Data Loss Trauma: The Pain is Real

There should be a chapter in the DSM1 for data loss disorders, if there isn't one already. I doubt there's a single person who has used computers who hasn't been genuinely, painfully, permanently traumatized by the loss of a file, a phone, an email, a folder, or an entire hard drive.

We could call it "Post Data Loss Stress Disorder," or, maybe "Data shock." It can lead to chronic "Data Loss Dysphoria", crippling "Anticipatory Data Loss Anxiety," and recurring nightmares about finding a folder labeled "BACKUP" on an old hard drive, only to discover that the folder is empty. For some, it leads to "Digital Withdrawl Syndrome." Those people who keep a vintage, spring-loaded, address book on their desks aren't just Luddites. They are the walking wounded from that time the electricity went out and they lost a twenty-five-page letter they had written to their lawyer.

As the woman lifted the freshly-brewed coffee to her lips, a kersplash splattered across her laptop's keyboard. "Dang!" she cursed, as she reached for a paper towel. She turned the laptop upside-down and tried to get the coffee to drip out, with little success. She knew you shouldn't mix liquids with electricity, so she yanked the power cord and held down the power button until the laptop turned off. She was glad she hadn't put cream and sugar in her coffee that morning, because that would be a sticky mess.

"Thank goodness I already printed what I need for work today," she thought. "I'll leave the laptop to air dry. Then there's always that trick involving immersion in dry rice... or I can take it to one of those places, or whatever..." Like many people experiencing trauma, she did not realize, at that moment, that her entire life had just turned upside-down. Three years of research, an unpublished novel, the music collection she had amassed since age 12, all of her emails, every photo ever taken of her dead parents... and her master's thesis... Poof! It was gone. All gone. Her life would forever be split into "before" and "after" that fateful cup of coffee.

When someones's house burns down and they lose their photo albums, their personal records, and their childhood mementos, we feel sorry for them. We give them time and space to grieve. We encourage them to get therapy. We give them money, or copies of photographs to rebuild their collection. We understand they will go though the rest of their lives with a big hole in their hearts.

But when three years of personal emails are deleted with an errant keypress; or your shyly written love poems disappear along with your laptop at a coffeeshop; or your data is held hostage by a kidnapper in Chechnya; or your entire record collection is is re-organized or wiped out by one of Apple's many God-awful algorithms for destroying things; then you're expected to shrug it off. "Oh, well. Live and learn. What's gone is gone. You shouldn't have clicked the 'OK' button. You shouldn't have left your phone on the table when you got up to get ketchup for your fries. You should have pressed Ctrl-Z the moment it happened. You needed a new computer anyway. You should have made a backup."

The worst part about Post Data Loss Stress Disorder is how it keeps traumatizing you, even years after the initial event. For the first few weeks, you grieve the big things, the recent things, the story you were writing, or the database you had spent two months cleaning up. A few weeks later, you might be walking through the park and feel an arrow stab your heart. "Oh, my God! I just remembered, all my lesson plans were on that hard drive!" A month later, you might be happily singing in your car, and it hits you: "Oh, no! The video of us singing karaoke in Mexico!" A full year passes, you need to do your taxes, but last year's taxes were on that doomed hard drive, including the spreadsheet with all the depreciation information.

Even five years later, after you've rebuilt your shattered life, a realization might come out of nowhere to trigger another round of shock and grief. Your estranged brother mentions your mother's delicious Balsamic Chicken, and you reply, "Luckily, I wrote down all of her recipes in a Word document when she was in the hospital... along with her last wishes... and she told me you were adopted, and who your real parents were... Oh, no! It was all written down in my old laptop!" And thirty years from now, you will be hit again, when all the other people in the old folks home are making collages with their old photos, and you realize you don't have any, due to the great Icloud debacle of 2021.

Once, a friend drove over his IPhone with his excavator, so I helped him set up a new one. In the process, the phone asked, "do you want to sync this new phone with the existing data on MobileMe?" "Press OK," I told him. Kablam, all of his contacts vanished, permanently. "Where did they go?" he asked. "I don't know," I said. Many calls to Apple. Oops. It was a bug. The non-data on the new IPhone was newer than the old data on MobileMe, so the non-data overwrote the old data. Sorry about that! It's fixed now.

Going back even further, I still cry inside when I remember my first and only year of graduate school. Me, with a brand new "386" computer, and an expensive, legit version of Microsoft Office, with all the programs, even Access. Computer Aided Instruction was a new field, and I was going to build the ultimate resource for English language learners. Over the course of that year, I made a huge, Microsoft Word outline to organize every grammatical topic in the English language. Underneath each heading, I collected exercises (beginner to advanced), links to other resources, and suggestions for fun activities, all related to that topic. So, for example, if you said, "I didn't thinked about it," or "She didn't attended the meeting," I could say, "Ah-ha, the tricky simple past tense double negative, here are some targeted drills that will cure you right away."

Of course, all that information should not have been stored in a single Word file, but the coolness of creating an all-encompassing outline was intoxicating. I added to it every day. I copied exercises from old ESL textbooks and re-worded them for my opus. I created databases of digital flashcards, and embedded them in my Word document via OLE.

In my defense, I DID back it up regularly, to hard drives and optical disks.

Finally, it got so large that I knew it was time to break it down into multiple files. But first I wanted to make sure the organization was perfect. Ctrl-A, Select All. Alt-Shift-1, show top level headings. Rearrange things here and there. Looks good. Alt-Shift-2, show second-level headings. It would be good if I renamed and sorted the exercises by difficulty level. That took forever.

Alt-Shift-3, show third-level headings.

Gobbledygook, as far as the eye could see. Everything at level 3 and below was completely corrupted. What had happened? Had all that rearranging been too complicated for Word to keep up with? Could I just "step back" to an earlier state? No, it was gone. But at least I had my backups. A day wasted. That's life.

You know the end of this story, of course. All of my backups were corrupted. All semester long, I had been entering more and more data into a giant Word document that was corrupted to its core. I still mourn that loss like a death in the family.

That's why it's so annoying to hear:

"That's a good lesson for you! It will teach you the importance of backups!"

Here's the thing. Many of us "back up." But when something bad happens, we often make terrible discoveries. It's like those thrillers where a wife is murdered, and the husband discovers that she wasn't who she said she was, and his children are not his own, and everything that looks bad is actually much worse.

  • If your files are corrupted, there's a good chance that your most recent backups are corrupted, too.
  • If you backed up to a CD or DVD, there's a good chance it's unreadable.
  • If you used some kind of backup software and you don't remember what it was or how to use it, then too bad, because your data is stored in a proprietary format. And even if you find the right software, it doesn't matter because you've forgotten the password.
  • Did you buy one of those cool backup drives with built-in, military-strength, hardware-based encryption? Guess what that means in plain English? It means that if the hard drive enclosure -- the plastic container, the flimsy USB port -- fails, your data is lost forever. You can't "pop out the hard drive" like we used to do, and "pop" it into another computer.
  • You didn't you know that to use the same external hard drive on Windows and a Mac, you were supposed to have reformatted it as FAT32? And if you did know, did you know that it meant you would lose your larger files, e.g., all of your videos?
  • Good news: your 47,000 photos are safely backed up to the cloud! Bad news: you can only download them one at a time!
  • It turns out the backup service you paid $100 for didn't back up files larger than a certain size, and only backed up the files with file extensions that some programmer decided were important, which doesn't include video files. (I'm looking at you, Carbonite.) You should have read the fine print.
  • Or it turns out that your backup service "automatically deletes file after 30 days of no action." How the heck can you call that a backup service, Backblaze?
  • You know you backed up some important files to that thumb drive you left on your dresser, but unfortunately, your son reformatted it to copy games to his Xbox.
  • You assume your original Nikon photos are still one of those SD cards that's sitting around somewhere, but when you find the card, it's inside your video camera, reformatted, and full of videos.
  • You think some of those old files might be on that broken computer in the basement, and if you could remove the hard drive, and get one of those enclosure thingies, and get it spinning... Yes! A folder called "Weddingphotosbackup!" Boo! It's empty. You meant to back up those files, but it appears you never actually got around to it.

And those are the types of things that happen when you do have a backup. Mostly of us, frankly, don't.

And so, here's to those shattered souls who go through life in secret mourning for lost files, lost texts, and never-to-be-seen-again photos. It's real mourning, real loss, real trauma. Digital photos documenting your life are no more "just pixels" than photos of your grandparents in the old country are "just paper."

For what it's worth, here's my unsolicited and unprofessional advice.

Because of all of those nightmare scenarios, I believe the best way is the old fashioned way. Get two, or more, external hard drives and copy the files using, yes, the copy command. Yes, it takes up more space, but 10 years from now, the files will still be visible and usable and you won't have to "remember" how you might have compacted them 10 years ago. Rotate the drives, and put at least one of them offline. Then, go ahead and use a cloud service. I recommend Amazon AWS even though it's a pain in the ass to set up and has a limit on depth of directories. Best of all, it's not a "service" with all the "fine print" that entails. It's just a giant hard drive and they charge you for the space you use, in a dynamic way. Cool.

The secret to backing things up

is to have it organized and all in one place to begin with. I personally can't stand Windows' c:\users\firstname lastname\documents data structure (first of all, I don't like spaces in directory names; second of all, I'm the only user so \users\ is a waste of space; third of all, I especially hate how they ) , but at least there's a good chance that if you back up that directory, you will get most of what's important.

List of Mac programs

  1. The DSM is the book that psychologists use to classify mental illnesses.

Recent Posts

Flickr Stream

Text Widget

Aliquam eget arcu nec nisl imperdiet semper mollis sit amet tortor. Ut ultrices pharetra urna id cursus. Aenean ligula dolor, mollis id eros id, hendrerit malesuada nisi. Suspendisse et pellentesque est. In lobortis velit nec diam sodales, vel gravida nibh porta. Curabitur faucibus lacus ac tellus faucibus posuere. Nam lobortis