Digital hoarding

by John Q on January 31, 2023

Yesterday, I dug into the deepest nest of folders on my MacBook Pro to find an article I wrote on a 512K Mac in 1987, for a magazine that no longer exists and isn’t (AFAICT) digitally archived. The file must have made transitions from “hard floppies” to removable 44Mb drives (remember them?) to hard drive to SSD and then, when that filled up, to my iCloud backup.

Today, I read about “digital hoarding“. Count me in!

Whatever the psychological causes, it’s hard to imagine negative real-world consequences from storing files. And it’s easier to search for stuff when you need it than to spend a lot of time filing. I used to sort my email, but now I just delete 90 per cent as it comes in, and archive the rest every couple of years.

In the physical world, I’m the opposite. I’m hopelessly untidy, but I follow Marie Kondo in throwing out anything that no longer sparks joy, and in trying to avoid acquiring stuff I don’t need. Being free of paper has been a huge boon in this respect.



engels 01.31.23 at 8:50 pm

I agree, but don’t do it compulsively: I’ve learned from experience that anything I don’t download tends to disappear.

Marie Kondo evidently doesn’t bother anymore.


Ray Vinmad 02.01.23 at 4:35 am

There’s the idea that everything will be saved by the internet but sadly, this isn’t true. One thing that I hoard is images and because of Pinterest or for some other reason, the internet isn’t the way it used to be when it comes to images.

The images I have are very cool. I’ve saved many abstract designs, especially op art designs, and sometimes I print them out and make stuff from them. I wonder if maybe I have saved a few for posterity and if I should recycle them back onto an online space —post them on a website or something.


Ilia M 02.01.23 at 4:37 am

Wait, all that, and you won’t post the article! Do share :)


John Q 02.01.23 at 5:07 am

Here it is!

After 35 years (more than half a lifetime ago for me!) I think it stands up pretty well.


Sonam Sharma 02.01.23 at 10:09 am

Nothing is permanent and secure. The only thing that can be done is to put it on multiple platforms.


Chris Armstrong 02.01.23 at 12:24 pm

I think ‘never read an email twice’ is a very good rule of thumb (as opposed to hard-and-fast rule). So I try to respond pretty quickly, file away any that are worth keeping, and delete the rest. I get uncomfortable if I have more than a dozen emails in my inbox. This probably speaks to some deep psychological failing of mine, but it also means I occasionally spark the immense joy of having an empty inbox (Outlook gives you a hot air balloon graphic when your inbox is empty, which is nice).


Trader Joe 02.01.23 at 12:45 pm

As long as it doesn’t bother you that thousands of acres of server farms are constructed to house everyone’s digital hoarding – humming away burning kilo-joules of energy brought on buzzing high voltage wires and venting excess heat into the atmosphere – hoard away.


marcel proust 02.01.23 at 4:17 pm

Sonam Sharma wrote:

Nothing is permanent and secure. The only thing that can be done is to put it on multiple platforms.


All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his [computer files]


John Q 02.01.23 at 8:15 pm

Trader Joe @7 I pay $A15/month for cloud storage. I’d be surprised if more than $5 of that was electricity. That’s a small fraction of my regular usage. I’ve saved more than that by switching from a Mac Pro (tower).

More generally, the whole panic about energy use server farms was oversold

IIRC, that’s partly because it became a rightwing talking point for a while.


Trader Joe 02.02.23 at 6:56 pm

@9 JQ

I’m not going to quibble whether cloud operators are as bad as republican’s think or not. Some operators are quite green and others not so much.

I do know that in the US the largest operator of Cloud Storage (Digital Realty) consumes nearly 9,000 Gwh of power of which they indicate only 36% is from renewables and they claim they are the market leader in reducing Scope 1 and 2 emissions (I’ve invested in this company for years and as it goes they have very strong ESG credentials, these figures are from their 2021 sustainability report). They are no where close to Net Zero and don’t even promise that they will get there on a company wide basis over any time frame (though they are committed to improvement).

The cloud storage industry globally has a +20% CAGR which is an incredibly steep incline against which to cut emissions on an individual company basis let alone as an industry (DLR has to their credit).

You said “it’s hard to imagine negative real-world consequences from storing files” so I imagined one for you. There may well be other more vital fights to fight and it may be a fraction of your own personal energy budget but its not a “Zero” and I’d have thought someone with credentials as green as yours are would have recognized that.


John Q 02.04.23 at 8:19 am

Trader Joe: I don’t think advocating and practising a “hair shirt” approach to reducing energy consumption is either politically helpful or environmentally effective. I look for changes that can yield big reductions at low cost, and don’t waste mental effort on trivia. YMMV, as they say.


J, not that one 02.04.23 at 5:14 pm

I’ve taken to a minimalist approach, not to saving records, but to culling them. Given the amount of paperwork my life generates, putting all paperwork from a given company in a folder marked with the year and forgetting about it until later when I can throw them out seems preferable to choosing which to scan and going to the trouble of doing that. They’re there if there’s a billing dispute, and they’re out of sight even if there isn’t.

Downloading is definitely a good idea. The trend toward having everything online, combined with two-factor authentication, is going to be a growing problem when someone dies or is hospitalized. It’s not entirely clear that an economy geared to having bills and pay stubs appear in a physical mailbox can cleanly transition to a system where only one person can legally view them. It’s not clear that the bank will save your statements for as long as you’re required to save them either. (Hint: don’t report a death to a bank or credit card company until you’ve downloaded the statements and auto-pay settings associated with their account.) This is obviously more work for most people than opening an envelope and popping the contents into a manila folder, however.


John Q 02.05.23 at 5:58 am

J@12 I agree that digital storage creates problems in the case of unexpected death or incapacitation. Not nearly as many as dying intestate, but enough. And in a couple household, shared access greatly reduces the risk.

I’m puzzled by this “It’s not entirely clear that an economy geared to having bills and pay stubs appear in a physical mailbox can cleanly transition to a system where only one person can legally view them. ” The transition might not have been clean, but my household completed it years ago, and that’s true of most Australians, I think. Except when I briefly lived in the US, I haven’t seen a payslip in 20 years, or a paper bill in 5. Cheques (our odd spelling!) have almost completely disappeared.

And responding further to Trader Joe, I imagine all that paper must have consumed a fair bit of energy from tree-felling to printing to delivery to payment.


J, not that one 02.05.23 at 2:01 pm

John Q @ 13

The advice for executors still assumes someone can physically access bills — whether Google recognizes a right to access their inbox isn’t clear. 2FA that requires a cell phone requires physical access to the phone or in some cases assistance from a nurse, and not having canceled the phone account already. (The one or two things I forgot until months later were gone, as far as they were concerned the accounts were one person’s alone. And most web based systems don’t allow for shared accounts.)

In some cases it might have helped if we each had a login to shared financial accounts like credit cards, which hadn’t occurred to us, but that wouldn’t apply to retirement accounts, work related information like pay stubs, or anything medical. Auto pay is linked to the login and not the bank account. And I lost e-access to a record of payments from the HSA as soon as his employer reported the death.

A password manager with a way to share the account in an emergency should help, but the whole idea of granting shared access is in conflict with systems that have a goal of limiting access to a single physical body.


John Q 02.06.23 at 10:31 am

The issue of what happens to our digital life after we are gone is worth a whole post to itself. I don’t think it’s primarily technological. Rather, as you say , lots of systems are set up on the implicit assumption that the world is made up of individuals who do not have partners, families and so on.


J, not that one 02.06.23 at 1:57 pm

Hm. I’d say the difference is between a system where it’s assumed our business and household affairs are centered in our offices and homes, the places where we are, and can be shared with anyone we grant access to those places and legal rights to act in our place . . . to a system where everything is now located with the corporations that we do business with, and they graciously allow us access to our own stuff only if we can rigorously prove we are who we say we are, and agree not to “take advantage” by deigning to choose for ourselves who can access our own stuff in our place.

I don’t see a benefit to framing in terms of individualism versus “family” (which is too restrictive). It will end up being “warm humans versus the cold tech companies” and edge out discussion of details like those I listed. The end result, all too likely, and to judge from past experience, will be that warm humans trust the corporations like all good consumers do, and cold techies are distrustful and holding onto private property.


afeman 02.09.23 at 7:03 pm

I think of several personal computers ago, when I peered into the ASCII todo list left over in a folder containing the contents of a previous computer from several years before, and was chagrined to find how many of the items were on my contemporary todo list.


David in Tokyo 02.10.23 at 2:20 am

When Kodak came out with the first digital SLR, and National Geographic did it’s first digital photography issue (it was amusingly terrible: the articles I happened to know something about were gross stereotypes and completely unrepresentative of the countries (Japan and Argentina) covered), I saw that the writing was on the wall and that if I didn’t get back into the medium format film photography* I had loved in the 60s and 70s, it might be my last chance. But the way I did it (scanning the slides and negatives) resulted in large numbers of enourmous files. Somewhere on my bookshelves are stacks of CD-Rs, and somewhere in my desk drawers are hard disks full of boring, unlabelled and unannotated in any way, digital photo files. Even I would have trouble remembering what I was thinking when I took the photos…

(I actually time it right: Kodak went bankrupt towards the end of that period, and although

*: Minor White edited Aperture from the mid-50s through 1976, and every issue was breathtakingly beautiful. By the way, note the Omega B22XL in the background (me doing a high school science fair project):


David in Tokyo 02.10.23 at 2:35 am

That was supposed to be:

(I actually timed it right: Kodak went bankrupt towards the end of that period, and although film and processing continued to be available (here in Tokyo), it was always iffy. Until recently. There’s been a resurrection of interest in film photography, it appears, and classic camera prices have been going through the roof. I let my Mamiya 7/II go for far more than I paid for it, but I have kept a ’50s Rolleiflex 3.5 Tessar. Scanning was an incredible pain. Nowadays I have a holder for up to 6×7 that screws into a macro lens and a 40MP dcam can get pretty much the same amount of info off a frame as a scanner could.)

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