Some Digital Packrattery

A recent piece by Doc Searls was the inspiration for today’s post:

The best new phones come with the ability to shoot 108 megapixel photos, record 4K video with stereo sound, and pack the results into a terabyte of onboard storage. But what do you do when that storage fills up?

If you want to keep those files, you’ll need to offload them somewhere. Since your computer probably doesn’t have more than 2Tb of storage, you’ll need an external drive. Or two. Or three. Or more. Over time, a lot more.

Welcome to my world.

Like Searls, I am a digital packrat; unlike him, I do not have quite so many terabytes of storage sitting around on hard drives. But it is a lot, and I know that my large collection of spinning drives will probably die one day. The thing is that most of the files on my drives, I can safely assume, would not be missed if they disappeared. But some of them would be, and I do not know which ones.

I do know that I dodged a bullet earlier this year.

I should preface this by saying that this is not some stealth advertising for Backblaze, nor have I received any compensation for posting it. I have questions and qualms with Backblaze. But this is a true story of a Groundhog Day tragedy averted.

In 2019, shortly after I had finished setting up my kind-of new iMac, I was laying in bed about to drift off to sleep when I sat straight upright with the fear that I would lose my entire iTunes library in some catastrophic hard drive failure. This is not an exaggeration: the database file that is among my most prized digital possessions dates back to when I bought an iPod Mini in 2004, and has ballooned to just shy of fifty thousand songs. These songs are all properly tagged and titled, and everything had correct cover art until Music somehow shuffled all of the pictures between different albums and songs earlier this year. It is a modern marvel how Apple removed the App Store and podcasts and e-books and a virtual university from iTunes, stripped it down to just music, and the result is somehow worse than the app it replaced.

Anyhow, I like and appreciate streaming music services, but if they disappeared tomorrow, I would be mildly upset. If I lost my iTunes library — now my Music library, I suppose — I would be devastated. But I have always been treated it with a level of risk that does not comport with how much I value it. My library totals over half a terabyte, which makes it the digital equivalent of one of those overstuffed sectional sofas: impossible to fit comfortably in a space, and quite awkward to move around. Despite this, it has been moved onto and off of external hard drives with alarming regularity as the library expands and then I get a bigger hard drive to move it to, and then — well, you see where this goes.

So, after a terrible night’s sleep in 2019, I spent the following morning setting up a remote backup service. I chose Backblaze; you may prefer something else. And — lo — just four months later, a full mirror of my iMac’s internal and external hard drives.

Jump cut to earlier this year. February 2. I was sitting at my desk, copying some files onto that very same external hard drive, when it spontaneously disconnected. I unplugged it, plugged it back in, and it would not mount. Running various Disk Utility commands did not help. Luckily, I was copying files onto one partition, but my iTunes library was stored on a different partition — because, you know, I’m not a fool — and that appeared to be okay. But the main reason I was able to remain calm is that I knew that my entire library was preserved in some data centre and I could entirely restore it.

That day, I ordered a modern solid state drive to replace the spinning rust version. There is another story here about how I needed to order from Amazon because I was unable to find an adequate drive locally, and Amazon lied to me about shipping speed and caused a small amount of grief in trying to sort that out, but that is remarkably even less interesting than my Backblaze story. Anyway, the drive arrived a week later — despite selecting and paying for one-day shipping — and I was able to fully recover my iTunes library from the broken drive.

Is there a point to this story? Sure: I never want to be without local and remote backups. This is a lesson most people learned about a decade ago, but I fully understood it a few months ago.