the physical dimension of digital data

Digital data is not only abstract and virtual. Seems to me much of the conversations from pundits have an alarmist flavor about the dangers of online relationships, new media communications, virtual reality, disembodiment, all things digital. Some of this stemming from the lack of physical embodiment since data is some abstract virtual cloud.

But, that’s not totally true.

Digital data has a physical part too. Data has to live somewhere. Somewhere physical. A geographical location in space and time. Sure, digital data is different than physical objects that we touch and see.

The digital data you’re reading right now has a physical place where it is right now. It’s physically stored in the RAM memory chip of your computer (or mobile device) as an aggregated collection of electronic atoms. What you’re actually reading on your LCD screen is a copy of the data that’s physically on the RAM memory chip. Okay, analogy breaks down, since this data is dependent on electricity. If the electricity was cut off, be it supplied by battery or an active electrical current, the data ceases to exist. Not very physical if it dies without electricity. Then again, people would die without air. I digress.

The digital data you’re reading right now is a copy of the data that is physically located at 2 data centers in Los Angeles. Inside that building are 100s of servers (just a tech word for a networked computer) and 1000s of hard drives, and one of them is where this blog’s data physically resides.

Now, this blog data might get copied to another dozen different locations, like on backup tapes (or DVDs, or hard drives). My blog data has its permanent residence in Los Angeles. This blog data may take up temporary residence on internet data packets around the world, on your computer screen, on my browser cache.

What are the implications and ramifications of this notion that my blog data physically lives somewhere? Here’s a few that come to mind:

  • It means that this data can be physically moved somewhere else. You know how USB flash drives work. Case in point.
  • The hard drive on which data resides could be disconnected from a computer and put into a closet and locked up for good. (copies of the data exist elsewhere, but those are clones and not the original)
  • If an earthquake of epic proportions hits Los Angeles measuring more than 8.3, or some other natural disaster that damages and/or destroys the hard drive with my data, the original is gone, and we’ll have to find a clone from a different physical location.

Do you have other thoughts to add about this?

(…. Just another meme that’s been brewing on the back burner of my mind…)

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5 Responses

  1. Ken Liu says:

    DJ – what difference does it make whether or not data has physical presence? This is nothing new – back in the old days programs were written on punch cards. Data is just information; it’s essentially abstract, it’s just the representation of it that’s physical.

  2. djchuang says:

    @Ken – this idea isn’t new, just that this idea gets lost in the shuffle with the snowball of conversations about cloud computing. I listed 3 reasons why it makes a difference that data is physical. Are you disagreeing? 🙂

  3. Ken Liu says:

    @DJ I understand your reasons, but I didn’t understand the point you are trying to make. I’m not

    With “cloud” storage, the things you listed no longer hold true:

    1) Your data can’t be physically moved, because its actual location isn’t easily determined, and isn’t all stored in one place.

    2) Your data can’t be locked up for good, because again, it’s not all stored in one place. It could be copied to a single place and then locked away, but that doesn’t keep the copies from being accessed.

    3) A natural disaster won’t likely destroy a single copy of the data because it is geographically dispersed and redundant. Besides, when data is automatically stored in a redundant fashion, then which copy of the data is the “original” and which one is the “clone?” It doesn’t really matter, does it?