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Every MP3 download chips it away. Each round of family photos gnaws at the promise. Home movies, countless e-mails and piles of files causing clutter and chaos.
Technology's vow of efficiency and order is beginning to decay - corrupted by consumption.
Personal computers - our jukeboxes, photo labs, accountants and film studios - are becoming the proverbial junk drawer, scattered with scads of must-have information. Sister devices such as digital cameras, MP3 players and digital video recorders overflow with often barely a bite of spare storage.
The ravenous nature of society coupled with the quest for convenience has spawned a nation of digital pack rats, eager to possess every gigabyte of media they can download, and too greedy - or lazy - to let it go.
"Inevitably, as soon as I delete something, I need it the next week," said Leslie Bottoms, a graduate student at the University of Georgia, who has kept as many as 18,000 e-mails on her computer. "I figure it saves the tree if I don't have to print it out. I get quite attached to my e-mail. I have stuff from several years ago."
One's desk might be clean and tidy, but countless computer desktops have become chaotic.
"It's like an infinite attic, and we're filling it," said Peter Lyman, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Information Management and Systems. "People are feeling overwhelmed and trying to find coping strategies."
Lyman is completing a study on personal media consumption and the choices people make regarding media. Among the findings: 90 percent of those surveyed have at least two e-mail addresses. Yet 50 percent decried problems with managing e-mail volume.
"Technology was supposed to make (life) simpler, but for many it's made it more complicated," said Barry J. Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, who now includes electronic organizing among his services. "It's much easier to save way more than you need because it is so easy. This has become major."
When thousands of songs, photos or documents can be tucked out of sight, the ability to determine what's golden or garbage begins to blur. As a result, efficiency - perhaps technology's most endearing quality - vaporizes.
And our ability to self-edit these digital possessions may be suffering.
"We're definitely pack rats, no question," said Peter Shankman, chief executive officer of Geek Factory Inc., a New York City trend-spotting firm that specializes in pop culture. "The 80 GB drives have given us no reason to toss anything. You can have 40 pictures of your dog you might think are good and you'll never erase them."
Cheap storage and software is certainly enabling consumers to hoard countless files.
Gmail - Google's e-mail service that has yet to formally debut but is already being employed by thousands - offers 1,000 MB of free storage and promises that users will never have to delete an e-mail again. TiVo digital video recorders now offer as much as 140 hours of recording time for television programs. Apple boasts that one of its iPods can hold up to 10,000 songs.
With this type of media storage, why bother sweeping out electronic dust bunnies?
"We are approaching a time, maybe five years from now, when we will demonstrate technology that will allow you to store a small image of every man, woman and child on the planet on one CD-size disc," said Ed Schlesinger, head of the Data Storage Systems Center at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "If I can do that, do you think I'm going to bother deleting that one photo of the kids?"
Photos have become the most notable purveyors of this burden. Ever since digital cameras became an affordable device for the masses, individual consumers have been taking - and storing - thousands of photos.
The purpose of a photograph, though, is to browse and share. And few digital pictures ever make it into print.
Not only can this be a waste of storage space but a risk for future preservation.
Photo-king Kodak is attempting to popularize prints with digital photographers by opening 25,000 kiosks in the United States where folks can create copies directly from their cameras.
John Paul is CEO of OurPictures.com, a service launched in May that helps consumers organize, print and share photos. Photos, he said, were once stored in a shoebox and could be thumbed through with relative ease. Now, with thousands of snapshots stored in computers, "it's going to be a nightmare."
Persuading people to give up files seems unlikely. Not surprisingly, there's rapid development of organizational software, devices and services that aim to tame this information.
"I'm not sure people want to do a lot of housekeeping," said Michael Markman, a developer and marketing specialist for Moxi, a new TiVo-like product that boasts the ability to choose and organize television programming, photos and music. "The good news is they won't have to. Software will manage it for them."
But is employing technology to help sort technology the true solution for those who keep sucking more and more information onto their laptops?
Not to mention that the precious equipment that houses these possessions weakens with every new file.
"If you have a 10-gigabyte hard drive and eight gigabytes of information, you're putting unnecessary strain on the computer. If you don't keep yourself organized, it's a huge mess," said Nate Bauer of the Geek Squad, a Minneapolis-based computer service agency run out of Best Buy stores nationwide.
Bauer recommends cleaning out hard drives once a month, if not once a week. Why keep thousands of songs if you never listen to them? he said.
Others are looking to clean house.
Professional organizer Iszak is being contracted by executives to clean out and organize their work PCs. His clients include, of all people, IBM and Dell employees.
- "We are becoming digital pack rats: Ease of electronic storage tempts us to keep more stuff," Don Fernandez, Cox News Service, Indianapolis Star, 30 August, 2004. http://www.indystar.com/articles/3/174329-4203-P.html