Drowning in Cheap Storage: Hoarding in the Digital Age

The Cassette Needs Help

Having worked with computers for a long time, it’s really remarkable to think about how our capacity to store and amass information has grown over time. Today, even the simplest digital device can store an amazing amount of information. For example, my mid-range cell phone today has roughly 1,000 times the storage capacity of the first hard drive that I purchased while in grad school (1988?) or about 40,000 times the capacity the of the floppy disks that I used at the time. Without even having to own an actual physical device of any sort yourself, you can find dozens of companies willing to store roughly an equivalent amount of information in the cloud indefinitely for free for you.

Of course this growth in capacity has allowed us to do amazing things, including doing away with most of our analog media — audio, photography, and video. It has given us software that performs amazingly complex tasks in gloriously beautiful ways, and enabled us collect, produce, and store an amazing amount of individually created documents. All wonderful things. Sadly, these gifts have also come with a dark side, which has allowed many of us to gradually become digital hoarders.

Digital Hoarding…What Is It?

IBM hard drive

By hoarding I do not mean the collection of a huge amount of digital information. Many faculty members in the sciences routinely generate single data files that are larger than a gigabyte in size, and anyone that has worked with digital video knows that almost any small editing project will require at least tens of gigabytes of storage to complete.  By digital hoarding I mean the acquisition and holding on to large amounts of information that is of little or no real use, and that significantly hinders our ability to perform tasks more easily and efficiently in our digital lives.

It’s been interesting to see the rise of “hoarding” as target of reality TV voyeurism. Like its close cousins The Biggest Loser, Extreme Makeover, etc., I think the show has become a hit in large part because it portrays something (taken to an extreme) that we as a culture feel stressed about. Of course digital clutter on our computers does not play as well on TV as a brick and mortar house, but I’m pretty certain that at least some of our anxiety and fascination with this subject comes from feeling out of control in our digital lives.

A Confession:

Hello, my name is Pablo, and I am a digital hoarder. I have an mp3 collection of many thousands of items (many unheard podcasts), email accounts (four) with mailboxes containing thousands of emails each, a personal photography collection of 60,000+ images, and thousands of (mainly) text and PDF documents generated by myself or downloaded from various sources.  From more than a fair amount of experience my plight is not that dissimilar to many of yours. It’s fascinating to help faculty members (and friends) with these problems, and see the similarities and differences in their causes and effects.  While for many there are only minor repercussions, for others it can create nearly incapacitating situations.

I invite you come for a ride with me in an upcoming series of articles where I’ll discuss what have done (hmm, in some cases plan to do) to get my digital world in shape. Hopefully we’ll cover processes, strategies, and decisions that have decreased both my “mess” and stress levels, and are applicable for many of you as well. In the next article, I’ll cover what is probably the number one cause of digital aggravation: our bulging email accounts.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.