Are Our Digital Lives Getting too Cumbersome?

In 2015 a report was published regarding a 47 year old autistic man with a hoarding problem.

While his home was cluttered with bike parts and paperwork, it wasn’t the collection of physical items that interested the researchers. It was his collection of digital photos.

He took up to 1000 pictures each day, mostly landscapes, and stored them on external hard drives. He had 4 hard drives for the originals, and another 4 for the backups.

He would very rarely go through and sort them. What an endeavour that would be. So they piled up, many photos had duplicates or at least very closely related shots.

The researchers termed it digital hoarding. Which they defined as the “accumulation of digital files to the point of loss of perspective, which eventually results in stress and disorganisation.”

While perhaps not to this degree, I would suspect many of us display some digital hoarding characteristics. It’s so easy these days, there’s so much space online, deleting things just isn’t necessary.

Unless it all becomes a problem. Unless it starts to get in the way.

The struggle

A 2018 survey of 45 people found that most of them were surprised by how much data they had, yet felt unable or unwilling to delete it. The reasons for this ranged from emotional connections to potential future uses, not having the time or not caring given the cheap storage options available.

“A general finding across the data was that participants were often surprised by the volume of data they had accumulated but still felt unable to discard or delete the information. For many, difficulties with deleting data stemmed from an understanding that data has potential value and that its value may be realised at some point in the future.”

If the data we keep is useful and benefits us somehow, then maybe we don’t need to delete anything. Yet there’s a lot of stuff we could have that we don’t need, and I’m sure there are more than a few people struggling to ignore or delete it.

For instance, Sam McKenzie Jr. wrote on his trouble with digital hoarding on Medium:

“I hoard screenshots I valued one time. I hoard shows on my DVR that I never watch. I hoard songs that haven’t topped any charts in years. My supply of podcasts, YouTube subscriptions, and audio books can last two lifetimes. I have free samples of hundreds of eBooks, just in case.

My email account is a mess of bold subject lines that blend in as unread emails. My browser has fifty tabs open at any given time. I have more bookmarks than books.

With my phone, I constantly have to delete something to do anything. When I uninstall an app, it feels like choosing between loved ones.”

When put like this, I’m sure many people can relate in some way. I can. Yet there hasn’t been a lot of research on digital hoarding. It’s difficult to grasp how big of an issue it is. Maybe it’s just inconvenient. But it could be something more.

Physical vs Digital

Another 2018 study went a step further by surveying 846 people on digital hoarding. They wanted to see if digital hoarding led to similar problems as physical hoarding.

“Individuals with [physical] hoarding problems often experience substantial functional impairment and diminished quality of life. Moreover, hoarding results in information processing problems like attention disorder, memory recall, lack of decision making abilities and emotional issues like sadness, grief, anxiety and irritation.”

But are physical and digital hoarding similar? We don’t have to step over data in the cloud, all the ebooks and mp3s don’t block the light from the window. Are the risks of digital hoarding the same?

While the study doesn’t reveal whether the negative effects exist on the same scale, it does appear that digital hoarding can wreak havoc on our stress levels.

“The impact of digital hoarding (as opposed to traditional hoarding disorder) seems to have a similar negative effect on one’s level of stress.”

Given the growing role of computers in our lives, and the affordability of storing a virtually endless amount of data, the problem could only get worse. While there are many benefits, we might all need to start taking more digital detoxes.

“The relative ease-of-access to abundance of digital storage, the ubiquity of digital spaces and increasing digital engagement of individuals would mean that digital hoarding, if established and detected, would have an effect to a large percentage of the world’s population, leading to substantial psychological illnesses, social problems and economic losses.”

Taking out the trash

If you have a problem accumulating digital memorabilia, what can you do? Obviously one thing would be to go through and delete as much as possible. Things you haven’t used in a long time, and things you might be able to find online again in the future if it becomes necessary.

It’s important to be picky about what you keep. Jo Ann Oravec says her aunt, who passed away at 100 years old, selected just six photo albums that spanned and reflected her whole life. “She selected and curated those photos from the many that she shot while on vacation or at family reunions and sculpted a strong sense of self from this process.”

After that, organisation would be beneficial. Digital hoarding might not only be about the amount of information we’re storing, but whether we have a sense of control over it. When you go looking for something, you don’t want get frustrated because it isn’t where you thought. Categorising and structuring our data is one way to gain better control.

Lastly, we should be stringent on what we consume, record, share and store. Opt for the bare essentials. The internet will give you everything you want and then some, but we have to know when to cut it back.

Despite the wealth of space with which to store everything we could want, it is all to easy to make a mess of things. Having a smaller collection of meaningful and carefully selected items is better than an unorganised smorgasbord.

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