Friday, 26 June 2015

It's too easy to hold onto our digital rubbish.

Be honest, you're a digital hoarder, aren't you? But by not deleting now, I risk not finding again in the future. 

Hard drive space is cheap, cloud space is free (up to a certain amount), why wouldn't you hang onto it, just in case? My generation still remembers how fragile physical media can be - old photos fade, cassettes stretch, pages in books yellow as the chlorine leaches out - so why take the risk?  We've also experienced hard drive failure, catastrophic loss of data just before the presentation needs to be delivered, needing a weekend of retracing mental footsteps to recreate what was never as good as the original. 

Faced with the consequences of getting it wrong, you can sympathise with why it's easier to decide to store and decide to deal with it later, than to spend the cognitive effort to weed out digital files. 

But why is it difficult to make this decision? Perhaps it's because it's because we can't tell the difference between a digital object and a digital possession. A possession has imbued value, either at the time of first acquisition (primary value) or in the future (secondary value). This value is perceived through the lens of our own values, which is why possessions are fragments of our own identity. The dissonance with digital is that primary value is often low (a single digital selfie has essentially zero incremental cost) whereas the secondary value can be extremely high (who knows if that selfie will be a memory to cherish in years to come)? We would need to work harder to figure out the secondary value of a digital item, so we put it off for later. 

This idea goes some way to understanding why subscription models are more popular than pay-per-use models. Even if a subscription is more expensive than buying individually, e.g. for low usage, they are generally more popular because there's no additional effort required to value the content. At the same time, this unwillingness to value the individual content means that we incorrectly value the digital artefact, which has caused such disruption to the digital media industry, and the rise of freemium. 

Interestingly, though every post to Facebook has the potential to last forever, the Internet is not immune to the forces of entropy. There's a cost to recovering a specific item of data, and the cost increases as time goes on. The moment after you've made that post to MySpace, you'll have to search to find it again. 100 days  later (the average life of a web site), the service will have been bought and sold and databases ported, corrupted, and only partially recovered, links will decay and point to 404. Five years later, operating systems will have changed, and specialist tools will be needed to find that post again. Ten years later, the hardware won't be sold any more and you'll have to go to eBay or a museum to get more blank media. 

This is a good thing. Death is a part of life, and so digital rust should be a part of digital life. The right to be forgotten is as important as the right to be remembered.  

There's also a pleasure to going through our digital possessions. Those digital objects that survive the updates and upgrades naturally acquire the value imbued by the weight of time. I think I'm going to have a look at my old digital photo albums now... 

For more, have a listen to the Digital Human podcast.

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