05 March 2010


How much data do you have to deal with? How much do you carry with you on a daily basis? Is it logical? Is it encrypted? Is it necessary? How do you perceive that 'weight' of data? What is your relationship with it?

You probably haven't asked yourself any of these questions, but my work has put me into the role of 'data controller', so I feel a personal responsibility to maintain the integrity of some terabytes of data. This can be a logistical problem, and it's an issue that we will all increasingly have to deal with.

I once lost some valuable data. I had written some songs and stored them on the hard drive of my PC. I didn't keep backups at that time. My modem was blown out by a lightning pulse and it damaged other components, including the hard drive. A friend eventually managed to retrieve some of the songs for me, but I will not forget the initial sickening realisation that I had not taken steps to protect what had taken me so long to create. I learned to keep backups.

Terabyte drives are now common but, surprisingly, that's probably not enough backup space even for the average small business. Bloated software has led to bloated file sizes; the availability of large amounts of storage space means that workers don't run up against data storage problems on a regular basis, so they continue to create massive graphical files; people dump their mp3 collections to office file servers; incremental backups going back weeks eat up further space. Little or nothing will be done about these issues. Data storage will continue to grow in capacity and transfer speeds will increase. None of this will matter.

Many of us now carry large amounts of data around with us. Think about how it mounts up. The pen drive; the SD card in the camera; the hard drive in the ipod; the mini-SD in the mobile phone. This could easily amount to 70GB or more of capacity, without even taking netbooks or laptops into account, although most of us only use a fraction of that available capacity to store all our data. How important is all that data to us and how would we feel if we lost vital parts of it? It's OK to admit that you would feel a great deal of emotional trauma in such a situation. You have collected it, created it, improved it. This data is part of your life. It is part of you, externalised.

Corporations now move and store vast amounts of data. Wal-Mart, for example, handles more than one million customer transactions every hour and keeps databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes in size. They obviously value their data about us. Perhaps we should value our own data a little more. It is easy and cheap to get the storage space but managing it and backing it up in a regular and logical manner requires a bit of effort. There's definitely room in the market for powerful, but more user-friendly file management and backup software.

The subject of data storage may seem mundane but not if seen in a wider context. Everything is made of information. We are entities that use our intelligence to create a constant stream of new data. Much of it is junk and noise but there is also much beauty. We create beautiful patterns in language, music, mathematics, art. We retrieve data streams back from our spacecraft about the conditions on other planets. We send data about ourselves out into space, that other patternists may some day find and understand it. It is a hopeful enterprise and one that, if we chose to see it, can hold meaning for us.

To use the processing power of stars and fill the universe with intricate patterns of data. My pen drive and I, onward to new frontiers.

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