Skip to content

Forget to backup? You're not alone.

harddisk1.jpeg

harddisk2.jpeg

harddisk3.jpeg

There was the 20-something documentary filmmaker whose hard drive—-and the movie on it—-was destroyed, just as interested backers were flying in from Los Angeles to see it. There were the Hudson River canoers who brought their laptop along for the ride, and subsequently had to fish it out of the river. And there was the guy who, puzzled, dropped off his dead computer tower only to discover later it was half-full of the carcasses of rotting roaches.

Ben Casey, a 29-year-old data recovery supervisor at Tekserve, a computer repair shop in Manhattan, has seen all these cases and more, as well as the tears and grief that sometimes accompany them.

The young documentarian’s film was recovered and her grief allayed; once the water from the Hudson drained, Tekserve was able to recover the canoe enthusiast’s data; and, thankfully, the dead computer tower was been successfully de-bugged.

Backing up data has never been easier, with flash drives the size of your thumb, e-mail attachments, web applications like Google documents, and external hard drives now priced under $200.

But the continuing foolishness--and even hubris--of many of America’s computer users allows data recovery places like Tekserve to thrive. And instead of a stern lecture about the need to back up their stuff, guys like Ben Casey offer a shoulder to cry on.

“Someone walks in crying every two or three days,” said Casey, not to be confused with the 1960s TV surgeon who comforted people whose relatives, not computers, had passed away. “Someone with a flight to catch in three hours and a hard drive to recover in two.”

Hard drive design has not changed significantly since PCs first incorporated them in the early 1980s, and most hard drives in new computers are as unreliable as they’ve ever been. Meanwhile, consumers’ irrational belief in the infallibility of their own computers--or the infallibility of their handling of computers--has probably remained roughly the same. Because most data recovery shops say they can recover files from 80 to 90 percent of machines, there’s usually no penalty for what Tekserve estimates to be the “9 out of 10” users that don’t back up their data anyway. The only punishment is the potential four-figure repair bill.

At Tekserve, the ability to act as a techno-therapist when things go wrong is more important for new hires than the ability to fix the machine. The “Tekserve stereotype” is not your father's pale-skinned, pocket protector-toting electrical engineer. Most don't even have tech degrees. They are bearded artists and tattooed hipsters, casual people donning ironic T-shirts with temperaments erring on the side of patience.

Tekserve’s walls are lined with transistor radios, CD compilations of employees’ music are on the counter, and eight-ounce Coke bottles are sold from a vintage vending machine for 10 cents. The atmosphere is designed to soothe, like the employees. And Casey, a part-time musician, fits comfortably within these walls: wavy black hair, a sunny disposition, a screen-printed T-shirt and stone-washed blue jeans.

The waiting lines of distraught users are famous at Tekserve at most every hour of the day. And Apple stores in the city have much the same problem: to get help at its “Genius Bars” one has to sign up in advance, and time slots fill up at the city’s three stores days in advance.

They are filled with people like Evan Tumulty, a 26-year-old music producer, whose story is not atypical. Riding his bike down Seventh Avenue, Tumulty thought he had his laptop firmly tied to his bike’s saddlebag. He said he couldn’t afford to purchase an external hard drive to back up his stuff, and, besides, he’d owned several computers before. Zooming past traffic he felt some weight shift, and turned his head in time to see his one-year-old MacBook splatter open on the pavement.

"I was close to tears," he says. "It was like losing a child."

Tumulty had tax records, whole albums he’d recorded, and thousands of digital photos on his computer--the tangible results of many years’ labors. Sure enough, data recovery people at Tekserve--using machines worth thousands of dollars--were able to recover almost all of his files. About $600 later, Tumulty had his computer and his life back.

"I thought I was done ... songs, gigabytes of music ... I walked in rambling," he said. “But after hearing my options”--and the likelihood that he could get at least some of it back--“the hardest part was just waiting a week for the shop to fix it.”

Tumulty noted that, next time, getting an external hard drive may be a cheaper option.

E-mail: ews2107@columbia.edu