In his essay “The Morality of Things,” the late writer Bruce Chatwin asserted, “All civilizations are by their very nature ‘thing-oriented’ and the main problem of their stability has been to devise new equations between the urge to amass things and the urge to be rid of them.”
Chatwin was obsessed with things. Before emerging as a prominent and much-celebrated travel writer with a keen sensibility for place, Chatwin worked as an art dealer at Sotheby’s where he became an expert in Impressionist art.
Chatwin wondered why we humans have a penchant for collecting and keeping things. “A chimpanzee uses sticks and stones as tools, but he does not keep possessions. Man does. And the things to which he becomes most attached do not serve any useful function,” Chatwin mused. “The question I would like to ask (without necessarily being able to answer it) is, ‘Why are man’s real treasures useless?’”
I’ll not be able to answer that question either, in part because I’m not fully convinced of its premise: that our most treasured possessions are inherently “useless.” I’d argue that the fact that we treasure a possession makes it of use to us, if only in an intangible way.
“And do we not all long to throw down our altars and rid ourselves of our possessions?” Chatwin asked rhetorically in his essay. “Do we not gaze coldly at our clutter and say, ‘If these objects express my personality, then I hate my personality.’”
Hopefully not. When I gaze coldly at the clutter of possessions in my office, I certainly don’t hate my personality. I find my collection of treasures to be more totems that say something about the arc of my life rather than expressions of my personality.
And then, there’s my computer. If I could somehow transform its contents into the physical world, I’d likely be starring in the next episode of Hoarders, the popular documentary series that chronicles the struggles of people with compulsive hoarding disorder. Compulsive hoarders keep items beyond the point of usefulness and suffer from a separation anxiety that makes it physically impossible for them to throw anything away.
We all have a hoarding instinct in us. I have a storage room down in the basement where I hide my hoarding. Other people’s hoarding spills over into their living area. If you have every copy of TIME magazine dating back to sometime during the Truman administration lining the hallway to your bathroom, you might be a compulsive hoarder. If you can’t park your car in your garage because it’s filled with every television set and various stereo components you’ve owned since the 1970s, you’re probably a compulsive hoarder. If your name is Cecil and you are my dad, then you are most likely a compulsive hoarder because your garage is a dangerous maze of every tool and car engine part you’ve ever come into contact with since sometime around the end of the Korean War.
While I don’t collect tools and car parts, I keep most everything digital, rarely ever throwing any files away. And that’s just the files on the hard-drive of the computer on my desk. I have the equivalent of entire storage units full of stuff out in the Cloud where I use services like Google Drive to create and store documents, Picasa to upload and store pictures, and Dropbox for even more files, most of which I’ve not accessed for years now.
Why am I keeping all this digital detritus? Because I can. Data storage has become so cheap and prolific that I no longer have to think about throwing away any of my digital possessions. Not having to throw anything away, however, has resulted in the negative side-effect of no longer giving much attention or thought to the management of those digital files. Just as the homes in Hoarders are filled to the rafters with horrifying stacks of objects and willy-nilly piles of useless accouterments, so is my digital house—and probably yours too.
We are a horde of digital hoarders. We take thousands of photos and videos and never throw any of them away. We write emails, texts, blog postings, and crappy columns about technology and never throw away any of it. We keep it all, no matter how mundane or useless. The very systems we’ve built have a bias toward hoarding. For example, when was the last time you deleted a posting off of Facebook? I never have. Facebook and other social media such as Twitter are designed to be a stream, a constant flow of data draining into the swelling digital ocean of the Internet.
When I gaze coldly upon my digital clutter, I can’t help but wonder if it does in some way express my personality. If so, then I hate that personality because it is the personality of a compulsive, undiscerning hoarder. Like Chatwin, I long to rid myself of most of my digital possessions so that I can truly treasure what I’ve chosen to keep.
But there’s so much of it now that I’m paralyzed from undertaking such a Herculean task. Perhaps what we need in this age of digital deluge are systems with a bias for discarding rather than keeping. Perhaps something like a shrewd, artificially intelligent digital archivist to assist us in discerning what to keep and what to throw away; a kind of bitchy and nagging Siri.
“Hello Scott, it looks as though 294 of the 302 photos you took while camping this weekend are complete crap. Shall I delete them for you and archive and tag the eight good ones?”
Yes, please do.
Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson. Hoarded archives of his columns and other postings can be found on his blog at: blog.insidethebox.org