Managing Your Own Disk Drives
When I was a young adult, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. It had a big impact on me. Pirsig argues that people tend to fall into two categories. The first set of people see a motorbike as a fixed object for transportation. You can buy a bike in a style you like, use it, and when it's not working, you bring it to a specialist to get it fixed. The second set of people see every bike as a specific, concrete instance of the 'system' that we call motorbike.1 According to Pirsig, the systems approach encourages tinkering with stuff. He argues that this is the better approach, and, obviously, at this point he is no longer just talking about motorbikes.
We could say that our personal laptop, desktop and phone are also individual, concrete instances of the idea that is 'computer'.
For a long time, I viewed my computers as fixed products, just like the first category of people in Pirsig's book. As a child, I was never one to take working items apart, for fear of destroying them. Companies like Apple thrive on encouraging customers to stick to the fearful, closed systems approach. The screws on Apple products don't even have standard heads (don't get me started on that!) and their well-lit shops display a clear delineation between 'buyer' on the one hand, and 'expert' on the other.
But if you want to improve your online privacy, it might be a good idea to learn how your data is stored locally first. A small increase in understanding how your computer works may help inform future decisions about privacy networked tools.
Your data is stored on disks inside your computer. These can range from clunky, book-sized 'hard drive disks' (HDD) that physically spin, to snappier 'solid state drives' (SSD) that are about the size of half a deck of cards and are quiet, to little mini circuit boards of memory that can be plugged into the main mother board. These storage solutions are not that different from USB sticks in terms of what they do, but they are usually fixed to the computer system.
Your operating system has apps that allows you to see a graphical representation of these physical drives. The file management tools2 we use every day don't show the full picture about data storage. To get a detailed view, you need a hard disk utility tool. Type 'disk' with a 'k' in your search tool to find this on your computer.3
When you start up a disk management tool, you will see horizontal coloured bars, perhaps with some vertical divisions. These represent your physical memory disks. It is important to note here that deleting anything here may destroy your installation, so proceed with caution.
Formatting, partitioning, file systems
A disk can be formatted by you, the computer administrator. This is useful if you want a clean start. There is a difference between formatting, which just gets the disk ready for a new installation or more data, and wiping your disk. If you want to give or sell an old computer away, wiping is in order.
Each physical disk can be subdivided into several partitions. The vertical lines that subdivide the horizontal bars in your disk tool indicate partitions. They are subdivisions on a single hardware disk, and they can function as separate drives. This can be useful in a number of ways. You may, for example, want to install your operating system on one partition and all your data on another, so that if the system crashes, your data will be safe. You might also want to create partitions to separate out different types of data, or create a main and a backup data disk.
Your computer may have two or even three physical disks for memory storage. These will appear in your disks utility as separate horizontal bars. These should be recognised automatically, and you can save data on them. Having multiple hardware disks allows for physical separation of data. You could, for example, have one disk dedicated to all your video project files, and the other for text files and photographs. The disks can be physically removed in the event of system crashes.
Having multiple hard drives allows you to run two different operating systems on one computer. This is called a dual boot system. I have a Thinkpad laptop with three physical disks: one that runs Windows, which I use only for audio editing; one that runs Linux, for daily use; and one where I store all the data that both systems can access.
With multiple drives or dual boot systems, you'll want to pay attention in particular to the file system types, visible in the disk utility tool. They have oddly evocative names, like FAT32, exFAT, NTFS and ext4. I won't go into detail here, but these file system types are very important, for example, when you want to be able to access one data disk drive from both Windows and Linux.4
External disks function in ways similar to the internal ones. You usually hook these up to your system via a USB cable, and so they are easily detachable. Important to note here is that, while most operating systems automatically mount these external drives, you sometimes need to do that manually. Again, the disk utility tool will give you much more information about unmounted disks in your system than the file manager can.
Backup, clone, disconnect and encrypt
This is turning into a decidedly unsexy post, but the point of all of the above is that understanding how your files are stored on your computer may help you make better decisions about your data.
You can, for example, create your own backups, instead of relying on an online service. Older and slower external HDDs are perfectly suited for this purpose, as you only need to transfer your data in one direction. I make monthly backups of my own data to older physical drives that were just gathering dust in a cupboard before.
You could also dedicate a hardware drive to more personally sensitive data. Think diaries, financial information or crypto seeds. If you remove the disk, you can be 100% sure your data is unhackable; an individual with bad intent would have to enter your house to get to it. You could even decide to only ever access that private drive with a computer that never connects to the Internet, for maximum privacy.5
If you do want to use cloud storage, I would recommend looking for companies that prioritise your data's privacy and security, like pCloud or Tressorit. Using the software's graphical interface, you should be able to sync an entire hard drive to the cloud.
Not directly related to privacy, but useful nonetheless is that you can clone your entire operating system as a safety measure against crashes. This is fairly easy to do with free software like Clonezilla and a thumb drive. You can store these cloned images (snapshots of your entire system at the moment of cloning) to an old HDD and then reinstall from that image should your system crash. This could also be used as a precaution against a ransomware attack.
Lastly, you can encrypt your drives. This means that the data on that drive is unreadable without the encryption password. Some operating systems give you the option to encrypt your drive on installation. This was really easy to do with the Linux distro Pop!_OS, for example. It's quite interesting to open the disk utility up again after this type of installation and see the more complex visual representation of your hard disk.
Managing your own data gives you more control, but it takes time and requires routine and discipline. I have a monthly reminder set up to manually back up my data, and have to admit sometimes it can feel like a a chore. But with some good music in the background, you can turn this into a nice Sunday afternoon ritual. The same goes for cloning, which I do quarterly.
This is perhaps obvious, but sole reliance on backups on local drives does open you up to losing all your data in case of calamities like theft, fire or flooding. This is the reason I still use pCloud as an additional backup tool.
Ideally, you should check if your backups and clones have actually worked, by reversing the process. I have to admit that laziness often prevents me from doing so. You will discover whether or not your backups and clones were worth anything when your system crashes.
Last year, during routine cloning, something went terribly wrong. My system crashed, irretrievably. I don't know if I was to blame, or if it was going to happen regardless, and using Clonezilla just meant it happened sooner. I panicked. It was a huge job to reinstall everything, but I was able to rely on my backups. By then I had a slightly better understanding of how data storage works, and as a result could customise my new setup to my own liking. Having some sense of personal control over a device that you rely on every day felt quite empowering.
Current use and looking ahead
I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance many years ago, and I cannot remember whether Pirsig held any hope for the category 1 motorbike-as-fixed-object folks. I do remember he wrote about about the fear of examining things and learning how they work. Given my own limited technical background, I would argue that there is hope for the 'fixed object' group, and that anyone who owns a computer can take a first step towards becoming a tinkerer, simply by opening up the disk utility tool and taking a look at what's going on with their drives.
I continue to do regular manual backups as well as cloud backups and syncs. I continue to use pCloud, and find their service reliable. I still clone my system regularly with Clonezilla and also (sometimes) check that the clones and backups will actually work. I know where my data is, how many copies I have, and how recent they are. I feel fairly certain I can recover from a full crash within a day without help.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Understanding the Digital World by Brian W. Kernighan
Protection: Backups by The New Oil
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This reminds me of Plato's idea of perfect concepts or 'forms.' Perhaps Pirsig referred to that in this book.↩
Mac has 'Finder', Windows ' File Explorer', Linux 'Files'.↩
Mac uses 'Disk Utility', Windows 'Create and format disk partition' in the Control Panel, and Linux 'Disks'.↩
Some of the more confounding problems I have run into, with Monero mining, or with setting up a Nextcloud server with an external drive, had their causes related to file system type inconsistencies.\↩
The use of 'air-gapped' laptops is depicted in Laura Poitras' gripping film Citizenfour, which documents the days leading up to Edward Snowden's whistle-blowing of the NSA's spying practices in 2013.↩