Monday 5 October 2020

Heavy Data: A Tale of Caution

A hard drive weighs the same no matter if it's empty of full. Unlike paper archives, a lifetime's worth of files can still fit in the same pocket as the day the drive, memory stick or CD was bought. It's this joyful conversion of information and data into magnetic states and electro-light that enables us to live in a hyperreal landscape, connected at the brains via invisible, full-speed tendrils.

Yet I want to coin a phrase for the solarpunk era: "Heavy Data".

I mean, everyone's heard of Big Data which sounds just as weird - big in terms of its plateau-sized server farms, perhaps, but ultimately its definition comes down to data which is larger than we can comprehend and process manually. Bigger than human.

Heavy data is similar, except in a different dimension. Heavy data has technical perspectives - in particular, in modern computing, more data requires more energy to keep indexed, more to synchronise, more to back-up. (This is something I'm feeling particularly as I write this, and my big battery is rapidly running out with the time it's taken to attempt a back-up, run out of space, delete some stuff, and try again.) Hitting real-world energy limits just because you have a large energy footprint is not desirable.

But then there's also the mental aspect. Where Big Data was bigger than human, Heavy Data is what slows you down as a person. Data that takes up too much cognitive space in your head because you need to remember what you have, what you've seen already, what needs sorting out. It can be short term like incoming RSS feeds. It can be long term, like all that music you've stored up - or even that's just available to you as a subscription service. It can 'live' and dynamic, like all those social media outlets you dig through on a daily basis. All taking up head space. All stopping you from moving on.

I write this with a keen sense of guilt, in recognition of the gigabytes of data sitting around on too many hard drives. An itchy corner of my brain wants to delete it all, start again. Yet every kilobyte ties in with some part of me, my hard drive is a museum of myself and to remove parts seems to remove either a memory of the past, or a dream for the future. My ambitions and my legacy, stored in a space that fits into my pocket.

Years ago, I played around with the idea of keeping everything - or notes, at least - on a small USB stick. I opted for a smaller capacity laptop, hoping it would force me to get rid of the stuff I didn't want. Technology is cheap though - it's too easy to just upgrade the USB stick, or find some network storage. The approach needs to be more rigourous and deep-rooted than that: a curation of content, in alignment with a chiselling and sculpturing of one's own self. The careful sifting of thoughts that occurs in meditation or ritual, for example, matched by the constant pruning of the material on our screens.

But again, how to get there? How to undo the decades of fibrous consumption piped into my electronic surroundings? Maybe directory-by-directory, a disk analysis window as my constant guide? Stop taking backups, and pray/dance/sacrifice something for an electrical storm?

All I know right now is that this backup is taking far longer than it should and my battery is running out. All my batteries are running out.

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