Last week every user’s worst nightmare paid me a visit: the full fledged system crash. While I documented the death, resurrection and salvaging on Twitter, here are some conclusions from the whole episode.

(As usual, what happened is rather inconclusive: laptop went to sleep and didn’t “wake up”. The nerds from the computer store told me motherboard is dead.)

It’s not that this is the first time I’ve seen a machine kick the bucket (I must have torn to a dozen machines in the last twenty years…) But it’s the first time I’m actually writing about it, which brings me to the first point…

1. If Your Machine Crashes, The Net Goes On

Ten years ago, when a system crashed and you slowly put the pieces back together or replaced it, you literally had to start out from zero, again. The core of the computing experience, as least as I experienced it back then, was nailed to the physical hardware.

Nowadays, when one system breaks, there’s a chance of just continuing seamlessly on another computer and still have access to all your files, contacts, etc in the time it takes to enter a username and password.

Obviously this largely refers to “light-weight” applications such as email and social networking but since Google Docs, even most of the sensitive data stuff like spreadsheets, letters, etc. can be stored in the cloud, so that even someone would go at your system with a hammer, you could just shrug off the broken hardware and continue working on another system as if nothing had happened.

By having my laptop run down the curtain and join the choir invisible, I became aware of how much of my daily user experience is already happening in the cloud. And while it’s a big part (I’d say 50+%) it’s  certainly not all of it.

Most of my creative work still happens offline. And this is where a crash can hurt!

2. Better BackUp Than Be Sorry

Before my laptop  shuffled off its mortal coil it was so kind to warn me by not waking up as usual. When it finally did came on again, I knew something was fishy so I did a backup immediately of all my manuscripts, pictures and whatnot. (I’m one of these people who know that theoretically backups are a good thing to do but never do them. Having become a bit paranoid after this episode, I found a neat little service called MozyBackup which automatically stores your stuff in the cloud. They give you 2GB for free. UPDATE: As Glenn recommended in the comments, there’s another service called SugaSync and they even give you 5GB for free.)

So when it was finally pushing up the daisies and its screen stayed black no matter how tenderly I pushed its power button, I had everything on a harddrive.

Everything that is, except the last 500 words of a yet unpublished short story I was writing shortly before it hopped off the twig.

(The geeks at the store managed to salvage the document, by the way,  and it’s now finished and awaiting proofreading – more info about this short story series here)

3. Planned Obsolence: It’s bound to break, anyway

Far from being a conspiracy it’s a simple fact that most electronics are built to break down quickly so you’ll have to buy another one, soon. There’s even a term for it: Planned Obsolescence.

And as my laptop (which had been dutifully carrying its load for about 2 years – they never last longer in my hands) finally bought the farm I jokingly said:

If the name Shenzhen doesn’t ring a bell, it’s a place in China where most (correction: all) of our electronics are produced. Despite the fact that Apple continues to make headlines with the problems at FoxConn, a factory in Shenzhen, virtually all major electronics companies produce their gadgets in Shenzhen. If you want to find out more about this, listen to this podcast episode here with the title: MR. DAISEY AND THE APPLE FACTORY.

One of my friends, a China specialist responded to the above tweet with the following:

If the name Ghana doesn’t ring a bell, either, this is the place where many electronics end up when they perish. Here’s a photo gallery of Ghana’s Global Graveyard for Dead Computers.

4. Digital Impermanence: Freeing the Message from The Medium

Interestingly, one day before my laptop dropped dead I was reading an article by Jonathan Franzen about why he thinks ebooks are bad. Like many others he argues that a book is better because it is made out of paper which is a more durable storage medium.

There’s something not quite entirely convincing about this. The ebook critics and digital storage sceptics are everywhere, arguing that in 10 years from now it’ll all be gone if we don’t start hoarding paper.

When my laptop gave up the ghost I became aware again of how flimsy the connection of an idea is to the material which carries it. There’s lots more to say about this, especially in the light of the current copyright disputes (and witch hunts), but I think we have to be careful not to confuse the content with the container.

5. Phantom Pain and Psychological Stress

Last but not least, it occured to me again how much we as humans are becoming fused with the tools we are using. They become part of us and we become part of them. While on the one hand this “extended nervous system” is a great thing, also our identity is stored and invested in these gadgets. The iPhone has almost replaced the car in terms of status symbols and Apple’s success may be largely attributed to the fact that they know how to capitalize on this soft spot of human-machine relationships which are far from neutral and unemotional.

Advertising campaigns are designed to make us feel that we are more with technology, that our gadgets will augment our life. And while I don’t want to lament this, I’m always keen to ask who we are without these “identity crutches”?

Are these things really always helping us to be “more connected” and “more productive” or do they actually increasingly shield us from relating to the world in a more direct and wholesome way?

Feel free to leave a comment below!

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