A few years ago, I printed a few thousand pages per month on my laser printer. I wore out several of them and used dozens of cartridges and countless cartons of paper. Today, I hardly ever turn my printers on. In many respects I have gone paperless and have readily searchable files in electronic filing cabinets. However, it is not as simple as it sounds. Along with the benefits, there is a downside.
I can remember seeing people on television who had lost all of their personal records. One woman tearfully told a reporter how all of her children’s baby pictures were in the house that they were watching float down a river to certain destruction. A survivor of Hurricane Katrina had also lost all his medical records when his hospital and doctor’s office were distroyed. It was difficult for him to tell doctors what they needed to know to treat him. Having electronic records in their pockets would have helped both of them.
Businesses also save millions of dollars of postage and other costs when they can send out bills via email, and it is easier and cheaper for customers to pay online. There are security concerns, but think of all the forests that can be saved. Yet, email reminders may get lost and there are healthy penalties for failing to pay on time, and people who need receipts must now print their own. Also, if you store your records online, in a cloud somewhere, there is no guarantee that the business will not be discontinued as is happening with Google Health and their online personal health records. Fortunately, for Google Health’s users, Google is giving their customers plenty of time to find alternatives and make an orderly transition.
For the do-it-yourself electronic recordkeepers, there is another set of challenges. People who remember 35mm slides, 5-1/4 inch and 3-1/2 inch diskettes, 8-track tape, VHS and music cassettes, and other obsolete media have probably agonized when they found that they no longer had a means of using their old media. When they could find a working machine to read it, they often found that the media had degraded and could no longer be read. Electronic files become corrupted and, at best, it can take a costly commercial or government process to attempt to reconstruct electronic information. It is certainly not possible for the masses.
I have scanners that enable me to convert documents and pictures into digital files. I could not be without them. However, once something is digital, dangers of corrupted files and outdated media need to be addressed. The first time I lost a few pictures on a camera memory card reminded me that everything has a failure mode. Same thing with hard drives that have a lot of moving parts and wear and tear. Then there are CD-ROMs and DVDs. Even if they stay in their jackets and avoid scratches, they will ultimately deteriorate. Molecules constantly jump around and fields from magnetic particles damage adjacent areas on tapes.
Backing up information is extremely important no matter where it resides. Consider the smartphone with the MicroSD card. The phone can be lost or stolen. It can fall into water. However, even electronic solid-state memories have life expectancies like my camera memory card. Some fail prematurely. Same with ubiquitous flash drives. Some memories are consumer grade, designed to last several years; others are commercial grade and cost a large premium, but should be good for ten years or so.
Even experts get surprised. Redundancy is the best way to minimize risk and exposure. Part of a good backup policy says to separate the copies as far as possible. We are reminded of the small company in San Francisco that kept backups on a different floor in the same building. They were lucky, but what if an earthquake had damaged or destroyed the building.