When do we start needing digital landfills?
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My parents instilled in me a notoriously pack-rat nature when it comes to things both useful and informational. Sometimes this serves me well, and sometimes I go back through my paper files and find phone bills from 1998, from a phone company I haven't had service with since '01.

In the past 10 years, I have moved residence 6 times. Each of these relocations has involved a grand culling of the once important things I haven't so much as glanced at in 2 years, and all of the randomly acquired crap that I had plans for, and know I will never get around to implementing things. I think on average I toss 200-300 lbs of life-clutter every move.

And If you hadn't ever noticed the stated purpose of this here online real-estate, this is a repository for many of those thoughts that would have ended up on paper, and then in a file, and then many years off end up as garbage because I didn't want to haul around another 50 pounds of paper.

Now, what has actually inspired me in writing this evening is a .pfd I found of some of the essays of Ray Kurtzweil. He's an unrepentant and fascinating futurist, and one of the more... underlying... themes of his writings is an extrapolation of the curve trends of technology. Namely, regular logarigmic growth of digital processing and storage, and a similar rate of advance in miniturization. See Moore's Law.

Oh, he also thinks we're going to have functional consumer-level wetware(brain)-to-hardware(digital) interfaces by 2030, which I'm dubious of, but the undeniable trend in information handling is what I'm focusing on here.

You see, I haven't lost a single byte of "stored" digital information since probably 2001. I have some zip drives and floppies from pre-2000 which I probably will never access the data from again, but as far as hard drives go, I can carry all of my extensive digital files on a single hard drive. Heck, I carry a 16GB USB drive in my pocket that can store everything I generated from when I first GOT a computer until around 2003. I could easily rip and throw away my entire 100+ CD collection (weighing, oh, 40 lbs boxed) and put it in my pocket.

What I'm illustrating here is that we are in a unique technological situation that the speed of the increase of efficiency in data storage is at pace with our capacity to create data. Now, I'm not saying you can hold every piece of high-bandwith media you ever owned on a hard drive, as Blu-ray is itself a very efficient storage method, and still very cost and space effective storage vs a 50BG Drive, but pictures, music, personal documents... we will never have to throw these highly compressible, increasingly miniscule data sets away.

The question is, at what point does the digital clutter need to get culled like the real life trash?

If we have nigh-infinite storage capacity... we can't generate data fast enough to fill up our storage... then do we EVER have to get rid of the obsolete data?

The digital storage alternatives are considerably more space- and resource- efficient than hard copies, which make for a "green" solution. But the issue of format obsolescence means that eventually all of this digital "junk files" will some day just be useless bits of residual technology.

So, is data ever really obsolete? We still consider warehouse logs from Babylon as useful data to learn things about society. Will future man use my email logs and tax return forms as cultural documents? Or am I going to continue to drag around 10% of my hard drive as useless digital junk forever, simply because I have no compelling reason to clear out the clutter?

Saturday, July 18 2009, 08:43 AM


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