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

February 28, 2010*: Fade away.

Probably more times than merit review I've noted here (and not only here) that I save things. Of course there are those who'll claim that rather than saving, I simply don't throw anything away, but I prefer the more proactive definition - even if I'm far from sure that there's really much difference. People who have viewed my collections often ask why I accumulate stuff. Sometimes my answers have to do with reference - I may want to find a particular item sometime again in the future, and keeping it means, more or less, being able to get to it again. Sometimes my answers have to do with sharing - paradoxically, one of the best ways for us to possess something is to pass it on to others. As effective as this may be, however, it can also be more than a bit problematic. Sharing means sharing with others, and "others" are frequently less enthusiastic about receiving the gifts we give them than we expected. To avoid becoming a burden it's often easier to store something and wait until the proper time, and the proper person, for the sharing. Admittiedly, however, these are little more than excuses. More often than not what we're really doing is no more than accumulating. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. At a very gut level I'm defined by my stuff - not by what car I drive, or by which new cellphone model I've bought, or by the clothes I wear, but by the myriad objects that clutter my space, objects that are associated with events and occurrences, items that trigger memories - memories that to a large extent define who we are.

As a parent I've encountered the strange ambivalence of trying to get my kids to clean up their rooms, understanding that cleaning up means parting with paraphernalia that they've outgrown. In the hopes of making their rooms easier to tidy I'll ask them "do you really want to keep this?", and I'll try to hide my satisfaction when I sense their ambivalence. They have many too many objects on their shelves which no doubt have lost any meaning they once held, and certainly wouldn't be missed, or even remembered, were they to part with them. Yet when faced with the decision of actually cutting the cord, of no longer having that something in their possession, or accessible to them, they seem to ask themselves "am I really ready to part with this?". I readily identify with these feelings.

The unexpected immediacy of the cutting of the cord is probably what many of us find most frightening about a fire, or an earthquake. Although we understand that our possessions ultimately break down or wear out, we expect that this will happen over an extended period of time, a period of time that permits us to detach ourselves emotionally from those possessions before they physically break away from us. The suddenness of fires and earthquakes confronts us with that detachment before we're ready for it. And though we may ultimately overcome the loss of the items themselves, their loss is also the loss of the triggers to memories. Because our possessions activate our memories, their inaccessibility means not having access to a part of ourselves. But memories are one thing, and Boidem columns another. It's admittedly a bit strange, at least to me, that approximately 500 words into this Boidem column I'm still writing about physical objects. Even if there's a recognized digital variant of the phenomenon, pack rats have been with us since well before we went digital, and even with my own rather extensive personal experience it's highly unlikely that there's anything original or novel that I might write about it. Why should the topic of accumulating stuff concern me here? I think that the answer to that question grows out of my own personal experience that, rather paradoxically, caught me by surprise.

Digital pack-ratting assumes, or perhaps even requires, that we save things to our own hard drives. If we're not making our own copies of something, it's simply not hoarding. Just having it "out there" isn't the same thing. The previous Boidem column, for reasons explained elsewhere from a full year ago, concluded with the thought that as more and more of our lives move to the cloud we may somewhat surprisingly discover that out of sight is, to our relief, out of mind. But if the cloud is the ultimate storage space, it's also a different sort of storage than our hard drives. Digital copies of physical objects are unavoidably a step removed from the "real" objects they represent. But it seems to make sense to us that if those copies are on our own hard drives they're still "ours". A copy in the cloud is yet another step removed. We can't even hold the hard drive that "contains" the copy in our hands. So while the cloud may be the safest and surest place to store, and thus save, our digital information, the quality that makes it "ours" is diminished. Few will argue with the fact that it's convenient, nor with the comforting knowledge that, blindly or not, someone else has been entrusted with the hardly ever fully mastered task of back-up. And yet, even though storing, if not exactly organizing, our digital information, amassing all the digital snippets of our lives, can rather comfortably be left to the cloud, we do this at the cost of having that information fade into a ever-more intangible blur. As we turn to the cloud to store more and more of our personal stuff (it's hard to actually call it "information", since basically it's just whatever we've accumulated) what was once highly distinguishable stuff has become clouded over. This doesn't mean it's lost - we can, after all, still search for something, and more often than not we'll even find what we sought. But we realize that our attachment to it has diminished, we cease to relate to it as truly our own.

To a certain extent, the sheer quantity of what we've saved changes our qualitative relationship toward it. But for most of us our hard drives still house much more than what we've entrusted to the cloud, which suggests that it's not simply a case of "too much to handle", or to make sense of. Somewhere along the line we begin to realize that although running a search to find what we've put "out there" isn't much of a hassle, our relationship toward what we've personally put in the cloud is no different from our relationship to what someone else has put there. It's all simply "out there". This may be the flip-side of having our own personal search engine. Though personal search makes our stuff available to us in the same way that online search makes the entire web available, when we look for both of these in the same way we cease to make a distinction between the two. Ultimately, we no longer relate to our personal information as distinctly "ours", and it loses its hold on us. Even if only a very few of the books on my shelves get taken down and browsed with anything even approaching frequency, they're very real to me. I truly interact with them when I gaze at them while attempting to construct my next sentence, or organize my next thought. If I close my eyes I can picture those books, and invite them to have the same influence on me as they do when I physically look at them. But the act of looking, of reading their spines, of taking in their colors and dimensions, or of noting which books are where on the shelf, generates a series of associations that's quite different from simply picturing them in my mind. I have many more books (and a vast number of papers) stashed away in boxes or in my filing cabinet, and I'm well aware that I don't relate to these as I do to those that are visible on the shelf. They don't receive the same attention, nor do they exert the same pull on me as do those that are visible. Certainly I know they still exist, and they can still serve as catalysts for thought and reflection, but in order for them to perform that function I have to purposefully bring them to mind.

The verdict is still out on whether or not absence really makes the heart grow fonder. Most of us can think of numerous examples to support that claim, but my digital experience tells me that it tends more to aid forgetfulness. After all, it seems that in this column I did a rather successful job of repeating what I claimed a year ago. I might have saved myself the effort of writing these thoughts again had I simply taken a look at what I'd already posted. Then again, a memory is something that we relive in our minds with the full knowledge that it's something we've previously experienced. When we let our thoughts fade into the cloud, when we permit them to detach themselves from us, the act of stumbling onto them again, rather than triggering memories, generates a new experience. The success of the cloud may not be in its promise to successfully store our information, but that while doing so it also distances us from it.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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