Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1997
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S C I E N C E    &    T E C H N O L O G Y

Taming the Terabyte
Author's Notebook
By Melissa Hendricks

A new chunk of hardware now adorns my desk. It weighs precisely 1 pound, 2 ounces, and is 5 and three-quarters inches long, 4 inches wide, and one inch high. My hard drive.

Surgery to remove this piece of hardware from my Macintosh Centris 610 was performed in September. Jes Porro, the magazine's resident computer wiz, announced one day that the hard drive had never been "optimized."

"Horrors!" said I, a confessed computing illiterate. Then, "What is "optimized"?

"Gabooldeegook, gagooldeegook, computerspeak, jargon, jibberish," said Jes, as though that were an explanation. Translation: "Your hard drive needs a tune-up. But after Jes and our "Mac Medic" prowled inside the guts of my machine, they declared that my hard drive was terminally ill-non-optimizable-and would need to be replaced. So the computer pros expertly removed my machine's hard-drive, and replaced it with one heftier in memory. My new hard drive now possesses the potential to hold 240 megabytes, where my former hard drive would max out at only 40. That's nothing, Jes tells me. The most advanced hard drives go to 4.0 gigabytes or more.

The transplant procedure took place, coincidentally, while I was writing "Taming the Terabyte." One of the points I make in the story is that our ability to transmit electronic information is growing faster than bacteria on a culture plate. When Jes hands me my decommissioned hard drive, it occurs to me that this tool is a part of the same large communications revolution.

I run my fingers over the dozens of miniature parts on the hard drive's surface. It looks like the landscape of a city of ants. What does this object signify? Does it bear some sort of weighty message about this whole sea change in our communication system? Is the message a personal one, a profane representation of eight or nine years of my work? Or is it no more than a chunk of metal and plastic waiting to be melted down and recycled? Like a Depression bride, I try to devise a new use for a tired old object.

I toy with the idea of framing it and calling it art. Perhaps there's a new genre here-disemboweled computer parts.

I could keep the hard drive for a decade or two until it merits the label "antique." One day, we'll look at it nostalgically. "Isn't that quaint," we'll say. "Remember when there were hard drives?"

It would make a mighty fine paperweight or doorjam.

I could bequeath it to my children. Reaction: "Gee Mom, uh, thanks."

My coworkers do not appear to share my interest. "Kinda cool," they say politely, and suddenly I feel like an eccentric older man showing a neighbor the gallstones he keeps in a box in his dresser.

But enough of these stream of consciousness ramblings. If the hard drive has a greater meaning, I don't know what it is. When I stare at its neatly configured circuits, I still think, "That's amazing." It is an amazing human accomplishment. But beyond its awesomeness, perhaps it's still too early to tell what it means. We won't know until we're there, and we can't see that far yet. For now, I'll keep my hard drive, my museum piece. It stares at me from beside my computer monitor, as though challenging me to hurry up and type and fill the void of its cousin's 240-Mg memory.