The race to forget
Once upon a time I did photography for a living, and then camera repair, and when that became unprofitable (it was never very profitable) I switched to computer repair. Each job required problem-solving, and I discovered early that similar or identical problems recur. So once a problem is solved, you don’t want to have to solve it again. So I kept notebooks with detailed explanations, diagrams, and technical data. Here are a couple notebooks from my computer repair days. They made me a go-to guy at the time. I could fax a sheet to one of our technicians at another store, and customer service would ensue. Nobody else seemed to catch on to this simple trick.
These notebooks (I had four or five from that job) represented hundreds of hours of problem-solving. Today they are of literally no value at all, and this morning I dumped them in the trash. Nobody (least of all me) will ever be interested in emm386 optimization tricks for DOS5, the jumper settings of motherboards that existed in 1997, or IRQ and DMA combinations relevant to specific off-brand fax-modems or sound cards from back in the day. This hard-won information is, literally, junk.
When is it OK to throw out information? What filter can we use? How can we know?
Family photos are information. Letters from loved ones are information. Their importance drops suddenly when we die, or maybe when the next generation dies, because the connections they contain drop from personal to merely factual. And the merely factual can be filtered by relevance. With personal information, “I’m keeping it because I just want to” is reason enough. Facts may be recoverable from more general sources, if they are needed.
Digital files are worse: few people really organize them in any meaningful way. They’re a mix of incompatible document formats, MP3, videos, photos, and who knows what else. Some of them require proprietary software to run. It isn’t like you can arrange them on a bookshelf and step back and admire your work. We live in 3-dimensional space, and digital files don’t take up any “space”, at all. An empty hard drive platter, and a full one, look the same.
In one episode of Star Trek TNG, Picard and his merry band encountered a drifting ship full of frozen people. Thinking back to a similar adventure that turned out rather badly for a previous Enterprise captain, they approached with some caution. After thawing out as many as they could, they accessed records from Earth and were able to reconnect the travelers with some of their distant descendants. I don’t remember what the central conflict of the episode was but I do remember thinking; “Wow, they’re out in space and happen to have 400-year-old genealogical information from Earth in their computers.” Probably compiled by introverted family members in the 22nd and 23d century, who had the odd hobby of updating genealogical databases.
The producers of ST:TNG actually brought in computer and information design experts to help them visualize their data-driven environment. They must have speculated that a ship like the Enterprise would carry whatever information was available, because… well because you just never know. There could be unforeseen circumstances and the information could be needed for something. Of course they posited nearly unlimited data storage and a 24th-century version of Google in the ship’s computer. One wonders now if they could surf the 21st-century Internet if they liked. (Did they know about Sarah Palin? Why in all the vast heavens would they want to?)
As the years go by I am getting rid of books, possessions, videotapes I’m never going to watch again, things I kept for reasons I can’t remember now. In five years, I hope to have my library down to 500 volumes, which will be some trick given its present size and the fact that I am still buying books. One decision I made is not to be too picky about what happens to books I discard; I’ve thrown out two boxes of them this month.
Possessions are a big part of the many markers our culture uses to define a person, but they have a negative effect on personhood. Some of the books I threw out were for software that no one uses anymore; some were of Greek Grammar from my college days. They aren’t rare and anyway nobody wants my old copies with the notes in the margins. I don’t even want them anymore.
Right now I’m busy studying one book on the inventions of evolution, and another on HTML5 and CSS. Both good books; three guesses which one is likely to end up in the permanent collection, and which will simply help me pay the bills in the next few years, only to be discarded in a future round of housecleaning.