A few years ago, the main storage drive in my desktop PC died without warning, destroying my entire collection of documents, photos, music, and video games in the process.
In a different decade, this might have been a disaster, but it was just a minor inconvenience in the 2010s. After buying and installing a new hard drive, I simply reloaded Microsoft OneDrive and reinstalled Steam, then waited with patience as they downloaded everything my old hard drive had wiped out.
Losing and restoring my digital life was a reminder of how much we’ve come to take cloud computing for granted over the last decade. Through file repositories such as Dropbox and online-first services such as Spotify and Google Photos, protecting your most valuable virtual belongings has become trivial.
To be clear, cloud storage existed long before this decade. Online backup services such as Carbonite and Backblaze arrived in the mid-to-late aughts, as did Google Docs, Amazon’s S3 cloud storage service for developers, Microsoft’s OneDrive (née SkyDrive), and Dropbox. Even before then, those of us with personal websites could usually host files on them, or email attachments to ourselves in a pinch.
For the most part, though, backing up files was a manual, offline activity. Whenever I was feeling sufficiently worried about losing an important document or digital photo, I’d shuffle them over to my lone external hard drive, or maybe burn some files onto a DVD. But in between those moments of anxiety, everything I hadn’t already backed up was at risk.
In the 2010s, a few big changes turned cloud storage into default behavior: With the rise of the smartphone, we started generating a lot more files in the form of digital photos, necessitating better ways to safeguard them all besides plugging your iPhone into a computer and running an iTunes backup. At the same time, cloud storage itself got cheaper, so backing up all your photos and other documents to a service became less of a luxury. Dropbox, for instance, initially charged $10 per month for 50 GB of storage. It now offers 20 times more storage (a terabyte) for the same price.
My own cloud storage tipping point came in 2014, when Microsoft started offering 1 TB of OneDrive storage with its Office 365 service for $70 per year. I couldn’t resist the idea of automatically backing up everything that I used to just stow away on external drives, and I’ve never gone back. And when Google Photos launched in 2015 with unlimited photo storage (albeit with some compression applied), I simply added that as another backup method.
Meanwhile, our apps have come to be built around the assumption of an internet connection. MP3 and DVD collections gave way to Spotify and Netflix. We keep notes in the cloud on services such as Google Keep and Dropbox Paper instead of on actual paper. And even if you play a video game offline on a physical disc, chances are your saved data is stored online in case something happens to your system. (Case in point: When the Nintendo Switch launched without cloud-save support, fans howled until Nintendo rectified the matter.)
Around the start of this decade, I recall getting pretty excited about the idea of modular computing. Instead of needing a phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, and TV, we’d simply connect our smartphones to whatever dumb screen happened to be nearby, and all our apps and data would be instantly available. Looking back, it’s clear to me that cloud storage provides all the same benefits without having to rely on a single, underpowered device to keep everything in sync.
Some might argue that the consequence of all this extra convenience is less control: Mega-services such as Spotify and Google Photos now dictate the terms by which we’re allowed to access our own content, and they can change those terms at any time.
But as I was restoring more than a decade’s worth of files onto my trusty desktop PC—things I’ve written, music I’ve made, and a wide assortment of content I’ve either ripped from physical media or downloaded from the internet—I witnessed the opposite effect. These are files that I can access anywhere, on any device, through a wide range of software both online and off. The positive side effect of cheap, pervasive cloud storage is that it’s easier than ever to safeguard the things we still access on our own terms. As we enter an age of increasing wariness of tech giants and the power they wield, this little bit of control is something worth celebrating.