In praise of USB hard drives

USB hard drives aren’t sexy. Often unreliable or slow, they can seem like the storage solution you turned to because another more sophisticated strategy didn’t pan out. But when I look at the humble external drive, I see the last bastion of computing autonomy for the ordinary person. I realise this calls for some explanation but I think it’s absolutely true.

Since the first Macs, personal computers have had a graphical hierarchy of files in folders that mimics how documents were stored in the physical world. Until recently this concept has been fairly universal across GUIs of all operating systems and as a result it’s incredibly well understood. In my experience, even people who generally struggle with computers are comfortable with this analogy. When they plug in a USB drive and a window pops up, they understand that they can drag over the icons representing their files and this causes data to be copied from place to place.

This basic skill alone is extremely empowering. You can work in multiple locations. You can perform backups. You can decide to switch from Mac to PC or vice versa and take all your stuff with you. What’s more, you have privacy by default. Assuming you keep your storage media safe, your data doesn’t leave the devices you physically own unless you intend it.

This is what computing should be for non-experts. They may not be able to write a shell script; they may have to work in simpler metaphors; but they’re not put at any profound disadvantage. They still have meaningful control over what their computer is doing with their stuff. It’s also economically just—even when bought new, external storage is relatively cheap and doesn’t require ongoing subscriptions or access to a credit card.

So what are we doing in 2019? Well, we’re innovating that empowerment away as quickly as possible. Much of computing now happens in the browser, where the data exists entirely on somebody else’s computer. Thanks to iOS, data is now attached much more strongly to the applications where you use it, damaging the notion of a hierarchy of files on disk. Even if your data is backed by files, apps like Word or TextEdit now default to saving those into the cloud rather than somewhere on your hard drive.

This isn’t entirely without advantages. It is pretty nifty having the same data kept up-to-date on multiple devices. Also, the cloud is some form of backup. You dropping your laptop is more likely than the datacentre forgetting your data. But at what cost?

Saving to cloud is kind of like putting a file in a folder, except with a bunch of caveats. Now there is opaque magic that moves it around the Internet, the performance of which sometimes baffles even IT professionals. Conflicting edits now become possible. You must now trust other companies in other jurisdictions with your data on an ongoing basis, making you vulnerable to mass surveillance and profiling. Now, if a criminal on the other side of the world guesses your password they somehow get access to all your files. What do you mean you haven’t heard of 2FA? Since running the service costs the cloud providers money, you either have to pay for the privilege or be sold to advertisers to make ends meet.

It didn’t have to go this way. It still hasn’t, completely. Both Mac and Windows have built in systems for backing up your files to external drives. Time Machine is excellent and fully supports multiple backup targets. With no special skills you can have your own rotation of high quality off-site backups. In general, USB-based sync between iOS devices and Mac still works great.

The USB renaissance isn’t going to happen, of course. Most don’t want to think about backups unless they have to. Cables are not trendy. Many will continue to assume that big tech will take a moral stand on users’ data even though the writing is on the wall; Apple is already providing special iCloud infrastructure to placate China. When push comes to shove, Australians’ data stored in the US won’t stand a chance.

Realistically, computing autonomy will be given up readily. Not primarily because users don’t want to take responsibility—because all of our innovation assumes they already gave up. Those who buck the trend and choose the unglamorous USB lifestyle will be rewarded with nothing getting substantially worse.