Digital retention

I must ‘fess up: I am a digital hoarder. I hardly ever delete anything. If you’ve ever sent me an email I probably still have it. As I have mentioned recently I have stored an estimated 250,000 emails that I have received or sent at one point or another. I don’t know how many documents I have stored, but again, there are very many – though here I do from time to time delete in order not to take up silly amounts of disk space. As I mentioned, I do wonder about how durable this archive will be, and whether on some future date it will be unreadable as the software changes, and therefore obsolete.

But now it has been suggested by Oxford Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger that, in fact, we need to be better at digital forgetting. We should assume that much of what we are hoarding has no lasting value of any kind and should be deleted. Or else, we should be worried about data security and the personal intrusiveness of data retention, and we should delete and cause others to do so. The mass of stored information can never be processed properly and hoarders such as me are jeopardising the remembering of what matters.

But what does matter? Is my belief today as to what matters likely to be my belief in 20 years time, if I’m spared? Or will others agree anyway? I can easily see the common sense of the proposition that by storing much less we will be able to attract more attention for what we do retain. But then again, if I could get access to trivial notes written by, say, Charles Dickens I would still suspect that some of these would add worthwhile knowledge about the author.

So I’m not necessarily persuaded. I’m still hoarding. Though to be fair, I have still got no idea whether what I am hoarding will be accessible to anyone of a future generation; I’m just putting my trust in the technological ingenuity of our descendants.

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7 Comments on “Digital retention”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The crazy thing is that most National Archives haven’t been cataloged.
    However one area has been mined out long ago. The period of Irish history between 1912 and 1922, of which by far the most important section is between ’14 and ’17. Where there is virtually nothing that matched the data in the newspapers, the official info in the Archive and what was going on on the ground with the population in general. Some idea can be gleamed when one looks at the military archive in London when you realize that regiments recently stationed or drawing their muster from Ireland had been wiped out, all of them. But you will never draw this from the data available here.
    On you point. In the main I would say keep it all. You have a very unique view on the end of an era. You bracket much in more than one country and you have the fluency to contain both it’s breadth and depth.

  2. Denis Murphy Says:

    Small tip: if you store data on removeable hard drives, fire them up once a year or so. Otherwise the data can be lost as the platters slowly demagnetise (or something like that!)

  3. anna notaro Says:

    When it comes to collecting, archiving or hoarding, no matter the medium we use, the key word is *value*, a fascinating concept in itself as it combines the personal, the subjective with the general cultural values of one’s own background, not to mention all the other connotations (ethical, economical etc.). I am no hoarder myself, I actually practice a somewhat ruthless process of ‘editing’ when it comes to the retention of digital material, maybe foolishly I’m putting my own trust in the lasting ability of my own memory to selectively retain what has *real* value.

    • Al Says:

      I am in the same camp. Unless one has others facilitating the effort it is best to be spartan and maintain a small foot print…

  4. revd rob Says:

    You will never need to hold onto this Ferdinand and it creates unnecessary clutter in your life. Think of when you accessed any of the old stuff that you have on file, my guess never! Its like putting things in the attic, if you haven’t used again in three months then give it away. We hoard too many things, just think of how free you would be if you didn’t cling these to records!

  5. cormac Says:

    Suppose there a limit to the information we can store? it’s a fascinating idea. After all, we were unaware that there is a limit to how much physical waste the planet can cope with until relatively recently. (At CERN, so much digital data is collected daily in particle collisions that it has to be stored on the GRID network consisting of thousands of computers worldwide).

    In a new interpretation of quantum physics, there is an idea that many quantum phenomena can be better explained if the information bit, not the quantum of energy, is the most fundamental physical quantity. If this is right, it raises important questions about the role of info bits in society, and how they are created, processed and stored.

  6. Vincent Says:

    Glancing at this -the title- in the reader. Well, it sounds distinctly painful.


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