If the house were on fire and you could save only one thing, what would it be?
For many, the answer is the family photo album. The furniture, the clothing and all the other stuff is usually insured. So why not grab the irreplaceable photos and the memories they represent?
But I wonder if one day soon the most important thing to save from a burning home will be the home computer, or at least the disks on which its data is backed up.
These thoughts came to mind recently as I was doing a little digital archeology. I'm copying data from my collection of old 5 1/4-inch floppy disks onto fresh disks. But what started out as a copying job has turned into a fascinating trip down memory lane, largely because I couldn't resist taking a peek at some of the old files. It was amazing to see what had survived the years.
A few of those disks hold the record of my earliest trips onto the Internet. It was an all-text Net in those days: no browsers, no graphics, no Yahoo! or Amazon.com.
Just getting from one place to another on the Internet took a lot of effort. Much of the text on the old floppies simply described the many steps that were needed to fetch a file using FTP or to read and save e-mail.
Online time was precious, too. I think I paid $10 for five hours of connection time, more if I went longer. So I used to capture my Net sessions to disk and study them later as a way to make the most of my online time.
The floppies also hold some old e-mails, some old news stories that I wrote, some old notes, some old shareware.
What really surprised me was the way that the text looks almost exactly as it did a decade or more ago. Yes, today's screens are a little bigger. And my current PC doesn't have precisely the same look as the old amber monochrome monitor I once used.
But in most other respects, viewing the old files is like entering a digital time machine. I could almost see the text slowly scrolling in front of me at 2,400 bits per second, the way it once did.
I wish now I'd saved more of the old stuff.
I'd give a lot to take another look at some of the old computer bulletin boards I used to visit, to see what America Online looked like once upon a time, even to review some of my early fumbling attempts at computer programming.
Most of that is lost now. But what remains is a treasure to me. In the future, I'll take care to save more data, especially e-mail.
A few years ago, in the wake of tornadoes in the Midwest, a friend sent me a newspaper clipping. The story described people searching through the devastation of what was once their home.
As they searched through the rubble, one person muttered something like, ''Never mind that other stuff, just find the hard drive.''
Now I know why.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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