Saturday, July 13, 2013

Too Much Room

Lines can be hard to define. If you park outside your in-laws apartment, lock your car door and then try the handle to make sure it's secure, you're being prudent. Come back to check it again, you're being cautious. Do it once more, and you're veering towards obsessive. And if you do it again, and again, and again, you either have full blown OCD or you'd just want to find a way not to visit her family.

And so it is with many things.  Pack an extra tee shirt? Check your alarm clock? Pat your wallet in your pocket? In running order, that would be smart, responsible and careful. But do any of those three or four times, and your starting to cross from slightly paranoid to a medical condition known as "time to make an appointment with a therapist."

However, while each of these particular affectations can be written off as a tic, their manifestation is relatively invisible. You know you do it, maybe your significant other rolls their eyes at you, but the casual observer sees nothing. Not so with the condition known as hoarding. It can be focused, as in old copies of magazine or newspapers, or full blown everything and anything. It's a sliding scale that runs from "pack rat" through "can't throw things out" and on to "they're making a reality cable series about you."

Most of us never really hit that tipping point because it's there in front of our noses. Even if we try and ignore it, eventually the pile or bin starts to overflow and people start tripping over it. Then your boyfriend or wife or mother yells at you, and next thing you know you're in there with a bunch of plastic bags and order is restored. At least until the next time.

There is one area, however, where I would venture that the incidence rate of not throwing things away is much higher than the accepted estimate of 1% or so of the general population. And that concerns not our physically collected stuff, but the electronic versions: the emails, pictures, addresses, jokes, documents and other mementos of life today that we, well, hoard.

It's easy to keep because space today is so cheap and basically invisible. Back in the seventies, you might have had a pile of 8 inch floppy disks, each of which stored 1.2 megabytes of data. Today, that's at best half a dozen documents. Depending on the camera you're using, it might be a single picture. And let's not even talk music: that's barely enough for Pharrell and Daft Punk to "Get Lucky" once, let alone the 64 times it's repeated in the song.

Storage today is measured in amounts many times larger, with gigabytes being the starting point, or a thousand of those early floppy discs. Today, those ubiquitous little sticks people have on their keychains come in 4, 8, 16 gigs or more. Drives in iPads and computers routinely pack 100, 500 or even 1000 times that. And the cost? Dropping like a rock, so much so that the photo sharing site Flickr recently redesigned itself and offered to all who sign up a terabyte of storage, or a thousand gigabytes. The price to store cost about 600,000 typical pictures of whatever you want? Free.  

So in that environment, why throw anything away? Why not keep all those pictures of your vacation in Disneyland, including the 40 that are out of focus. Or those spreadsheets showing your son's little league teammates from 2 years ago whom you will never see again. Or those emails from that AOL account from which you finally graduated. After all, you never can tell when you'll want a picture of you snapped in a bar with a beer on your head.

And even if you should delete it, it's not really going away. When it opens later this year, the NSA's new Utah Data Center is supposed to capable of storing all that and more. While the exact numbers are classified, the word is that it will hold "yottabytes of data." That's a one followed by 24 zeros. So the odds of those pics of you in a flowered shirt and bellbottoms going away anytime soon? Let's just say future generations will be able to cringe like it's 1979 all over again.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to delete, delete, delete. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

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