Hoarding Information

(Adapted from a talk I delivered at Stanford in March 2013) 

Meet Paul. Paul is unable to throw anything away. His house is packed with hundreds of boxes. There is so much stuff on the kitchen floor that you can't even tell what color the floor is. Paul wastes a lot of time in his life trying to find stuff he needs. He often hurts himself, walking around his house and tripping on something sharp. Paul's habit is also holding him back: he had to turn down a job offer, because with all the stuff at his house, he simply couldn't move to another city.

You will most definitely agree that Paul has a problem. In the physical world, this problem is called hoarding.



Yet in the virtual world, you and I are no different from Paul.



We hold on to every bit of data we generate or download, and we let it clutter our virtual lives, wasting our time and holding us back. When was the last time you cleaned up that desktop, or your Documents folder? When was the last time you went over your camera roll to delete the 80% of pictures that you don't care about at all, so you don't struggle to find the few that you really needed to find?

But you will probably say that it's a different type of hoarding, out there in the digital world. Sure, you hoard bits, but that doesn't cause you any pain. Well, I am here to tell you why it does, and what you can do about it.

True, data is much smaller than physical objects, but there is just so much of it. And it's growing at an unprecedented pace. Right up until the year 1980, mankind has generated a grand total of 1 exabyte (=10^18 bytes) of information. That's about 4 billion Encyclopaedia Britannicas. How about today?

3 exabytes. 

Not since the dawn of humanity.

Not even since 1980. 

We have generated 3 exabytes – 12 billion Encyclopaedia Britannicas – in just one day!

If we don't change our habits, we'll soon become overwhelmed with data.

We are weighed down by all this digital mess, and we don't even realize it. The sheer amount of time that you or your computer spends looking through all these bits is shocking. You waste about 25 hours each year sifting through, or waiting for your computer to index data you don't need. That's more than one full day, a full day that you could be spending with your family, or your friends, deepening your connections with others rather than staring at a computer screen.

Businesses are particularly affected by this problem. They are notorious for keeping clutter around. Because data is rarely deleted when not needed, and even more rarely cleaned up, it costs an average business an estimated $1200 per employee per year in time wasted and storage costs (according to my rough estimates). When it comes to reviewing files for legal purposes, companies waste tens of thousands of dollars having the lawyers go through garbage.

But it's not just about the time you waste. Because of all this clutter, you are less likely to find information when you need it most.

Hoarding bits also changes the way you behave. Data holds you back, just like stuff would hold Paul back. You are much less spontaneous because you've surrounded yourself with the record of the past.

A few years back, Paul decided to seek help. He realized that his problem was getting out of control and he didn't want to live surrounded by clutter. He could not easily get rid of stuff, but he stored most of it out of sight, creating some distance between it and himself, and bringing his problem under control. Now you can tell what color the kitchen floor is. And yes, he is moving to take his dream job offer.

Inspired by Paul, I no longer hoard my bits. I keep my important data clean, and my unimportant data far away from me. I no longer waste time, one trickle at a time. I no longer struggle to find the information I need. And, not being surrounded by mementos from the past has allowed me to be much more spontaneous now, doing things I've never done before.

You too can stop being weighed down by your data hoarding habits. Start by organizing your digital life. Separate what's important from everything else. Keep what's important close, and keep it organized. Put everything else far away – ideally in an external drive or online. That way, if you need to access it, you still can, but you won't be distracted by it every day. And try to avoid generating data in the first place. Stream, don't download. View, don't save.

Most of us hoard bits. But if you change your mindset just a little, if you employ some basic data hygiene, you'll suddenly find yourself having more time for the things you want to do, and you will live more in the moment, spontaneously, more deeply than ever before. This advice, unlike your clutter, is really worth keeping.


(And ending on a philosophical note) 

How does information age?  Will the historians of the distant future have access to all our hoarded bits? Or will their machines automatically synthesize information to the point where looking at the individual bits – though possible – will be a fun but vain exercise akin to flying over swaths of land in Google Maps today?

It usually helps to look back in the past and try to see patterns. The Romans – a very sophisticated civilization, just before its decline – were capable of recording information, even though it was more expensive. Then why do we know so little about them? Does information degrade over time? Does the fall of an empire naturally bring about loss of information? Has the information become irrelevant, and thus filtered by successive generations, was withered down to minimum?