The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Just say no to digital hoarding

Digital hoarding may not be as obvious as physical hoarding, but it could be lowering your productivity, forcing you to upgrade to new data plans or purchase new digital devices before you’re ready. (Damian Rico/AP)

We have become a nation of digital hoarders. We save everything, even stuff that we know, deep down, we’ll never need or be able to find. We save every e-mail, every photo, every file, every text message and every video clip. If we don’t have enough space on our mobile devices, we move it to a different storage device, maybe even a hard drive or a flash drive. Or, better yet, we just move it to “the cloud.”

And, in developing these digital hoarding instincts, the big technology companies are more than a little complicit. Remember when Apple’s  iPad came in 16GB and 32GB sizes? The new state-of-the-art iPad mini 3 now comes in 16GB, 64GB and 128GB sizes. (Think of these as the tech world’s equivalent of the Gulp, the Big Gulp and the Super Big Gulp) Everyone is willing to give you a little bit more room in the cloud for just a few bucks a month. And your data plan provider is always ready to nearly double (“supersize”?) the size of your data plan with every new purchase of a tablet or Internet device.

If this were simply a result of the exponential growth of information — the “information overload” — that would be one thing. That’s what technology is supposed to do for us – provide new ways of creating, storing and manipulating information. Innovation, from this perspective, can be viewed as technology’s frantic quest to keep up with society’s information needs.

But digital hoarding is about something much different – it’s about hoarding data for the sake of data. When Apple creates a new “Burst Mode” on the iPhone 5s, enabling you to rapidly save a series of up to 10 photos in succession – and you save all of them – is that not an example of hoarding? When you save every e-book, every movie and every TV season that you’ve “binge-watched” on your tablet or other digital device — isn’t that another symptom of being a digital hoarder? In the analog era, you would have donated used books to charity, hosted a garage sale to get rid of old albums you never listen to, or simply dumped these items in the trash.

You may not think you are a digital hoarder. You may think that the desire to save each and every photo, e-mail or file is something relatively harmless. Storage is cheap and abundant, right? You may watch a reality TV show such as “Hoarders” and think to yourself, “That’s not me.” But maybe it is you. (Especially if you still have those old episodes of “Hoarders” on your digital device.)

Unlike hoarding in the real world — where massive stacks of papers, books, clothing and assorted junk might physically obstruct your ability to move and signal to others that you need help – there are no obvious outward signs of being a digital hoarder. And, in fact, owning the newest, super-slim 128GB tablet capable of hoarding more information than anyone else strikes many as being progressive. However, if you are constantly increasing the size of your data plan or buying new digital devices with ever more storage capacity, you just might be a digital hoarder.

Even worse, digital hoarding may be contributing to your “information obesity” — a term now so common it’s usually just shortened to “infobesity.” You may be continually snacking on new information, all of which may provide very little value in your life – and then compounding the problem by hoarding all that nutrition-less information on a digital device. In turn, this makes it harder to find the digital content that you really need to find later. (Just try to find that really important e-mail from your boss from one year ago.) This corresponds to the traditional definition of hoarding — “accumulating things beyond the point of usefulness.” This means that we are essentially gorging ourselves on useless information and then being forced to commit ourselves to a new Information Diet to get healthy again. Instead of daily cleanses for junk food diets, we have Inbox Zero for junk information diets.

What all this means is that we should rethink how innovation is helping us to deal with our propensity to become digital hoarders. Innovation should not just be the madcap race to create more powerful devices with more and more storage capacity. It should not just be about creating more and more ways for generating “digital exhaust” and not worrying about where it’s all going or its impact on productivity. It should not be about subtly cultivating a Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) to keep us consuming more and more information online. That’s what turns us into digital hoarders.

In short, innovation should be about helping us transform data into information. “Search” was perhaps the first major innovation that helped us transform data into information. The “cloud” is currently the innovation that has the potential to organize our data better and more efficiently, keeping it from clogging up our digital devices. The next big innovation may be “big data,” which claims that it can make sense of all the new data we’re creating. This may be either brilliant — helping us find the proverbial needle in the digital haystack — or disastrous — encouraging us to build bigger and bigger haystacks in the hope that there’s a needle in there somewhere.