I Live in a Digital Dumpster Fire

Hoarding files ain't so bad.

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Apr 3 2015, 4:30pm

​Right now, I can't see what tabs I have open, because I have too many open. I have 167,998 unread Gmail messages. I am writing this, right now, on a TextEdit file called Untitled 199, and I have exactly 32 instances of the program open. My dock is a disaster, and, very recently, my desktop had thousands of files on it. Oddly enough, my trash bin is empty.

I exist, digitally, in the equivalent of a dumpster fire. I wouldn't have it any other way. Or rather, I don't think I can exist any other way. I thought I was alone. I am not.

It turns out there are plenty of digital hoarders out there, and maybe we don't give a shit about virtual cleanliness because it doesn't really matter anymore.

"I don't particularly think digital clutter is a bad thing. It's just a consequence of how people use computers, asynchronously," ​Matthew Hughes, a British tech journalist who lives much like me, told me. "We don't use computers in a systematic, one-task-at-a-time kind of way, do we? We're always doing multiple things at once, and digital clutter is just a consequence of that."

I've tweeted photos of my desktop before, and had a mix of reactions. Most people are horrified. Some people want me to throw my computer in the trash—nothing will save it now, it's ruined forever, they say. I get it. But when I went looking for people like me, I didn't have much trouble finding them.

​Adrian Sanabria, a security researcher, told me that he opens tabs until his computer crashes. While he doesn't think that digital clutter and tab overload is totally harmless ("I've come the realization that I have anxiety over losing something interesting that I want to read," he said), fast internet connections, Google images, and search apps are making it very easy to throw shit wherever we want without adversely affecting our lives.

Matthew Hughes's desktop

We're creating massive, disgusting haystacks of files, but finding the needle we want is effortless, so who cares?

"I use FoundApp, and it is FANTASTIC for finding things. It works like Mac OS X's Finder, but you can have it log into Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote—all your cloud stuff, and it will index and search those locations along with your local hard drive," Sanabria told me. "I have no idea what folder my files are in, and I don't care."

Sanabria has also done away with his folder of memes and gifs that he used to have at the ready to deploy on Twitter at a moment's notice. Now, he finds them on Google much faster.

My desktop, pre-purge

There's the stereotype of the journalist, the professor, the academic, who has papers cluttered all over their office. I once walked past Bob Woodward's desk at the Washington Post, and he had mountains upon mountains of … stuff, everywhere. With a computer, you can be like that without showing other people.

One thing that surprised me about the people I talked to is they haven't always been like this (I have). Sanabria used to have inbox zero. So did Brian Fung, a great tech policy reporter with the Washington Post. And then, Twitter happened.

"I used to be an inbox zero kind of guy—leave no message unread, no RSS item unchecked, etc. But then with Twitter, I got used to just jumping into the feed for short stints. And then one day I woke up and realized, 'You know what? It's okay if you don't get through it all," he told me. "Since then, I've started treating my RSS feed like a slower version of Twitter. I ignore irrelevant emails. They pile up. It's fine. The desktop is much more manageable if you don't, you know, actually use the desktop."

My dock

Fung "organizes" his desktop in reverse chronological order, and I do too. He says it turns the desktop into something like email—the most recent downloaded files show up at the top of any folder you're using to upload files with, and then it's easy.

We're not slobs, we're not overwhelmed, I don't even really think of myself as a hoarder. I eventually trash everything and forget about it. The thing that modern operating systems and modern search tools have done is make a whole host of systems viable. They work.

An inefficient way of deleting files

That said, I was wondering what life might be like if I cleaned up my act a bit. I purged my desktop. I set up a new folder for screenshots, which I used constantly, and I made my computer save them there automatically. I try to close my tabs when I can't see the icons anymore. I used a program called Sublime Text to write.

It's not for me. It's more effort than it's worth. Bury me with all my files; I'll know where to find them.