Is Your Information Under the Mattress or in the ATM?


ScreenshotAnalogies are tricky things, but one recently proposed by Ernie the Attorney should ring true for many web workers: he writes about living his life in ATM mode. To see what this means in context, and how it fits into the web worker lifestyle, let’s step back a few years.

Like many others, five years ago I treated the internet as a huge library (with, thanks to Google and the other search engines, a rudimentary card catalog). When I wanted to know something, I could turn to the web, rather than running out to the library. But frankly, I didn’t trust the web to always be there (in my case, in part, because I was living in a part of the country with a rickety telecommunications infrastructure).Meanwhile, I was piling up more and more of my life in digital form – and storing it all at home, on my side of the wire. This led to a proliferation of hard drives, a move to a file server, tape, disk, and CD backups, and a growing home network.

Here’s where the analogy comes in. My attitude towards online information in those days was pretty close to taking my paycheck in cash, and stuffing it under the mattress because I didn’t trust a bank to hold it for me. What Ernie argues – correctly, I think – is that now we can treat the web much more like a bank with a network of ATMs: it’s a secure repository with a network of points where you can withdraw your information on demand.

Switching to ATM mode can mean a lot of things, but here are some of the trends that contribute to making it possible:

  • The rise of online file and backup services that let you store your data “in the cloud” with redundancy
  • Web mail with IMAP access so that you can get an identical picture of an organized mailbox from anywhere
  • The vast array of project management, to-do list, document creation, CRM, and other “software as a service” applications that we cover all the time
  • The increasing availability of ad-hoc high-speed internet connections from practically anywhere

Of course, there are perils to moving your entire life and career to ATM mode at this time. We’ve discussed whether storing data in the cloud is trustworthy, and no service can offer 100% uptime. But it’s definitely more practical than it was even five years ago.

Web workers are well-poised to take advantage of this trend. In fact, depending on the character of your web work, you may already be living in ATM mode without realizing it. One measure of this is to do a thought experiment: if you main desktop (or laptop, if you no longer own a desktop) computer were suddenly struck by a meteor, would it be a disaster or merely an inconvenience? Many of us could simply beg or borrow another computer and continue with our lives.

If you are moving to ATM mode, the question becomes: how far are you interested in going in this direction? Are you ready to dispense with local copies of information entirely? Are you looking for ways to put other things – like your suitcase – at your disposal wherever you are? And do you have any advice to share for those still trying to figure out how to make the transition?

Hat tip to Steve Rubel for pointing me at Ernie the Attorney’s original post. Image credit: stock.xchng user TALUDA.



A lot of my stuff is in the cloud, but some things are just more convenient to keep local. A lot of desktop apps are more powerful than online apps, and desktop apps can only interact with local files. Online storage for backup is fine, but for primary storage and interaction with my files, I need a local copy in order to use my desktop programs.

Plus, online storage doesn’t provide nearly as much space as what desktop hard drives can hold, and it also takes a lot longer to upload/download files to online storage than to hold them locally.

Robert Witham

As a public speaker I know that all analogies fail sooner or later – but this one is interesting. I am in the process of converting to remote storage for just about everything. I am somewhere in the middle now with data divided between flash drives/CD-ROM and online storage. I suspect the future is clearly remote though. The benefits are just so immense…


When connectivity is lost though, the analogy falls down for me. If the ATMs fail, and I need money I could potentially get it from elsewhere – money is all the same. If my net connection (or web app) fails, and I don’t have a local copy of the information, I’m stuck. My info is unique. That’s why I think I’ll always want a local backup of online data.

Jon Moss

Good post and Ernie has made a very good analogy.

I’m stashing stuff under the mattress and using the ATM machine for the moment, although the ATM network is getting used more and more….

Google apps, dropbox, (trying Mozy soon), Gmail, etc etc.

I’m wondering, given a few more years, that I will be totally in the cloud… it could happen.

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