Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hey Wall Street Journal, Saving Computer Files is Not a Disease

It's often a sign of trouble when a newspaper's health reporter writes about computing issues.  Usually you're going to hear about either carpal tunnel syndrome or some psychological disease supposedly caused by computer technology.  Yesterday's Wall Street Journal was a great example (link).  It delved into the woes of "digital hoarders," people who save large quantities of old files on their computers.

Quoting two psychologists, two nonprofit researchers, and a cognitive-behavioral therapist, the article doesn't directly say that people who save computer files are sick, but it kind of implies it:

"Digital hoarding can stem from the same psychological issues as other kinds of hoarding, experts say.... Hoarding is officially considered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but some hoarders also suffer from attention-deficit-hyperactive disorder."

We're treated to the usual stereotype of sad loners who collect technology as "a way to feel good or fill an emptiness," but are soon dominated by their habit:

"Young men... spend so much time and money amassing collections of music or games or gadgets that they withdraw from the real world. 'They can't pay their rent or buy food because they have to have this latest piece of equipment to support their habit.' "

It's interesting how we've suddenly gone from people who save files to young men (probably underwashed and in badly-fitting t-shirts) who obsessively buy so much tech gear that they can't afford food.  The article implies it's all one big slippery slope. 

In other words, don't save that e-mail -- you might turn into a bag lady.

Baloney.  I'm sure there are people with obsessions that affect their computer use (just like those obsessions affect the rest of their lives).  But routinely saving all of your computer files isn't a disease, it's a natural reaction to the flood of information in our lives.  The people who save those files aren't compulsive, they're smart.

Think about it:  The WSJ article says that people use "only" about 20% of what they save.  But flip that around, and it means you'll need 20% of your files again in the future.  You don't know in advance which 20% you'll need, so if you throw out all your old computer files, it's 100% certain that you'll miss some of those files and regret it later. 

Besides, unlike someone who saves physical objects, there is almost no downside to saving digital data:

Downside of saving all your old physical goods:
-House eventually fills up
-Old pizza boxes attract rats
-Fire hazard
-Risk of being buried alive when piles of old magazines collapse on you
-Unfavorable publicity on 6 O'Clock News when Health Department raids your house

Downside of saving all your old computer files:

-You might need a bigger hard drive

The Journal article implies that people who save files need some sort of intervention.  It advises you delete old e-mails, unsubscribe to newsletters and mailing lists, and don't save web pages that interest you.  The cognitive-behavioral therapist says you might also need to "relearn basic social skills and find other enjoyable activities."

I'd like to suggest a different approach.  If you're such a compulsive neatnick that you feel good about yourself after you clean out your hard drive, by all means indulge yourself.  And after that, your paper clip collection needs sorting.

For the rest of us, my advice is to ignore the experts and save all your computer files.  Hard drives are cheap, and storage capacity continues to grow explosively.  Unless you're "hoarding" high-res movies, chances are drive capacity will grow faster than your archive.

The real problem isn't file saving, it's that we need a better way of finding old files when we need them.  Most of today's computer search tools are either utilities first designed for the world of 40-megabyte hard drives; or are derived from Internet keyword search engines, and good luck finding something if you don't remember its keyword.  Apple's Time Machine gets a lot of praise, and tools like Evernote and X1 can help.  But I think there's also a need for a different approach, a fundamental rethinking of how we manage our information archives.  The problem is not in ourselves, it is in our search tools.


  1. I am so old that I remember thinking that 40MB hard drives were great, but they are so much more expensive than the 20MB. The converse of hoarding is still thinking that keeping files is using up valuable space. I have a hard time convincing some people to keep their draft letters or notes even though they are easy to save.

  2. Carpel Tunnel Syndrome is so painful. I had it for a while and can't even explain the pain I was in when I had to type at work.