From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

March 31, 2008*: Holding on / Letting go.

It should come as no surprise to any readers of these columns that I have a problem with throwing things away. On the whole I've identified this as a "personal" problem, something that's rather distinct to myself. While it's true that quite a few of my friends have this same problem (though of course to a more limited degree), many of them don't. All those who do, however, are of my generation. And that, I suppose, is a sign. It seems that the feeling that throwing something out is a crime, perhaps even a sin, is a distinctly generational trait - a trait that simply doesn't shackle today's youth as it does many of my contemporaries.

I encountered this perhaps rather unsurprising discovery, as is usually the case, unexpectedly. I follow the Spotlight reports of the Digital Media and Learning project of the MacArthur Foundation. These reports, understandably, I suppose, deal with issues that interest me, both personally and professionally. One recent report was by Kevin Denney, a researcher from the Illinois Institute of Technology, who studies storage habits. In his report he tells us:

We're especially interested in storage habits related to hobbies and collections. One of the more interesting and, at least to me, previously unknown phenomenon amongst younger children is their predilection to dispose of what they've created.

I'm not easily shocked, but I have to admit that reading this was rather disturbing to me. For some reason I'd assumed that children are hoarders, and that if anything, this behavior eases up as we age. But even if they aren't hoarders, the thought that they might nonchalantly cast something away, something that they've created themselves, is hard for me to grasp. Perhaps Marc Prensky has been right all along, and the brains of Generation Xers actually do work differently than mine.

Today's informational landscape is tangibly different than the one into which I grew up. Hard as it was for me to do so, I found myself asking whether this youthful tendency to throw things away, this lack of attachment to materials they've created, represents a well-founded and even logical gut reaction to today's infoscape. Perhaps today's youth, finding themselves in a world of almost unfathomable info-clutter, reason that saving something only contributes to an already untenable situation. The web site (whoever that is) displays a continually updating Worldwide Information Growth Ticker (it can be embedded onto this page, which is a nice touch, but rather unncessary). The already enormous number that this ticker displays is constantly increasing - well beyond my ability to comprehend its size. I still remember when, about 12 years ago, we thought that the few millions web pages that AltaVista searched was enormous. A bit over two years ago I reported that it was in September, 2005, after having reached more than 8 billion pages, that Google stopped reporting the number of pages that it indexed. At about that time Google, and its users as well, apparently realized that reporting a specific number, something that had previously signified the immensity of the web, had lost any real meaning. Today, whatever number we might quote is well beyond an amount that I really understand. As of this posting, for instance, reports that there are 281,000,000,000 GB of information out there, with each individual's contribution averaging to about 45GB. Faced with a reality of such unfathomable quantities of information, maybe actively trying to throw things away, or at the very least, not saving them, has truly become the most positive means of coping.

Have today's youth really internalized this reality? Have they learned this lesson? Perhaps, in a fashion that harkens back to the concept of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, today's children are born with the culturally acquired understanding that even if we throw something away, nothing is ever really lost. More often than not, my generation perceives this idea as a threat, as a warning that things we (or our children) do today are sure to come back and haunt us. Youth are often told that a seemingly insignificant comment on a discussion forum may one day make all the difference between getting a job they've applied for or being rejected. But perhaps the opposite is actually the case. Perhaps there's something comforting in the knowledge that whatever we do that causes us to lose something - even simple things like spilling milk on our homework, or accidentally ripping up a draft of a paper - we always have the very real possibility of getting it back. Taken to it's logical extreme, we may even find this quite encouraging - we don't really have to worry about saving anything, because that vast database of cyberspace is sure to have a copy of it.

In the long run, even if it's true that nothing can ever really be lost, we don't necessarily have any real desire, or need, to find it. Pack rats may find value in living with clutter, but they're perhaps only the farthest pole of a continuum that encompasses us all. Even people who don't hoard, who aren't personally engulfed by stuff, are probably acutely aware that clutter has become a defining characteristic of our lives, a characteristic that, one way or another, must be dealt with. I find it hard to picture myself disposing of my stuff, be it things I've collected, or works I've created. But in a world in which information is not only abundantly available, but also threatens to overtake us, I'm almost capable of understanding why kids might do so.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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