The Spark Digital Garage Sale

Exploring why we have a hard time getting rid of our digital belongings.
Listen9:44

This story first aired in April, 2016.

If you're like most people, you are better at adding things to your digital collection of stuff than at deleting it. Like when you take 15 different versions of a selfie just to find that perfect Instagram pose, do you then go back and delete the 14 you didn't use?

Of course not.

Digital hoarding is becoming a thing. And it's hitting many of us where it hurts: the bank account.

Whether we end up buying a phone with more storage, a bigger hard drive, or subscribing to a cloud-based storage service like Dropbox, people generally find that it's easier to find more storage space than to go through all their files and painstakingly delete the 22 e-mails you exchanged five years ago with some guy you bought a saucepan from on Craigslist.

Devon Maloney is a culture writer for magazines like Wired and Vanity Fair, and she recently published an article about the phenomenon of "digital hoarding." 

Basically, she says, it's something we don't think about because digital storage is pretty much invisible -- until it's not. And that's when our drive is full and we're in a hurry to get somewhere and, well, things just grind to a halt, she says. And then we have to start deleting files.

It's unlike physical hoarding, which is considered a psychological disorder, she says. Digital hoarding is passive. It's not like we're attached to the things we hold onto. We're just too lazy to delete them. "It's a consumption issue," she says.

And companies like Google, Dropbox and Microsoft are profiting from the fact that we can't be bothered to organize and delete our files, happy to sell us cloud storage for a monthly fee.

But Devon reminds us that even cloud storage is still physical storage. "It's just that we access it through the internet." Server farms, where petabytes and petabytes of data are stored, are physical things, and they can still be damaged. "Then you lose everything," she adds.

And even though ample cloud storage is available, and bandwidth to access that storage is increasing with it, the issue of how much we consume and store seems to be increasing at a similar rate. "In about 10 years this interview will sound ridiculous because a terabyte will sound like 100 kilobytes. It's going to be a constant issue."

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