How much stuff do we really need?

by Volker Weber


Recently I said that most people don't really need a private PC. Today I received an interesting comment making a point that if he only knew how to solve backup, he would not need a PC and would be fine with an iPad. Since I live on many machines, literally dozens, I had to solve this problem a while ago. But before we get there, let's take a detour into the physical world.

Sometimes I marvel at the simplicity of a dog's life. The only things the dog needs are on its body. Go for a walk? Sure, right away. Nothing to pack, nothing to drag along, just go. It does not even need a bar of soap or a tooth brush. Zero luggage. As humans, we cannot afford this luxury. Without some clothing or shelter, we won't survive long.*

We start hording stuff at a very young age. But we arrive on this world naked and we leave it behind in a similar fashion. Your last shirt does not have pockets. All the stuff we accumulated and did not get rid of in time, is either a heritage or a burden. And unless you were a really good person or a really bad one, in 200 years nobody will know that you even existed.

Of all the stuff you have, what is your most precious possession? What is it that you would grab in case of a flood or a fire? Chances are it has a heartbeat. And then some papers. And photos. Because photos link to memories in your brain. But all that junk in the attic? That is for the next generation to take care of.

Back to the digital life. Go through your data, your old office documents, your music, files you don't even know they existed. When you make a backup, you will back up all of them, indiscriminately. They all appear to have similar value. But they don't. I have 20 year old files I cannot even read anymore, since I don't have software that understands them. (Notes databases, ahem).

Now we go full circle. What is really important? What do you grab in case of fire or flood? From the top of my head, the most import data is unfinished business. Stuff I am working on and that I owe to somebody. As somebody working on a doctoral thesis, that would be your research, your literature, your manuscript. Once you have your PhD, that data becomes almost irrelevant, unless it is a foundation of your further career. But that is work-related. I was asking why you need a personal PC, a machine to keep your personal data.

If you watch Casey Neistat's most recent video, you will find him traveling to Houston where his inlaws' house was flooded. What are they saving, apart from valuables? Photos, photos, photos. For most people those are their most precious possessions. "This is Candice in middleschool. Gross." They are not of monetary value, but they mean a lot to you because they bring back memories. Talk to elderly people. Memories is all they care about. And that is what you give them as a gift. Memories, not stuff.

Which leads me back to the storage question. Besides the unfinished business, what is really important? I'd wager it's photos. They are on your phone, there may be copies on a computer, on multiple storage media, and there is too many of them, way too many. You really don't need a hundred thousand photos, but there is a shoebox of photos burried underneath that pile that is really important.

For me that means, every unfinished business is in the cloud. I can access it from all my machines. Each photo I want to keep is also in the cloud, actually in multiple places. My machines replicate that data, but they can break, die in a fire or a flood, and I still have all that data. If I am testing new gear for a few weeks, I can get at that data. And before I return the machine, I can wipe it clean without losing a bit of information.

Yes, there are business records I need to keep, but most of them are on paper, and the few electronic ones fit on a thumbdrive. Once in a while I go through my mailbox with a simple command: delete every email that has a photo or a video larger than 2 MB embedded. If that photo or video was of any importance, it already is in the cloud. It's actually a lot of work to get rid of stuff. All those mp3 files I ripped a few years ago? I never touch them, my music streams from the cloud.

Office 365 gives you a terabyte of storage. You can pay Apple for two terabytes of storage. All of that is cheaper than running your own IT operation.

My theory is that you will one day lose your unfinished business data, the stuff you are working on, because it was not continuously backed up into the cloud. And you also will one day lose your most precious photos for the same reason. But once you liberate yourself rom protecting local storage, your life becomes more like a dog's life. Not much to worry about.

IMG 3343

*) I never travel with more than 8 kg including the bag, which is the weight limit for carry-on luggage. I have done as little as 5.1 kg for five days, including the little gear I travel with.


Great article! Simplification of my life is a continuous process. It all starts in your head. Most people I know will never get there. I know the theory, making it work is the hard part. That’s a challenge I love!

Markus Dierker, 2017-09-05 17:48

First thought after four weeks family sailing on a 33 ft long boat: What do we need the flat for???

Martin Kautz, 2017-09-05 18:12

Well said.

George Carlin talks about Stuff, comes to my mind.

Federico Hernandez, 2017-09-05 19:09

Very good article. You've properly described what I should have been thinking about, since Crashplan's decision to stop home user subscriptions (and therefore no more peer to peer backup at a reasonable price). What does really needed to be backed up? Stuff like VMs (that I use for testing) can be duplicated locally. As for the rest WIP is always cloud based, documents are already in one of various cloud services. As are all my photos. What's left? Not a lot really.

This could be difficult as I'm a hoarder and I have ancient physical items stuffed away in the loft that I'll never, ever use. There are electronic equivalents that I will never, ever look at again either (IRC logs from ages ago!). But if I lost these files would I even notice? It will take time but I need to think about what's current not what's nostalgic!

Chris Lindley, 2017-09-05 21:39

Very good article, Volker. The difficulty I see is that still you need a lot of local storage as a lot of the popular cloud storage is 'synced' storage - not mapped storage.

So, 2TB e.g. from Apple is nice as long as you have at least the same amount of 'in cloud used storage' available on the local device.

What's missing to me is a feature such as meta data sync only (possibly on a per folder level) so that you can sync the meta data of certain files or folders only instead of syncing the whole file/folder.
When opening the file it needs to be synced to the local device, of course.

I remember IBM's TSM had such a feature (along with GPFS) that, in case of a desaster, was recovering the meta data and folder structure first to be online ASAP again.

The other option, and today to me the only way, is to sync only folders that you need on a certain device

Torsten Bloth, 2017-09-05 22:49

That is how iCloud Photo Library SHOULD work, but doesn't. Google Photos gets it right. All photos in the cloud, only a local cache of what you are looking at. It even helps you remove those photos from your camera roll.

OneDrive had this capability in Windows 8, but it was subsequenlty removed when they went to a new universal sync engine. Now it's coming back.

Volker Weber, 2017-09-05 22:57

Well, how do you back up the pictures in the shoebox? The printed photos?!

Adalbert Duda, 2017-09-05 23:41

Watch this:

Volker Weber, 2017-09-05 23:53

Or that:

Volker Weber, 2017-09-06 00:01

New OneDrive for Windows 10 (Fall Edition) indeed now returned the "stub"-files.
For photo's that means that you will see the thumbnails of the pictures in the windows file explorer, which are cached locally; the actual full size pictures are still in the cloud. Once you open a picture it is downloaded locally. You can opt for certain files or folders to be locally cached entirely (the "always keep on this device" feature). And if you are running out of diskspace, you can cleanup the locally cached files using the "Free Up Space" function (the original in the cloud keeps untouched).

Frank van Rijt, 2017-09-06 10:44

With respect to a digital 'legacy': I clearly remember doing a backup of email and attachments for a senior academic when he was moving on - it amounted to three DVDs (about 14gb of 'stuff').

I met him about two years later, and asked what use he had made of this material - none: he had never looked at it, referenced it, thought about it in any way. But it somehow made him happy that at least, it was there just in case......

Nick Daisley, 2017-09-06 11:04

Hm, ich sehe ein Problem, wenn man täglich mehrere hundert GB Daten neu erzeugt, ändert oder löscht. Dann wird es schwer ohne lokale Backups.

Kristof Doffing, 2017-09-06 13:53

Das dickste iPad Pro hat 512 GB Storage. Wenn man das täglich einmal voll machen will, dann hat man ein neues Problem. 4k Video bei 30 fps schreibt ca 375 MB pro Minute. In 23 Stunden und 37 Minuten könntest Du das Gerät einmal voll machen und dann hast Du noch mal 23 Minuten, es wieder zu löschen. Aber wozu?

Bei lokalem Backup dieser Datenmenge kämen mehr als 180 TB pro Jahr zusammen. Die fährst Du besser mit dem Auto vom Hof. Ich weiß nicht, wer Dir diese Datenmenge per Draht abnehmen will.

Ich gehe allerdings davon aus, dass das für die meisten User ein eher unwahrscheinlicher Edge Case ist.

Volker Weber, 2017-09-06 14:16

Ich hätte vielleicht ein "bis zu" dazuschreiben sollen :)
Aber so "Edge" ist das m.E. Jeder, der regelmäßig Videos bearbeitet, wird ähnliche Probleme haben.
Zumindest habe ich die Erfahrung gemacht, daß ab einer gewissen Datenmenge die Entscheidung, was wichtig ist und was nicht, sehr mühsam wird. Deshalb muss ich halt brachial alles auf externe Platten kloppen, was nicht sehr elegant ist.

Kristof Doffing, 2017-09-06 16:23

@Torsten Bloth: Maybe you should have a look at git annex.

It was created for exactly the purpose of using a distributed versioning system for all metadata of all files while only keeping the big files in places where they should be stored.

It is a bit on the techie side of things but you should be good to go when a CLI does not scare you. There is also a GUI called assistant for regular usage...

Dennis Wegner, 2017-09-08 17:49

Super herausgearbeitet! Ich sehe das schon lange genauso: Alles muss in die Cloud. Datenschutz-Bedenken sind oft die Ursache für ein sinnloses Hobby. Wer mit Windows aufgewachsen, dem fehlt oft der Abstand, diesen Aufwand und Selbstzweck als solchen zu erkennen.

Dirk Vorbau, 2017-09-09 18:18

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