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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

In floppies we trust

I work on the computing helpdesk in the Learning Centre out-of-hours and one of the most common, but heartbreaking, pleas for help come from students who have put too much trust in their floppy discs (seriously, some of them leave the helpdesk crying).

"Hi, I'm wondering if you can help me. I've spent the last 72 hours without sleep or food doing my dissertation and saving it only to this flimsy piece of magnetised plastic, and when I took it home with me I accidentally dropped it in a puddle of acid and stamped on it repeatedly before my pet goat chewed it to pieces. Is there any way I can get my work back?".

Well that's not quite how it goes, but the sentiment is real enough. Why oh why do students save all their work on floppy discs and take no backups? Especially considering there's a perfectly good 10MB of securely backed-up, campus-wide online storage under the name 'My Documents'.

Aside from poor education in why floppies started going out of fashion around a decade ago, I think I have some idea of why students so often don't make use of the secure online storage, preferring to save everything to floppy instead (or USB flash memory stick, where the dangers of corruption are lower but risk of loss or theft is higher).

I think it's all a matter of trust. Students can envisage their document being phsyically written to the disc, they can pick it up and hold it, they can carry it around, they can put it under their pillow at night (not a good idea as the dust will soon kill the disc surface). It's tangible. It's real.

Online storage is nameless, faceless, abstract... how can a student understand that there is a rather large computer a few hundred metres away which now stores their files when they can't see it or touch it or take it home to put under their pillow? To them clicking the 'save' button seems like it could mean the last they ever see of their precious work, as there's no comforting flashing light or whirring 'burrr-dzzz' sound as the file is written, and often no concept that 'My Documents' is not local to only that machine, but is available from any computer they're logged into.

People don't trust things they can't see or touch (or kick) which is why there is still such a huge reliance on physical storage media they can carry around with them. Sure, these devices are great for backups. But the trouble is, too many people still use them as primary storage.

Strangely these people have no problem allowing their employer to put numbers representing virtual money into a bank account which they can't see, when there's no physical cash involved... I suppose people have come to learn to trust in the banking system. If only they could learn to trust in online storage too.

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