Last summer, I turned 50. We Baby Boomers are intent on making fashionable whatever life stage we're going through, so I expect that tri-focals and colonoscopy pictures will soon be all the rage. I already have become accustomed to regular dates with my audiologist, dermatologist, and radiologist. As we are often reminded, getting old isn't for sissies.
One thing that I can't get treated via routine medical maintenance is the inevitable memory loss that comes with having 50 years of things to remember. I wonder why precious brain cells occupy themselves storing the words to campfire songs while I can't seem to remember the name of my neighbor's dog. Wouldn't it be nice to just run a de-frag on the brain and get all those random bits cleaned out? Of course, we run into a similar problem with all the information we have stored on our various external brains—laptop, PDA, cell phone, iPod, and so on. I haven't had to memorize a phone number in years; I just pop it in the cell phone memory and pray that I never lose the phone.
The blessing and curse of the price drop in storage media is that we have more of an incentive to save information rather than evaluate it and decide whether or not it's worth keeping. I should periodically rid my storage drives of the detritus that builds up over time: old email attachments that I don't feel safe opening, files of projects for clients from years ago, PowerPoint presentations from 1999, and programs that seemed cool when I installed them but haven't used since. Yet I resort to replacing my PC every couple of years (or experience a fatal disk crash, whichever comes first). I suppose it's similar to the exercise one goes through when evaluating household possessions (do I really want to keep Aunt Minnie's paintings, or should they go to the thrift store?) until one of life's major events forces the purgative process on us.
Despite a biennial data purge/migration, I still wind up with email files dating back at least five years that I'm just too lazy to go through. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who swears that he has 10 years of email messages and still wonders why he is having trouble managing his email. (He probably laughs at the "mere" gigabyte of free storage space offered by Google Mail.)
He is also probably a good subject for the Keeping Found Things Found research project, run by the Information School at the University of Washington (http://kftf.ischool.washington.edu). This project looks at how we organize things that we have found or have in our possession (Web pages, books, CDs, etc.) so that we can find them again. The latest survey conducted by the KFTF folks looked at "how people manage their personal information across different forms." It was a sobering experience to answer the survey questions: Am I often unable to find an email message I am looking for? Overall, how satisfied am I with the way I manage my electronic documents? How often do I come across a paper document that I made some effort to save for later use but that turned out to be useless?
This project has been around since 2001 and I'm curious to learn what the impact will be of desktop search tools like Google Desktop, which lets users search a wide range of files on their PCs, including chat sessions; Outlook files; cached Internet Explorer files; and Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. (Alas, it doesn't support my email software, Eudora, nor does it support Mozilla Firefox, so I will still struggle with Keeping My Found Things Found.) Competitors in the desktop search space include X1, Copernic Desktop Search, Bloomba, and Blinx, and we can expect to see offerings from Ask Jeeves, Yahoo!, and MSN in the near future.
These tools are, I fear, are like a limitless charge card in the hands of a shopaholic. If I have new tools to find everything on my hard disk, why bother deleting (or really organizing) anything (insert slightly crazed laughter here)? And for a sense of just how dangerous this could be to the true information hoarder, check out the 2003 version of How Much Information?, a study by the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley (www.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/ how-much-info-2003), which found that about five exabytes of information were created in 2002 alone.
But this brings up the question of how much information we really do need to save. Should I keep every email I have ever sent? Should I save the results of all my research projects, on the remote chance that I'll need to use a similar search strategy a year from now? Should our information acquisition and retention policy be JIC (Just In Case) or JIT (Just In Time)? I don't have an answer to the issue of how much information is too much. I'll just keep upsizing the capacity of my hard disk every two years, and hoping for new tools to transmute my hoard into usable information.