Are We Digital Hoarders?

10/27/2011 12:00:00 AM

I just finished reading the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Prof. Gail Steketee Ph.D. Prof. Randy Frost Ph.D. It is a deep and disturbing venture into understanding what people with "Hoarding" disorders go through. The book is both scientific and personal in tone and the authors do a good job of helping to remove the stigma associated with hoarding and help the reader understand that this is a disease that holds victims in a tight and unrelenting grip. As a side note, after reading the book, I was told that there is actually a reality show called "Hoarders." For the record, it disturbs me greatly that television has stooped so low to exploit people who are suffering from this disorder. In reading Stuff, you want only release for the people afflicted. Though many of the cases in the book are severe and sometimes shocking, the authors treat each person they work with in a respectful manner and manage to avoid slipping into a "car crash syndrome." Rather than allowing the reader to remain removed and judgmental, the book adds insight into how the brain works and even encourages an examination of ones own behaviors.

So of course, while reading, I thought of my own piles of clutter. I must admit that I was relieved to assess that I don't come close to those in the book, but I also began to question why I have held onto certain items that have really no value other than taking up space in my basement or attic. It has encouraged me to start planning some trips to the dump in the near future.

However, towards the end of the book, I looked into an area of my life that I hadn't examined in this way, due to its almost invisible nature: I started adding up all of the digital content that I have stored over the past years.

One recurring theme in the book is that many of the clients represented collect newspapers or magazines. They collect so many, that they no longer read them but report that the inherent value of information contained in them makes it impossible for them to throw them away. Some people relate that they may need that information at some point, so they hold onto it.

Whoa... I do that... just digitally.

Let's take a look a just a few things:

  • at present, I have 2485 bookmarks stored at diigo.com
  • I have 5,550 photos stored at flickr.com
  • I follow 2,109 people on twitter.com
  • I follow 556 friends on facebook.com
  • I have around 480 articles still unread, stored in my readitlaterlist.com account
  • I have 35,165 photos in my iPhoto application
  • I have roughly 500 GB of data on my computer and about 2 Terabytes of unique data stored on separate external hard drives
  • I currently have 23,910 files stored on my web hosting server
  • I have 721 iPhone/iPad apps within iTunes
  • and I am too embarrassed to even report how many songs I have in iTunes; let's just say that it would take more than a month to listen to all of them
  • I could keep going with all the accounts I own, and even try to count the thousands of emails that I have saved (in case I need them again someday), but I'll leave it here for now
Now, I am cognizant of the differences between these digital "items" and physical objects. Many of the files I reported take up very little space and have little environmental impact (though each file does contribute to physical space and electrical demands... surely a part of my "digital footprint" that can't be discounted).

Many of the files are necessary to get my work done and many are truly cherished (such as photos and music). However, even I can see that it would be impossible for me to ever fully utilize this huge pile of files, photos, apps, etc. in a lifetime. Thankfully, when I leave this world, my digital stuff will be a very small burden for my surviving loved ones to deal with: they will simply need to "erase" all the digits, and empty the harddrives.

Or will they? When I think of the photos for instance, out of the 35,165 that are only in my iPhoto application, only a small collection are worth saving. Being digital, it has been easy to shoot as many photos that I'm able to, hoping to get at least one good photo out of the mix. Additionally, it has been easier to just dump all the photos into the computer without taking the time to toss the "duds." There's plenty of space on my computer. Why take the time to thin out the clutter?

Think of the apps that I've downloaded for my iPhone or iPad: many of them were free. However, many of them no longer serve their purposes (such as an app that helped track the 2008 election). In reality, I probably only use 5 to 10 apps consistently on my iPhone and my iPad. Why am I keeping the other 700+ around?

Sounds like hoarding doesn't it?

But is it all bad? Let's look at my diigo.com account. I'll be honest: when I see a good link, I throw it into that account. But of all the 2,485 bookmarks, how many of them have I actually gone back to? They're there... in case I need them. I do believe that I am helping the collective good when I share my bookmarks publicly as others are able to use them as well... Or... am I just adding to others' digital hoarding?

In this age of "information overload," why are many of us hanging onto piles of it? Does it even matter? Is all this digital "Stuff" having an impact on the environment as we store it in computers that need electricity, take up physical space, cost money to maintain or replace? What percentage of my "Stuff" do I actually need?

What are your thoughts on this? Are we digital hoarders? Should there be a television show about us?

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