Fear of losing music

A hard drive crashes, and one's self-identity follows suit. The world needs better backup strategies.

Published March 6, 2009 7:37PM (EST)

One evening last week, I double-clicked the iTunes icon on what I call "the family computer" and my son calls "the MegaGameMachine" and absolutely nothing happened. So I did what any normal human being in the computer era has learned to do in such a situation. I double-clicked a few more times, hoping for a different result.

After my fourth or fifth try, a window popped up asking me to specify the location of my "iTunes library file." I relaxed. This had happened before, and I was pretty sure I knew how to solve it. Sometimes iTunes gets confused after a software update, and forgets that the library file with all the up-to-date information about my music (playlists, etc.) happens to be on an external hard drive. But when I attempted to remind iTunes of this, the program froze.

My brow furrowed. I killed the process, and tried to take a look directly at the external drive via "My Computer." But all I got was an error message: "I/O device error."

Oh, that can't be good.

A slow acid burn began in my stomach. An input/output device error screams hardware trouble, an intuition I verified in seconds via a bit of googling combined with the words "Maxtor external hard drive." The consensus on the Web: I was facing a hard drive mechanical failure.

A busted hard drive is never good news, but I  still wasn't terribly worried. When the new MegaGameMachine arrived in our household about 18 months ago, I had used the external hard drive to copy 40 or so gigs of music from the old family computer to the new one. True, I hadn't backed up all the music I had bought or ripped since then, but I was getting around to it -- just as soon as I finished the long overdue project of ripping every CD I owned. I comforted myself by assuming that the new computer's hard drive wasn't in any danger of imminent failure.

But unbeknownst to me, my failure to copy the library file along with all the music ensured that everything newly added to my digital musical collection had been saved to the 4-year-old external hard drive, instead of to the new drive.

In 20 years of computing, I have never lost any significant data to a hard drive crash. I have always backed up all my critical files on multiple computers, or burned them to disk. I haven't gone to the lengths of making monthly updates and storing them in an off-site safety deposit box, but I've taken what I thought were prudent precautions. But in this case, my safety routines had failed. A combination of carelessness and iTunes inscrutability brought me down.

I searched high and low across the Web for rescue strategies. Retrieving data from a broken hard drive, I knew, could be a very expensive proposition, but using the disk management tools in Windows Vista, I determined that the computer still considered the drive "healthy" even if it couldn't access any files. So maybe there was hope. But as I ran into dead end after dead end, I became more and more depressed. Strangely, it wasn't so much the loss of the music or the wasted labor involved in ripping all those CDS that was crushing my spirit, but the thought of losing five years of playlists.

I will concede: In an economic climate where millions of Americans are losing homes and jobs, the disappearance of a bunch of iTunes playlists is hardly a calamity. But I still felt as if something important had been gouged out of my soul, as if a roomful of irreplaceable family photo albums had just gone up in flames. Since I was a teenager in the 1970s painstakingly making mixes on Maxell cassette tapes, I have documented the ups and downs of my life and everyone around me with playlists that mark every historical moment and mad mood swing. I have mourned broken relationships and celebrated new girlfriends, marked the weddings of my friends and the births of their babies. My children have followed suit. The family computer represented my entire nuclear family's musical meanderings.

Music can be replaced, but the playlist -- the physical organization of mind intersecting with music -- is much harder to resurrect. I was staggered.

This story has a happy ending. If you spend enough time googling tech-support forums about hard drive failures you will encounter positive references to a software program called GetDataBack. GetDataBack offers a sensible deal. You can download a free "evaluation" program that will endeavor to scan your damaged drive and retrieve your files. If it succeeds, and you want to copy and save the newly retrieved files to a new drive, then you have to pay a $69 fee to unlock that function. I encountered some setbacks as I attempted to use the program, but with the help of remarkably responsive online e-mail support from the company (for a program, remember, that I hadn't yet paid for) I managed to salvage most of my music, along with the all-important library file. How the World Works doesn't make a habit of product endorsements, but GetDataBack got my data back. It was worth every penny.

Readers may rightly wonder why I am lingering over this sorry tale of a bad hard drive combined with bad backup habits when there are much more important matters to discuss. Don't we all have our horror stories of accidentally deleted manuscripts and other digital era malfunctions? I recently read, in the book "Factory Girls," a chilling story of a young Chinese woman who had quit her job in a factory and then, a few nights later, had her phone stolen -- which was the only source of contact information she had for her entire network of associates in a vast and faceless city. In a single stroke, her social network had been annihilated, which is a lot worse than losing your playlists.

But it is a truism of the computer age that we are our data. Our music, our pictures, our letters to each other, they're all increasingly just ones and zeroes. There isn't even a print copy of 90 percent of what I've written for publication since 1994. So what else is new? (Ironically, as I rethink my backup strategies, I'm wondering if perhaps it is time to move everything to the Web, and become even less tied to the material world.)

Perhaps I've been thinking too much about the financial crisis, but I see a parallel between my experience and the credit crunch. Despite a bedrock understanding of how I was committing my life to a semiconductor-mediated existence, it still snuck up on me just how invested I was getting, how much my psyche was determined by digital boundaries. Meanwhile, we have watched in astonishment as trillions of dollars of "wealth" has vanished from the world, in large part because mathematical models failed to accurately represent the world as it was. Constructions of data, in other words, were found wanting. If you think of the housing bust as a kind of hard drive failure, then on the morning after the machine stopped, all the models broke. The financial economy, in which trillions of "notional" dollars are zipped all around the globe and packaged and repackaged into mind-boggling complexity, proved to be as evanescent as an iTunes playlist. One moment it was there, and the next, gone.

The more we digitize our existence, the more vulnerable we become to a mechanical shock. Likewise, it seems that the more we moved high finance into the realm of pure data, the more we set ourselves up for an unpleasant encounter with material reality.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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