Three summers ago I opened my laptop not to the Word doc I’d been working on, but an unholy grinding sound. The screen flickered then went black. Some say animals can sense earthquakes coming. Me, I sensed I would never again see my pictures of my daughter’s first year, the book I’d been working on or years of email correspondence.
Half a decade into the 21st century, few among us haven’t lost beloved gigabytes to some heinous crash. Didn’t you back up? friends asked me with a mixture of sympathy and disbelief. Course I backed up. But it turned out I was backing up an alias the whole time, rather than the file itself and — okay, I’m getting all worked up again.
Losing a chunk of one’s digital self hits us in that weird zone between professional and personal. Even if it’s only work stuff that vanishes, our very real human hours created that work stuff — for naught now. A desperate insistence rises up: It must be in there somewhere. After all, nothing exited this plastic rectangle. If the CIA needed to extract some morsel of national security data, does any of us doubt a nebbishy dude in a white coat could find it in about six minutes?
This faith led me to Drive Savers, considered by some the best data recovery service in the world. The government itself — Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Center, the Smithsonian Institution — takes its ailing machines there. In a nondescript building along a Marin County, Calif., highway, I found not just a team of crack technicians, but a museum to the miracles they’d performed. There was the Chicago customer who somehow drove his car over his laptop, and the computer that burned to a crisp in a raging inferno. There was the Powerbook that went to the bottom of the Amazon River in Brazil, in a sunken cruise ship. It spent two days underwater before the owner rented scuba equipment, plunged into the murky depths, found her way down two submerged flights of stairs, found her state room, unlocked it and grabbed her laptop. Drive Savers recovered the data from all these computers and more.
I handed over my laptop over with relief. In fact, my despair had morphed fully into curiosity, and before leaving I finagled a tour of the class-100 cleanroom where Drive Savers does its most sensitive drive saving. (Per the designation, no more than 100 particles shall inhabit a cubic foot of air.) Padding around in my special jumpsuit and booties, I was struck by our odd relationship with the ones and zeros of our lives. Whatever a computer is — and I’ll give you a buck if you can answer cogently — we believe them to be deeply capable creatures. It’s jarring, then, to see them in laptop hospital, innards splayed, stern-faced men and women doing their best to save them. I didn’t feel pity, no. But it was hard not to observe a distinct vulnerability on their part.
The call came two days later. My laptop had suffered a head crash, a fate worse than crushing, burning or drowning, from the hard drive’s point of view. Nothing to do but move on — and revise my relationship to these objects we stare at all day. The light dims for all of us one day. Come what may is my new attitude with regard to my laptop. That and obsessive, neurotic backups.
Chris Colin is the award-winning author of “Blindsight,” published by the Atavist and named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. See his work at www.chriscolin.com.Tags: Downtime,Gadgets & Devices