On being an information packrat

Giuseppe Maria Crespi - Bookshelves - WGA05755

Lord Peter Wimsey remarked that "Books...are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with 'em, then we grow out of 'em and leave 'em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development." (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club)

I see the truth of that whenever I scan my bookshelves, my stacks of CDs, my files of photocopied chapters or articles ripped from magazines -- and especially the piles of information tucked into folders on my hard drive. Past legal disputes, letters of complaint, all of my master's and PhD papers and projects, old checklists, old resumes, old PDFs etc. Except that I don't leave 'em behind -- I hang on to 'em.

I don't, like my father, collect tools, nails, screws, etc., nor clothes and knick-knacks like my mother. But information? I'm a sucker for it.

And when the digital age arrived, I used lots -- LOTS -- of software to help collect, corral, and bend to my will all of the loose, scattered, random information whizzing past my ears in the belief that by squirrelling all the squibs and squidlets and atomic particles of data into cozy, well-behaved compartments -- THEN -- I would be in control of everything that mattered to me. I used Lotus Agenda, AskSam, InfoSelect, Ecco Pro, Zoot, and others in my Windows-using years, sometimes Word's document map feature, and I did the same when I used a Mac. One of the first apps I bought when I started the PhD program was Devonthink Pro. (Nowadays, I rely on nvAlt, a fork of Notational Velocity -- but I digress.)

And it wasn't just software: I kept journals off and on for years and stacked them on my shelves also. I taught myself NoteScript so I could take notes even faster. All the drafts of every short story I ever wrote. And on and on.

Why? Well, isn't it obvious? I might need it one day! What more reason does any hoarder need?

Every now and then the system would get shaken up and I'd notice something: so much of that information I was hoarding really didn't age well. In one of my upgrades from one computer to another, I exported my InfoSelect database to a Word file and I kept that file nearby. I probably opened it only once or twice in the years after that; it vaporized into the informatic ether years ago. When I read my old journals, I was astonished at how useless they were to my present self -- I didn't need to relive all that high-dudgeoned emotional thrashing about in the pea soup of my soul. The stuff I culled were good bits of advice or quotes or other such things I'd copied out from my reading or what people had told me. And I'm talking probably less than 0.00001% of the whole.

So all of this information I had kept -- and let's be honest, that I'm keeping now -- has ultimately very little value to me.

What in the world drove such compulsion to document every fleeting idea or datum that passed my eyeballs? I skim-read a few Krishnamurti books many years ago, and the big idea I grokked from them was his opinion that most all the neurotic, self-defeating behavior we gut ourselves with comes from fear.

Let's start with that as our hypothesis: If fear is at the core of this behavior, then fear of what? Being left out (something I felt strongly in my adolescent years, but that does not apply to me now). A fear of missing out on something potentially wonderful, potentially useful, potentially life-changing. The fear, perhaps, that someone else knows something that I don't and that I need, even if I don't know it yet.

This might explain why I capture stuff and then read it once or, sometimes, don't read it at all. Simply knowing it's in my personal deep-freeze is enough to give me enough comfort. (Insert here analogy to dragons hoarding treasure and virgins -- two commodities for which dragons have no possible use.)

There is also, I think, a fear of looking foolish, of not having the answer if I were to be called on. Wedded to that was my self-image forged from my various jobs as the information-maven, the guy who could find anything online, the tech writer who could retrieve that email or half-forgotten file that earned me kudos and made me look like a hero and earned me the unofficial title of "team librarian." At my current job, it is certainly the case that we are often asked to pull 5-year-old files out of the air with no warning and could we send it later that afternoon, please? With part of my self-image at work hinging on my ability to lay my hands on a file or email, on providing an answer, it became even more important to be organized, to have the info at the ready.

I think, I hope, I have slowed this compulsion somewhat. I hope I am more selective. There's a reason to keep some online information you really need; web sites and PDFs and other resources do go away; the Internet is not a library, after all.

And although i kind of cherish the image of being an information packrat, there are severe downsides. No, I don't have huge piles of data teetering over me and threatening to crush me. But there is a psychic cost. Judith Culpepper (a writer otherwise unknown to me) makes the excellent point that when everything is important, then nothing is important: "The extra, useless data cloaks the useful bits both physically and mentally. Physically, the sheer volume of clutter [that] too much information produces hides everything." Because every day brings fresh onslaughts of information, there is no possible way to absorb any of it. So, she concludes, "The only answer is to hoard more. Hoarding feeds on itself, pushing focus out of the way in the quest to appease the almighty 'might [need someday]'."

Oh my Lord, does that sound familiar! Well, then, the answer must be to catalog, organize, codify this mass of undigestible data, right? But even that is a fool's mission, as Culpepper explains: "Then you waste time cataloguing, sorting, and otherwise tending to too much useless data. Buying binders and other organizing tools often seems warranted. Great. Now it's sucking time and money." The data is managing you, instead of vice versa. I have a huge Devonthink pile of web pages, PDFs, and other stuff that I attempted to sort out into alphabetically organized topical groups earlier this year. Except I never finished organizing the pile. So it's like a room I've framed in and I'll get to the drywall someday. Maybe.

Culpepper makes another really sharp insight. Namely, that managing this mass of trivia ultimately steals focus from all parts of your life.

Each piece demands attention. Consequently, the day becomes divided into small sections spent pursuing wildly divergent paths. Admittedly, each is of interest. However, too much time spent poring over tidbits pushes out time for prolonged study. Suddenly, you aren't truly good at anything. Possessing few skills beyond hoarding, any skills mastered are likely to be trivial, picked up accidentally in the course of flitting amongst the clutter. The information controls now; it decides how to spend time. You have no goals. The lure of too much information pulls away from them, makes them impossible to achieve.

The goal, in fact, is now to manage the information rather than putting the information to use in a way that would benefit a specific objective. I am now the host organism through which the information parasite propagates itself.

And I detect also in Culpepper's description of flitting from one shiny object to the next the spectre of boredom, that dread modern disease.

I'm not saying "Don't obsess." Good golly, I am a Fred Astaire freak and love scarfing up any new bit of info on the man and his art. Another friend loves his Harley-Davidson, another studies how to improve his billiards game. Part of the fun of a hobby or pastime is learning more about it. But those are contained and specific interests, and they refresh rather than deplete. And, as I said, there are situations, such as at my workplace, where organizing and managing information is vital to my success.

So what can one do to find some sort of balance? How can I manage my information managing? I'll look at some ideas in the next post.

References