Hard Disks and Solid State Drives
The materiality of data
If you got a Macbook after 2012 (or another super skinny laptop), you have a solid state drive. Their higher cost aside, SSDs are better than hard disks in most ways. Hard disks have mechanical arms, swinging across a spinning magnetic platter to find your your vacation photos and unopened emails and college admissions essays. It’s satisfying and easy to conceptualize, all that precious data written physically right there onto a magnetic surface. To read you just have to spin and seek to the exact right place, that long string of 1’s and 0’s which encode a grid of pixels that show you on the bus to summer camp with too short bangs, stashed in a folder in a folder in a folder but not yet deleted.
But like any hardworking device with moving parts, a hard disk can fail in a million ways. In the worst case the mechanical arm, which usually hovers right above its surface, can crash into the disk itself, driving a violent groove right through that illegally downloaded copy of Manchester by the Sea.
SSDs, on the other hand, don’t have any moving pieces. They’re made up of transistors that can store a charge. No fuddy duddy arms or moving platters to speak of, SSD’s are sleek and modern. They are the reason your laptop fits in a mailing envelope. SSD’s can, however, get worn out. It doesn’t happen quickly or easily, but after tens of thousands of writes an SSD begins to lose capacity. A lot of SSD engineering is about shifting around your chat logs and Blink-182 albums to level out wear evenly throughout the drive.
Modern storage drives are awesome. They store so much so accurately that they put our dumb brains to shame (by some measures) and they’re getting better all the time.
But the cloud is not a cloud. It’s millions of drives in millions of stacks in thousands of data centers around the world, eating up energy and requiring replacement and producing waste. Data centers use more than two percent of the world’s electricity. Our data is physical and it’s astonishingly, alarmingly big.