Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Backward Compatible

Thanks to Paul
at When This Is, That Is

A few weeks ago I wrote about a slew of problems that hounded my computer and caused me a great deal of grief. I described my trials here only after I had everything running smoothly again. That smooth sailing didn’t last more than a day or two and things got progressively worse. Never mind the details. I solved the problems by erasing my hard drive and reinstalling the operating system and all of my other files. I had to do this more than once, also for reasons not necessary to explain. I’m happy to report, however, that it’s been a week since I’ve had to restart my computer - something I had been doing several times a day. Of course this had a tremendous impact on my productivity, such as it is. I quickly fell behind in lots of areas, because my computer is not just something I play with in my spare time. It’s an integral part of my work. Therefore, it’s an integral part of my life.

A computer is nothing more than a tool. It’s a means to an end. A cabinetmaker needs good tools, as do chefs and tailors and mechanics. The tools of those trades are easily - though expensively - replaced. So are computers, for that matter. But they are different from other tools.

What makes the computer different is its ability to store information. It’s the information - the data - that is important. I am very careful - obsessive, maybe - about backing up my files. Not just the files I’ve created over the years, but my entire system, onto a bootable external hard drive. In spite of the fact that it took a lot of time to reinstall everything onto an empty hard drive (more than once, remember), it took relatively little time to restore the order in which I am accustomed to work. Today it’s as though nothing had happened.

There was a moment, though, just before I pressed the button marked “Erase and Install,” that I had a flood of doubts about ever getting back to normal. What if I my external drive suffered a mechanical failure or somehow became unreadable before I was able to transfer what was on it? What would happen if I lost all of my personal and professional data? Reconstruction, were it even possible - or desirable, would take years.

In the computing world there is the term “backward compatible.” A new version of software may or may not read files created in a previous version. If it does, the new version is backward compatible. The same is true for computers and their operating systems. If there is no backward compatibility, then what?

Which brings me to the real point here. Am I backward compatible? I’ve often thought about what it would be like to have a lifestyle that did not include the abundant technology and its related gadgetry I enjoy. In some ways I yearn for simplicity. But what would my life be like were I to lose everything - data or otherwise?

What about societies? Sometimes we (older ones) may use the phrase “back in the horse-and-buggy days” to describe conditions of long ago. What if very suddenly - without the years it would take for the industrialized population prepare and adapt - we ran out of oil for good? Cars and buses and trucks would not run. Not a single airplane would fly. Would there be a sudden market for strong and reliable horses and well-built buggies? Would we travel from continent to continent in tall ships tacking against the wind? Are we backward compatible?

Renunciation and non attachment are fundamental to Buddhism, but these are voluntary acts. I realize that many many people have lost everything through one misfortune or another and have survived. Some may even be happier for it.

But what would I actually do to carry on were I to lose all of my data, or my home, or my family, or my health? It’s a question I can can answer only when the need arises.

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