Our Digital Lives
By David Kaufman
I've spent well over a decade creating and storing digital music using computers. I've relied heavily on state-of-the-art technology on a daily basis, and I've used it for a lot more than checking my email, writing papers, and social media. The hard drives I used to store my music were like a part of me. I used them for storing not only my unpublished art, but also for more traditional things: work-related documents such as client files, letters to loved ones, pictures from my daughter's birthday parties.
In the span of two weeks, I would lose it all forever. I felt as though my house had burned to the ground, but with a twist: I felt as if a part of my mind had fallen victim to the flames.
I'll be the first to admit that I hate relying on technology. There is a side of me completely in awe of the romantic feel of traditional, “antique” information. I'd trade my GPS for a map or a compass any day, or for the stars any night. You can have your MP3, just give me a record player. I even prefer to get my beeping from synthesizers rather than text messages. I still think postage stamps are cool, so you can probably imagine how I feel about a constant stream of email notifications. Yet there is a side of me that is absolutely reliant on technology as a medium for creativity and data storage, that is completely in awe of emerging technology, impatiently awaiting the invention of a hoverboard and for spacesuits to become fashionable in public.
As an artist, I spend a lot of my time in the digital world creating and storing my art and ideas. In fact, the only way for me to store most of my art outside my own brain is to use modern technology, something I started doing around the age of 19. Until then, like other artists writing songs, I had to rely solely on my physical memory, and perhaps paper. Recording in a studio was for the privileged. Not much further back in time, memories were only passed verbally, from human to human. The ability to record events in real time is fairly recent, and the accuracy of the record is flawless. Computers recreate better than any elephant remembers.
These are all recreations, however, and so are the memories we have. This is true of every single event that your brain remembers, no matter how vivid. With the advent of the digital age and recording technology becoming affordable, we have the ability to recreate memorable events, songs, and ideas better than we could ever remember them.
Personally, I've composed songs that I would have completely forgotten without today’s digital storage technology. I’ve created so much music that I could never have enough storage space for it in my brain and will never have time to listen to it all. I have been able to create and store more musical information in a decade than Beethoven could have in three lifetimes with the tools at his disposal. Given the capacity and portability of current storage devices, I can walk around town with parts of my brain in my backpack, figuratively speaking.
Traditionally, we stored physical items to preserve memories outside of our consciousness. We took our money to the bank. We kept photographs, family recipes, and letters from when our great-grandparents were dating in drawers, closets, trunks, and attics. We filled shoeboxes, garages, and warehouses.
Only recently have we been able to store information digitally, but it’s safe to say that most of us have a digital life these days, apart from yet intertwined with our physical lives. It's different for each of us. Some of us store our favorite television shows on DVR. Some of us use technology to store digital paperwork and family photos, or exclusively to watch funny cat videos and post selfies to social media sites. We use technology to advance technology, to propel discovery, and to enhance our lives. Storing data has never been easier or more affordable, and the trend continues to grow at a breakneck rate. We're not only storing more, we're creating more.
It's becoming increasingly easy, however, to take our digital lives for granted in a world where photographs can be instantly saved to the cloud, where even our heartbeats can be instantly transmitted to our cardiologists. Access is of paramount importance. Cell phones with more computing power than the systems we used to get Apollo astronauts to the moon are extremely affordable. We are digital humans, but this part of our existence is just as fragile as our lives themselves.
I've experienced several hard drive crashes. I've had phones stolen, along with the photographic memories I stored on them. Each loss has been different and hard to deal with in its own right. But what happens when you lose your entire digital life, as I did? For me, losing just my unpublished music has been life changing. Losing my favorite pictures of my daughter has been heartbreaking.
When I first started creating data, there was no “cloud.” For most of human existence, clouds stored rain instead of zeros and ones. By the time cloud data storage became a consumer product, I had generated so much data that it would have taken me months to upload it to the cloud, so I used physical backups instead: duplicate hard drives stored at my home and work. It was a lot of hardware, but I felt safer having my data in my hands and not web-accessible. I didn't want a third party handling my digital life. But when my entire digital life was stolen in a series of unfortunate events, it was gone forever. It seemed that part of my brain was gone forever, a part that identified me as me. The loss I have felt over the theft has been hard to accept and overcome. I will never have those memories back. In a sense, my house did burn down. My digital life, a huge part of my identity, is forever lost.
It scales up from me. Losing data can be bad for anyone and for everyone. Most of us will experience data loss through cell phone or identity theft. Privacy, finances, and identity at the core of digital life can easily be compromised. Disastrous social and economic ripples could result from a breach of digital currency. We all know what happens when the airlines have trouble with their computer systems. Imagine what the world would be like if no one could get gas or groceries because of data compromise. A data breach could even cripple a government, as became evident in the wake of the Snowden leaks.
What lies in the future for our digital lives is probably inconceivable to us at this point. At the current rate of advancement, innovations that will be available in 20 years would seem almost magical if we were exposed to them now. Perhaps the line between human life and digital life will become ever more blurred in the future. It could be fun to imagine your brain being part of the Internet, but it is also somewhat frightening. Or imagine being able to store your dreams on your DVR to watch at a later hour, blending our human and digital, waking and sleeping, lives.
No matter how far the reach of future technology, our digital lives are just as vulnerable to loss as our physical ones. To me, the thought that all human data—the total of the physical and digital lives of the human species—is limited to the Earth and a handful of spacefaring robots is simply breathtaking. There's no backup. Our data is easily taken for granted. It could be erased.
I continue to rely on technology on a daily basis, and I can barely imagine my life without a huge part of it being digital. Moving forward, I'll practice more vigilance in backing up my devices, drives, and memories, and with more than just the normal duplicate backups I was using before. I've started using cloud storage, and I plan on using more duplicate hard drives—both at my home and mirrored at a separate safe location—alongside physical copies when available. I can never recreate the memories I lost, but I can move forward better prepared to care for and preserve my digital life.