Confessions of a digital packrat
Important musings on importance
Rest in peace, small forest.
If only I could reverse the papermaking process. I could probably restore anywhere from 30 to 75 trees from the printed mementos in my childhood room alone. Eighteen years of “what ifs” will do that to you.
Be it ticket stubs, playbills, fourth grade art projects or medals from preschool swim races, I like to save things. Some are under my bed and some are in my desk, but they all mimic the same bizarre exponential function of importance. Occasionally an item carries legitimate sentiment, but, more often than not, what begins as an inkling — a “hmm, this could be important one day, right?” — becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where even the most mundane items evade disposal simply because I’ve held onto them for so long I can only justify their long lives by extending them.
It’s even worse with my computer.
At first, it seems counterintuitive. A computer should eliminate these problems — there’s no need for material papers or projects when they can be saved to your desktop or scanned into the system. A computer holds so much. A 10 foot pile of paper? Eh, two gigabytes. It’s a compact device and it’s easy to organize, but that’s exactly why the digital packrat doesn’t even realize she’s hoarding.
For every one paper I write, there are three or more supplemental documents. There are drafts, quotes and edited text on separate pages, saved so I won’t lose them on the off chance they might be useful later. In addition to having 26 tabs open at any given point in time, I have a menu full of bookmarked pages for articles that looked interesting but too time-intensive for the moment, and a screenshots folder on my desktop full of the hilarity of general Internet imagery.
And the digital realm extends beyond the computer. Back in the carefree days of flip phones, I would save my texts. I’d receive one message at a time — each new text meant a reevaluation of my 50-text inbox to decide which one would go to allow for the next. Now, it’s much to my dismay when my Blackberry — yes, people still have those — declares mutiny and deletes my conversations on a whim. This is a problem for someone who’s known to keep photos on memory cards, even long after I’ve uploaded them to the computer.
So what does this say about our perceptions of importance?
For one, it says mine is warped. But it is also reasonable to call attention to the criteria upon which we base our decisions about what we keep and what we don’t — what it means to be important. With physical items, it’s a bit easier. Does an item carry a specific memory or sentiment? Was it a gift, or does it signify an accomplishment? Is there an irrational fear that I’ll need it again, that if I get rid of it now there will inevitably be a moment where I’m kicking myself for it?
I’m starting to feel the burden of physical stuff and tangible things, and I get the urge to go through the old papers and realize there’s no logical reason for holding onto college brochures trying to convince me that a Maine winter is nothing to fear. But the digital realm is an entirely different animal.
I’d go so far as to say there’s a digital packrat somewhere inside all of us.
Other than a slightly slower computer, there are no consequences to incessant saving and filing — so we do it because we can. Saving an extra draft makes no noticeable dent on anything. We don’t have to read that journal article right now — bookmark it, leave it in digital wonderland and theoretically we’ll stumble upon it again one day. Try to tell yourself that you won’t need that application for a program in high school and you can get rid of it now. If you can go through and delete that file, you are a braver man or woman than I.
You may say if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. It’s not suffocating to save your documents and drafts and pictures on a tiny chip, so why challenge the system? But it raises deeper questions and concerns. I begin to worry about how to successfully navigate the information that inundates you when you try to hold on to it all, and the need to comprehend the potential for infinite digital possession.
On one hand, the digital packrat saves a small forest. On the other, she’s losing her sanity.
_Caroline’s column runs biweekly Thursdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. _