Tiffany Jenkins: The digital age is making hoarders of us all

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THE hoarder of old was hard to miss. In Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Krook is “possessed with documents”, while Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes had a “horror” of destroying his papers, leaving towering stacks of letters and notes in every room.

The pictures, clippings, manuscripts, and whatever else they kept, took up great quantities of physical space, gathering dust, cluttering up a corner, getting in the way.

Today, it is more difficult to spot those who accumulate too much stuff as they squirrel it away digitally, but I bet we all do it. How many e-mails are in your in-box? There are 2,489 in mine. I can guarantee you that about ten to 15 are urgent, 30 or so are important or useful. I doubt I will ever need the rest; the 2,444 e-mails hanging around, hundreds of which were sent years ago.

Keeping them serves no real purpose. When I try to find a particular e-mail – one reason, I tell myself, that I retain them all – it takes ages, if I can track it down at all. Usually I give up, after about ten wasted minutes and a great deal of frustration.

I also have thousands of MP3 files on my computer and 770 photographs on my phone. The snaps include a pretty flower here, a smile from a good friend there, and not much else –nothing worth framing, anyway.

There is, at least, a new app that may help. Snapchat deletes photographs and videos within seconds after sending – kind of like the old tape cassettes from the TV show Mission Impossible. Snapchat has been described as an app for “sexting” (use your imagination), but what is far more interesting is that we have been forced to find a way of having conversations that are not recorded and retained.

Snapchat is a response to a culture that increasingly stores everything we say and do, a development verging on an obsession. Yet, even this app promises more than it can deliver, for it is easy for people to grab screenshots from their phones. Nothing ever really disappears with digital technology.

The virus of saving everything and deleting nothing is spreading. Britain is one of about 30 countries that have passed laws about archiving online material. A great deal has already been collected by the UK Web Archive, which began in 2004. Six libraries, including the British Library and the National Library of Scotland, have the same legal entitlement to save digital material as they have printed works.

Last month, records show, they archived 11,276 websites. Soon, tens of thousands of sites a month will seem like nothing. From April, the UK government is likely to approve regulations that will ensure millions more public websites are saved for future generations. The collection is growing, never ending.

There is no doubt that this is essential, in many respects. We spend much of our professional and personal lives online. Most institutions, organisations, groups and news outlets communicate their work digitally. Not keeping a record of this would be like missing out on important letters or major source material from the past, when people come to look back on how we lived and conducted our lives. Clearly, websites should be saved and will be a vital resource in the short and long term.

But, where will it stop? A good website is updated regularly, sometimes hourly. Should every change be recorded? What about every “like”, and every comment? There is a great deal of ephemeral chat and nonsense online. Books have to go through editorial checking and proofing. Websites, less so. There may be a few additions to various editions, but not minute by minute like there is on the web. Many websites are temporary in nature. They are not all interesting, nor will they be with the passage of time.

We need to ask questions about our inability to discard. What is so wrong with deleting and forgetting? We are turning into a nation of digital pack rats, who are unable to work out what is worth keeping and what is disposable, frightened of taking responsibility for identifying what is significant and what is not.

The US Library of Congress started to archive Twitter, in 2010, when users were sending about 55 million messages a day, in a project that has been celebrated by historians. “This is an entirely new addition to the historical record, the second-by-second history of ordinary people,” Fred R Shapiro, associate librarian and lecturer at the Yale Law School, stated. Really? When the Library of Congress started to collect tweets, its web capture project had already stored 167 terabytes of digital material, which was considerably more than the equivalent of the text of the 21 million books in the library’s collection. But what would you rather read: the US constitution, or the wittering’s from Britney Spears’ Twitter feed, the latest being, as I write – “Awww Britney Army, YOU are MY inspiration! Xxoo”.

Anyone who is on Twitter can access their archive of tweets. Anyone can see the multiple inanities they uttered however many times a day or during a particular hour in the past. I doubt future historians will rejoice. Twitter is fun, vital even, but not worthy of recording in minute detail. That we might want to analyse our own tweets suggest a rather worrying solipsism.

My desk used to be covered in paper. But it always reached the point when I would snap and throw reams in the bin. I had to decide between what I wanted to keep and what I was prepared to throw away. Today, there is no such tipping point because we live in an age of endorsed digital hoarding, which threatens to drown us in great volumes of meaningless banalities. So, go on: press delete and escape the virtual mess. There is nothing to lose and only clarity to gain.