Booted out of complacency

February 3, 2006

The death of his PC taught Kevin Fong that his most valuable possession was not a computer but its contents

It is impossible to exist in the university universe without being heavily dependent on a personal computer. Our lives are even more digital than they used to be. Box files of reprints are slowly being replaced by megabytes of electronic documents, clumsy 35mm slides and carousels by PowerPoint presentations and data projectors. Even the trusty pocket diary is beginning to look like a relic of yesteryear, having given way to an avalanche of handheld devices.

But with this versatility and flexibility comes dependence and fragility.

Recently, after a couple of episodes of resuscitation and a long period of intensive care, my computer finally rolled over and died. The symptoms had been there for me to pick up for several days, but I had studiously ignored them.

My four-year-old computer (which as far as I can tell is about 105 in human years) was well past its prime. It had got to the irritating stage in its life when I could switch it on and still have time to go downstairs, make a cup of tea and return to my room before the screen would look like it was ready to do business. This should have been enough to make me realise that it was time to transplant a component or two. And perhaps if at that stage I had stopped filling the hard drive with endless megabytes of frivolous images from my digital camera, it might have had a fighting chance. But I chose to struggle on, continuing to enter and save my precious data and photos on the geriatric desktop.

Then one day I pushed the power button and instead of whirring and humming its way to life, the box started to make a loud mechanical clicking sound before relaying a chilling message: "Boot failure: system halted". Now, I know very little about computers, but I figured that this was the electronic equivalent of a cardiac arrest.

I panicked for a bit. It was hard not to: all those carefully crafted presentations, that painstakingly constructed library of handy references, those data, my wedding photos - all of it gone to Silicon Boot Hill! Then came the denial phase, during which I switched the thing on and off in the vain hope that the computer would change its mind about being dead. Then came the kicking-the-computer-very-hard phase.

Looking back, I do not know why I behaved the way I did. Yes, it had crossed my mind that it would be a disaster to lose the entire contents of my hard drive. Maybe I could not face the prospect of spending a large lump of cash on gear that depreciates so quickly it makes buying a new car look like a shrewd financial investment. Whatever the reason, I realised - too late - that the most expensive thing I own is not my computer but rather the contents of the hard drive.

There is a happy epilogue to the story. I had made an inadvertent backup to a portable hard drive about six weeks previously before going on a trip abroad, not because I was worried about the fidelity of my ageing desktop but because I could not decide which files I wanted to take with me. Even the photos got copied across. There is, of course, still six weeks' worth of digital amnesia, but I can cope with that.

So shake your head, have a laugh at my expense, but above all go home and buy that backup device that you've been meaning to get. Because you really don't know what you've got till it's gone.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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