Here’s a daily decision for me: How to register, note, or save things I read that I’m interested in. So, for instance, this morning I’m reading D. T. Max’s long, detailed, and deeply sad biographical essay on David Foster Wallace. If I hadn’t had time to read it this morning I would have saved it to Instapaper for later perusal. But I did have time to read it — or perhaps I should say I made time to do so — and as I got into it I realized that this is a substantial piece that I will probably want to return to later. (Wallace’s career is a fascinating one for someone with my interests.) So what do I do?
Well, I could just bookmark it, which is something I do via Delicious — that is, “in the cloud.” I like this option for several reasons. First, it’s quick (especially if you’re using the Delicious plugins that are available for both Firefox and Safari). Second, I can paste in an excerpt from the text that makes it clear (to me, anyway) what interest the story holds. Third, I can tag the link with any number of relevant keywords, which gives me multiple layers of organization. Finally, I don't have to worry about backing up the data, because it’s on someone else’s multiply-backed-up servers.
Or is it? Well, another social bookmarking service, ma.gnolia, recently crapped out and lost all of its users’ data. I’d like to think that Delicious, which is owned by Yahoo, has a better backup system. Surely it does . . . doesn't it?
Almost certainly it does. But I export my bookmarks to my hard drive from time to time just in case — thus, I suppose, rendering that fourth reason for using the service nugatory. As much as we’d like to think that living in the cloud solves all our old worries about backing up data, it doesn't. Or it shouldn't. Leslie Lamport’s famous line about distributed computing — “A distributed system is one in which the failure of a computer you didn't even know existed can render your own computer unusable” — is highly relevant to anyone whose data lives in the cloud.
So why don't I keep all the stuff I’m interested in on my own computer? Why not just download the essay on Wallace? As it happens, I just did. And why I did is something I’ll talk about in another post.