I used to hoard a little bit. I’m not talking about floor-to-ceiling newspapers and envelopes of toenail clippings here, just some assorted tech junk. When I had children, we needed more room and so the junk had to go. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the need to keep old consoles and games you don’t play anymore, bits of old computers that still work perfectly well, a big bag of assorted wires and adapters, you know, just in case. My wife made me go through it and applied a ruthless rule: If it hasn’t been touched for over a year, or I don’t know what it’s for, then it has to go.
There were boxes that had been packed up two moves ago and never re-opened; old remote controls for DVD players and computers that I don’t even own anymore; US power cables still in their packaging because some devices shipped with both (I live in the UK); two broken PCs that I was planning to one day assimilate into what would be an antiquated and useless computer. Many things I couldn’t even identify. In the end I threw everything away or gave it away.
It felt great. It was a cathartic experience. I felt unburdened. Free of the pressure that I would one day organize and find a useful purpose for all of this stuff. Real world hoarding gets plenty of press nowadays, and we know it’s bad for us, but what about the junk we collect in the virtual world?
Infinite space, infinite clutter
We need to throw off the shackles of digital hoarding before it weighs us down. Hard drives are cheap and they are capable of storing tons of useless files. Almost everyone can afford the digital equivalent of a many-roomed mansion. So what if a few rooms are piled high with boxes we never open? We don’t need that space anyway.
The ease with which we can store digital files encourages us to stick them in a folder and forget about them rather than ask whether we need to keep them at all. My hard drive looks much like my wardrobes used to. I have folders that have been transferred from computer to computer and never opened. I think my first PC had a 10GB hard drive. This one has a terabyte. A quick look reveals a vast repository of junk, the detritus of past jobs, long-forgotten conversations, every holiday ever taken, and an awful lot of random stuff that was never deleted because there was no need to delete it. Is all of this accumulated baggage from life actually weighing us down?
Most of us have thousands of photos now and camera technology is vastly improved, yet we also yearn for the nostalgic experience of leafing through old photo albums. We use apps to give our shiny new perfect images faded tinges. Do we really want our memories to be perfect? Do we want to see things exactly as they were?
Putting memories on autopilot
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Director of the Information Policy Research Center, National University of Singapore, makes some excellent points in an interview with Big Think. He points out that the default used to be forgetting and it took some effort to remember things. That has been reversed now. Remembering has become the default and it actually takes effort to forget.
He’s right. Think about the selection process for a photo album or a memory box. It involves you curating your own life experience. You want to cherry pick the best bits and let go of the rest. As Mayer-Schönberger points out, people who can’t forget actually generally hate it because they’re stuck with a lot of useless information and a perfect memory of every mistake they ever made. Forgetting things and letting go of the past can be good for our mental health.
Another scary development is the idea that this is all being taken out of our hands. Social media and the cloud create a situation where large portions of our memory are now stored remotely. We may even lose control over those photos and files. Think carefully about what you are backing up.
Dr. Stanton D. Sloane provides another motivating angle for cutting out digital hoarding. He points out in Forbes that all those files in the cloud are being stored in power-hungry server farms. Your digital hoarding potentially has a big carbon footprint.
Salvation through automation… and willpower
So what’s the answer? If you’re organized or determined enough, then perhaps that long-promised “sorting things out” day will arrive and you’ll go through all those files and apply the same rules as you would to physical junk. If it hasn’t been touched for over a year or you don’t know what it’s for, then throw it away. Let’s be realistic though: That day is never going to come for most of us. I’ve started on that process a few times and been instantly distracted. Because the need to throw it away doesn’t seem pressing, the drive to do it isn’t strong enough.
When I first read Mayer-Schönberger’s solution I was horrified. He suggests that digital files should have an expiration date. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. This changes things back so that you have to expend some effort to keep the things you really want to keep. The things you don’t care about, or need, can be allowed to float gently off into the digital void. The default would be forgetting and remembering would require some effort again.
How much of the stuff that’s clogging up your hard drive is actually useful? It can reach the point where searching for something on your hard drive actually takes longer than just searching for it online and downloading it again. There’s no point in keeping old emails or photos that are mediocre or even flat out rubbish. Do you really need that TV series that you already watched?
We need to get into the habit of deleting things immediately, because whatever sneaks past that initial hurdle can end up being carried around with you for the next few years, maybe even until you die, when some relative has to wade through it. Imagine reaching your eighties and having to go through 30 plus terabytes of files. You’ll never make it. You could die searching for that elusive photo or that awesome article you wrote in university. Sometimes finding it is worse because it can never live up to the memory in your head anyway.
I’m off now to take my own advice and purge my hard drive, wish me luck.