutes later. This time it took several tries to get it running again, only to fail once more. By that time, I was worried. It was late at night, so I decided to quit and come back to it when my mind was fresh. I was worried.
Most of my daily life revolves around my computer. All of my writing is stored there, all of my photographs are digitized and organized and modified in my digital darkroom. Correspondence is there, mostly e-mail to and from nearly all the important people in my life. The size of my electronic filing cabinets has increased a hundred-fold in the past ten years. The computer contains my life--past and present.
Since the beginnings of the personal computer, everyone agrees that one's computer files should be backed up--that is, copied and stored in a separate place--as insurance for the inevitable catastrophe, a computer crash. I used to use floppy disks for backing up my important text files. Soon, of course, it took too many of those little square bits of plastic, and too much time to perform the task. I graduated to backup tapes, special high-density tapes resembling audio cassettes but holding "vast" amounts of data. Those, however, turned out to be less reliable than the computer itself, and I gradually became lax in performing that routine operation. My present computer holds--or did hold--twenty-four billion characters of text, pictures and other data. I had no way to back it all up, short of burning thirty-six CDs, an operation that would take twenty-four hours to accomplish. I had made CD copies of some of my text and photographs when I thought about it, but had no scheduled backup program.
Insurance is the descriptive word. Backup copies of important computer data are useless, until the time when they are needed. One buys insurance for one's home and car, and sometimes for other valuables. The idea is that such possessions cost a lot of money, and if they are lost the cost of replacing them can reduce one's economic situation drastically. So we pay someone else a small amount every month and transfer the risk to them. If we lose our possessions, at least we can begin again with replacements. The personal relationship we have with material things is a different thing. It cannot be insured. Loss is loss. If my computer dies, as all things do, if I've invested the time to make insurance copies of my valuable data, I can buy a new computer and restore the data. I'm out only a few hundred dollars.
As I said, a large amount of my life is stored in my computer. I start it up every morning and check my mailbox to see if anybody out there in the world still knows I exist. I record my thoughts and my dreams and my imaginings in that machine. Somehow recording them makes them more real to me (and, I hope, can make me more real to others when and if they read what I've written). Recently, I've been doing the same thing with photographs, a creative outlet that seems to fill a need I've had since I was young, to capture and interpret my visual world.
No amount of money can replace these things, only the means for making them. After years of pretty casual attention to making copies of my computer files, the shock of realizing that everything is lost feels to me like what I imagine those families in the wakes of floods, hurricanes and tornados must feel. Stunned.
Losing a cherished photograph of one's child leaves a hole that cannot be filled completely. Especially in my later years, memories are more important to me. The past is more real to me than the uncertain future. I've built that past, made it richer and more vivid, within my computer. With little future ahead of me, I've depended upon the emotional support of these enhanced memories--even those I seldom pick up and read--to warm my life. Unlike younger people who work and play in the world and receive affirmations from those around them, I spend most of my time alone. With my computer. Its constant companionship has become important to me. And I've taken it for granted, just a moment too long.
I did manage to save about half of my files, transferring them to another computer before mine finally gave up altogether. It will cost a lot of money, in my thin circumstance, to replace the machine, and a lot of time to restore the words and pictures that I did manage to copy. But those holes that are left can never be filled completely.
On the Weather Channel the other night, I watched a family standing in the wreckage of their home after a tornado had leveled it. They were fortunate to have escaped the storm with their lives. But they looked around at what had been the contents of their lives, and wondered how they could go on. They will, no doubt. And so will I. I have a warm and solid home around me; the people I love are still here.
The Buddhists teach that all is impermanent. Nothing remains forever. Every moment is a new reality, the only reality. I can replace the evidence of my having lived with dark regret, or I can fill the present with new evidence, like countless others before me have done.
I'm writing this on a spare computer, one that I saved long after it had served its purpose, and it feels odd and clunky and slow. But it still works. And so do I.
Donald Skiff, October 22, 2004