The Pain of a Lost Memory

It's not very often that the head of a tech company makes me feel guilty. But that's what happened last month during a conversation with Seagate Technology CEO Bill Watkins, whose company is the world's largest hard-drive manufacturer. We were talking about how more and more of us are entrusting our reminiscences—videos of our families, pictures of our pets, the music collection that took us two decades to assemble—to products like PCs, iPods and TiVos. "I tell people all the time, 'Look, you've got a terabyte of data in your home and you don't even realize it'," says Watkins. That got us talking about how many people are diligent about backing up their digital files. And that's when the guilt kicked in.

If you've ever owned a computer, then you've probably had the experience of watching it crash and eat all your data. That's Murphy's Law for the digital age. Sure, losing the spreadsheet you were doing for work is bad. But losing your digital memories—the photos, the videos, the music—well, that's devastating. Yet how many of us actually go to the trouble of backing up those memories? It turns out that adult computer users in the United States (and our friends across the pond in the U.K.) are the world's most negligent about backing up data to external storage, with 35 percent failing to do so, according to a Harris Interactive online poll conducted for Seagate. Right behind are the Aussies, with 30 percent refusing to back up. The world leaders in data preservation are the Chinese (only 17 percent are slackers), the French (19 percent) and the Germans (27 percent). What might surprise you even more, according to the Harris poll, is that half the people who have lost data in the past still decline to perform backups.

Me? I'm not surprised by this news at all. I've been a tech writer at NEWSWEEK for 12 years, during which time I've had two hard-drive failures on my personal laptops. I still don't back up my data. I can't really explain why, because, like jaywalking in New York City or refusing to pay attention to the safety instructions before takeoff, there's no truly good explanation for it, other than not wanting to be bothered. That's why I cringed as Watkins and I discussed the subject. Even before I heard the poll results, I knew that I wasn't alone. A colleague of mine had to painfully re-rip his entire music collection after his hard drive crashed; he now keeps his songs backed up, but little else. A friend of mine who's a screenwriter lost a chunk of research he'd been doing on various projects; he still doesn't have a backup drive, though he shuttles files between his laptop and his desktop as a more informal way of securing his data.

Part of the reason we're blasé about backing up is that we have so much data, we're overwhelmed at the thought of having to consciously manage it all. So we just stick our heads in the sand and hope for the best. How many of us enter phone numbers directly into our mobile phones and never store them anywhere else? I know I do. Like my screenwriting friend, some of us turn to less formal ways of preserving important documents, like sending them to our increasingly sizable Web-based e-mail accounts on Gmail or Hotmail; if we subsequently need them, they're just a search away.

There are some interesting solutions coming, like Sharpcast, which will automatically sync your documents, photos and multimedia files to the company's servers and any machine you designate. There's also Windows Home Server, which automatically backs up all the machines on your home network, and Apple's nifty Time Machine for Macs. I'm hoping that one of these services, or one of Seagate's next products, fits my personality. If not, I'll just go back to crossing my fingers. Guiltily, of course.