Essays on Technology and Culture

Mindful Tech, Part 8: Where Our Data Lives

Of all the ways in which we use technology, nothing has changed quite so dramatically as the way we store and retrieve data. In the span since I started using a computer, we’ve gone from keeping our files on floppy disks and cartridge media, to CD-Rs and thumb drives, to having more local storage than we know what to do with, to keeping our data in the cloud. Odds are, we probably have some overlapping mix of all of these, save for the floppy disks unless you’re really old.

This is just data you’ve made for yourself: files, photos, music, and anything else you can imagine. Where does all of this live? Is there one place you can point toand say “my data lives here”? Another thing that’s changed is that we now have multiple devices. Maybe it’s just a computer and a smartphone, but many people also have tablets, separate work computers, network-attached storage…

I remember when I started living with more than one computer in my life. I was obsessed with keeping everything in my digital life in sync across all my devices, and having one single place for all my data. There were a number of adventures in doing both, never successfully. This included destroying the ability to use .Mac synchronization on two computers thanks to a pirated, third-party, unsupported app to trick computers into using a locally emulated .Mac sync just so I could have all my Yojimbo notes on my laptop and my desktop, years before Evernote was a glint in someone’s eye.

A decade later, and there’s no shortage of great options for keeping data in sync across multiple devices. It’s a blessing and a curse all the same. I know I have personal data scattered across iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, and probably a few others. Everything is in sync (I hope), but it’s far from being in one place. It would be wonderful for all of these storage options to work together in some fashion. If there were an app that lets me see, at a glance, all my data across my various cloud storage providers, I would pay handsomely for a copy.

There’s no incentive for the cloud data providers to allow such a thing, of course. It’s more lucrative to keep you locked in with exclusive features and APIs, and—depending on who you’re storing with—to pry into your data for the purpose of getting more info to sell to advertisers. There’s also the matter of trust, a subject I’ve written about elsewhere. There are plenty of people who stand by Dropbox, and it’s a reliable service. With Dr. Condoleeza Rice, a noted proponent of domestic spying, on the Dropbox board, I’d rather keep my data some place else. I’m forced to keep using Dropbox, however, as it has the most robust sharing options. iCloud Drive is reliable, but accessible only to me.

Yet, as our devices proliferate, and the way we use computers changes in tune, our data is going to be forced to live in the cloud. It’s unreasonable to expect people to set up their own cloud storage in their homes with a NAS or spare computer. It’s expensive, requires time for setup and maintenance! and ISPs still frown at users running home servers. It’s easier now than it was when I took an old PC and used it as a file server for my MP3s over a decade ago, but not easier enough. It’s not something we should expect ordinary people to do.

Let’s go back to the great auditing from earlier in this series. If you’re concerned about how and where your data lives, take the time to audit that. Ask yourself what data needs to even be in the cloud, what service gives you the best balance of accessibility, organization, flexibility, and security—especially security if you’re as paranoid as I am. Settle on a primary choice, and a backup solution to cover what your primary storage provider can’t do. It makes life so much easier when you know what data lives where.

And if you’re a developer who’s good with APIs and data visualization, please make an app that lets me see all my files in the cloud in one place. Mac or iOS, I don’t care, just make it, and charge me for it. I doubt I’m the only person who wants it.