From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 27, 2003*: Burning Memories

Our home computer has, among other enjoyable bells and whistles that I've had no problem getting used to, a CD burner. It was, for me, a necessary aspect of the work environment that the computer represents. More than for any other reason, I need the burner to move my lectures from my hard drive where I prepare them, to the computer from which my presentation is going to be taking place. There are numerous other methods of doing this, but the CD burner seemed to be preferable for a number of reasons.

But of course nobody buys a CD burner in order to copy lectures from a hard drive to another computer and then doesn't use it for anything else. Part of the essence of using a computer is the constant discovery of new and different uses than originally intended. Which means that even when a lecture isn't in the works, chances are good that the burner is busy.

Perhaps the most logical use of the burner is back-up. It's a safe and simple means of taking care of this important task. A CD can hold about 650MB of data, and no matter how busy and/or prolific I may be, I never get anywhere near producing that amount of material during a month. Our hard drives, no matter how full, are not filled with our work, but rather with the programs we've downloaded onto them, thinking, almost always mistakenly, that we're going to need/use them. It's actually quite simple at the end of each month to burn whatever new work we've done onto a CD. For most of us copying everything, not only the new work, is even easier. And then, of course, we find ourselves faced with the question of what to do with the previous back-up CD we prepared, perhaps only a month earlier.

This is, for me, a new problem, a problem that didn't present itself when my main form of back-up was a floppy disk. After all, back then it was possible to continue to use and reuse the floppy, with the only problem being the psychological strain involved in deciding what to delete from a full diskette. With a CD, however, there's nothing to do with the old discs other than, perhaps collect them. Floppies today are very inexpensive, but none of us are going to complain if we can get them for free. And it's definitely possible - I've only very rarely been faced with a situation in which I have to purchase them. Old and no longer needed software, for instance, can be easily erased, offering me an empty disk for back-up. The most productive and logical use of the millions of disks that AOL and other companies mailed out, for instance, was erasing and reusing them. But when software, and especially AOL giveaways, started being distributed on CD, we were basically faced with two possibilities, throwing them out, or collecting them, though of course I choose the least desirable middle track of simply accumulating them without any intention of collecting them.

Photographs get put away in a box with the expectation that one day we'll look at them and reflect on what has become the past. The act of putting photographs in a box creates memories - we choose to remember certain things and concretize our remembering in objects. But even permanency can be transitory. What we remember today isn't necessarily what we remember tomorrow. And digital media only strenghten that sense of our memories as being in a continual process of becoming rather than being tangible and set objects. The photograph in the box, other than perhaps fading, will remain as it was when we put it there. The photograph on our hard drive can be modified, touched-up, cropped, and more. Each time we modify that photograph we're also modifying our memories, manipulating them into new and different images. Digital memories don't stand still.

Perhaps that's the reason that even though CDs for burning cost less today than disks did back then, I'm reticent to use them. Their use seems to go against the grain of computing, and of the process of remembering that the computer encourages. Working with a computer means constantly being part of a work in progress. One version of a document is forever in the process of becoming a newer version, or part of a different document, or perhaps part of that same document is soon to be extracted and built into something completely new. A saved photograph may get integrated into a birthday greeting, or morphed into a new image. Working at a computer helps us to see everything as being in flux, as always being in the process of changing, of becoming. As I write this, the aforementioned disk in my pocket has the latest two or three versions of an article I'm writing, a version of this column, a few graphics that have to be moved from one computer to another, and a bit more. As I edit this, the contents have changed, if only slightly. If and when this will be read, that same disk may well still be in my pocket, but it will have different versions of that article (or of another), versions of a later edition of the Boidem, and numerous other, and different, files. Which is precisely as it should be. Though a disk is a means of storage, it's a transitory sort of storage, a storage which assumes that something is still about to change, and has the potential to change. Permanency has undeniable value, but it's not at the essence of computing. And the CD, with all it's positive qualities, is permanent.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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