Matthew Braga is a freelance writer based in Toronto
I have a box beside my desk overflowing with cruft – receipts to be sorted, old mail, concert tickets and tax returns. Cards? Take your pick. There are credit cards, gift cards and greeting cards. The box is chaos, but I like it, because the chaos is curated and contained. It has a size and weight I can grasp at a glance, and I know it can only fit so much. This is the time of year I sort through the box, purging and organizing months of accumulation with the kind of optimism only a new year can bring.
It’s my digital files that fill me with dread. My backup drive is an unmitigated disaster. I have a decade’s worth of e-mails from previous jobs, just in case I need to consult an old message or reach an old contact. I have essays and assignments going back to some of my earliest elementary school days stored there too – some of it so old it was copied from floppy disks. I have terabytes of photos, videos and music spanning nearly two decades, and logs from chatrooms and messaging services that no longer exist. There are thousands of documents I foolishly scanned without computer-readable text, meaning I can’t search them by keyword. Instead, I have to open them one by one, filenames and dates my only hints at what they might contain.
The state of my laptop is arguably worse – less an easily forgotten historical archive than a steadily growing archive of the now. Everything I’ve ever written, every interview I’ve ever done, a decade of drafts and research, is theoretically accessible whenever and wherever I want. I keep a folder of screenshots I rarely purge and another of reaction GIFs, outdated and poorly organized. When I actually remember to purge my downloads, it’s like inspecting the strata of an archeological dig – a folder of free icons from my PowerPoint period or the PDF manual from the start of my wireless headphone era. Every folder is a mystery. There’s no telling if I’ll find one file or hundreds, or several more sub-folders containing hundreds of files each. And because I am anxious and perpetually worried, my backup drive is actually a pair of hard drives, mirror images of one another connected to my router, that back up all of this each day, with yet another copy stored in the cloud. You just never know (although you probably do).
It’s no longer just a question of what I have stored, but where. Files for work, for school, for side-hustles and personal projects might span Dropbox, iCloud, OneDrive, Google Drive and my own drive. And it’s not just files, either. My phone is full of apps, many of which I rarely use, filled with magazine articles and podcasts that I tell myself I’ll get to, eventually. The promise of an unlimited inbox was always too incredible to be true, and now my e-mail is nearly full and in desperate need of a purge. Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and Tumblr require constant curation to find the signal in the noise. Consider the shapelessness of your digital self, like rising dough oozing over the edges of a too-small bowl, and you’ll likely feel just as helpless and overwhelmed.
We are drowning in our data – and it’s not our fault. There’s big business in getting us to create, store, share and consume more, not less, and it’s only getting harder to control. I’m beginning to realize my data will never fit neatly into a curated box like the one by my desk. But I think I’ve finally figured out how to deal with the chaos. I’m learning to let go.
There was a time, as recently as the start of the past decade, when it felt like you could actually grasp the shape of your digital life, reasonably arranged on only a handful of disks and drives. You could run a command to list all the files and feel some degree of comfort seeing them all laid bare. Now, I’m not so sure.
There was a shift, an inflection point, when the balance between the things we stored physically and the things we stored digitally flipped. First, the cost of storage plummeted and storage capacity soared. Every year, it felt like you could save more for less. And that was a good thing, because around the turn of the century, we suddenly had a lot more to save – photos, music, videos, games, all of it accumulating and taking up more space than ever before, as the technology to help us create and consume improved. Things we never dreamed of digitizing, of rendering immaterial, now seemed like they could exist no other way – expense reports, tax returns, receipts, office memos. It was seductive to believe that, by digitizing everything, we would declutter our homes and offices. We could reclaim the space taken up by CDs and filing cabinets and printed things – out of sight, out of mind. A hard drive was small, sleek, the opposite of clutter. We associated logic and order with digital things.
Photos, once carefully curated, printed and stored in albums, became something to ceaselessly dump into the ether. Smartphones arrived and suddenly we were taking photos all the time, of anything and everything: the menu at a restaurant, a funny sign, mirror selfies of clothes in a dressing room, photos of receipts and grocery lists. And why not? The old limits were gone. There was no film to change, and photos could be instantly shared. You could still take pictures to capture precious memories, sure, but they became a quick, convenient medium for conveying basic information too.
The iPod put 1,000 songs in our pockets. Then 10,000, then 100,000, and now the music isn’t in our pockets at all, but stored in a pocket so vast and large that the entirety of recorded music is available to anyone, anywhere, any time. For this we had the cloud to thank – a clever shorthand for the rows upon rows of faraway servers that tech companies built to store all the things that no longer made sense for us to store ourselves, like a hard drive that never ran out of space. With the cloud, everything changed. Files were no longer ours to store and manage. We relinquished control and were promised convenience in exchange. Google gave us an inbox so large you could save everything, delete nothing and use the same Google search that so ably indexed the web to scour your mail in an instant. It was madness, and we loved it. We couldn’t get enough. The cloud made it clear we didn’t have to keep our files in one place; we could access them at work, at home, on our phones, on other people’s phones. Then everything became an app, and the file as a concept ceased to exist. Now things are stored in custom containers – notes in a notes app, music in a music app, invoices in an accounting app, our lives split and refracted as if passing through a prism. And when I run out of space? It’s never been easier to pay a few dollars a month to rent more storage in the boundless container of the cloud.
Recently, I’ve begun to rebel. I now have a particular affinity for things that disappear.
I used to be the kind of person who wanted to save every message, every chat log. Nostalgia played a part; there’s a horrifying pleasure in looking back at the things you wrote when you were young and foolish, if only to see how far you’ve come. But I also worried about the memories I would lose, the important details I might forget – all those moments, lost in time, like tears in rain. There was basically no cost to saving it all, and doing it was easy, so why wouldn’t I? That was before my conversations unravelled, threads spread taut between Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, iMessage, text message, WhatsApp, Signal and others I’m likely forgetting. Eventually, I snapped. Were we really meant to have perfect recall – to remember every interaction we’ve ever had? We don’t record every phone call or keep meticulous records of everything said over a meal. Already frustrated by the sprawling suburbs of my digital self, this was one more thing I decided didn’t need to save.
I’ve since embraced the ephemerality of messages I know will disappear. Like an indiscriminate self-destruct button, the disappearing message is an increasingly common feature that vapourizes both the salacious and the mundane. I’m convinced that all messaging apps should work this way – that there should be the option to let conversations expire and messages disappear after an hour, a day, a week, ideally by default. This would flip the script, forcing us to choose what to save rather than what to delete. I’m slowly trying to persuade friends to get on board. For a long time, messages in one of my most active group chats wouldn’t last longer than a week. It felt nice, even freeing – one less piece of digital exhaust at risk of being mined, shared out of context, analyzed or stolen. I now regularly delete my tweets with a little script that runs every night, like a guillotine that chops off everything on my timeline that’s older than 10 days. I use aggressive e-mail filters to keep newsletters and receipts in neatly labelled folders, skipping right past my inbox, and send unsolicited messages from a growing list of senders straight to the trash. Both Snapchat and Instagram have a feature called Stories, where anything you post is only viewable for 24 hours. Because nothing lasts, the barrier to capturing photos and videos is, in theory, lower. Everything is less polished and more candid. We can take and share more photos without having to actually store them. If you post something that really matters, keep it – but it’s not the default.
When I say I’ve embraced ephemerality as an act of rebellion, I don’t mean it lightly. It’s so easy to buy more storage, to entrust tech companies with more of our data, to embrace the boundlessness of the cloud, that it feels like an act of quiet insurrection, even self-preservation, to keep less. For the things that really matter, that I know I’ll want to remember, I’ve tried to be more thoughtful about the how, what and where. I think about how I might further shrink my digital footprint by ruthlessly deleting the apps I rarely use, by keeping important files local and offline – or not at all. Because I don’t need it all, and certainly not all at once. It often feels futile to try and map the boundaries of my digital self, which increasingly resembles not a densely packed city, but an ever-expanding urban sprawl. And so I take measures that make me feel like I’ve wrestled back some semblance of control in a world where it seems like none of my data is actually mine.
For a while, I tried to sort photos into digital albums as soon as I took them. Charred octopus and delicate green cocktails went into a folder for food. Particularly good outfits went into a folder for clothes. Blurry shots and duplicates went straight to the trash. And then I gave up. It required a constant vigilance I didn’t have, and as seductive as it was to think I’d go back and sort my photos later, I knew it was never going to happen.
Then Apple and Google made software to sort my photos for me. Now my phone can find photos of my partner, my family and my friends using facial recognition. My photos are automatically sorted into folders according to what I’ve captured, with labels such as cars, cats, food and lakes. If I type “bread” into my photo app’s search bar, it serves me a picture of a loaf I recently baked. A query for “bridge” conjures scenic photos from a trip to Europe last year. Google will even hide the blurry shots and duplicates, and I can search for text – a storefront I meant to revisit or the menu from a memorable meal. My iPhone, meanwhile, will often surface old memories, rendered as video slideshows; one called “Fluffy Friends” features photos of my cats set to twee music (customizable, of course). These features suggest the way forward doesn’t involve managing files myself at all, but trusting technology to do it for me, to separate the container from the information it contains. Why keep the file, an anachronistic concept, when it can be replaced with something more relevant, more personal – a suggestion, a recommendation? Algorithms light the way forward.
It certainly seems this is where we’re headed with movies and music, too. Where once I carefully curated the albums and artists in my music library, now Spotify does the work for me. It generates custom playlists of my favourite artists and songs, and suggests new music it thinks I might like. Its catalogue is so vast that it would be madness to index by album or artist alone. In fact, Spotify’s bet is that an ever-dwindling few of us will continue to organize our music this way. Instead, we’ll organize our collections by feelings, memories, places, events – coffee shop jazz, aural wallpaper for a backyard BBQ, lo-fi hip-hop beats to study, relax and/or chill to.
On my screens, there are so many movies and TV shows that Netflix, HBO, Disney+ and its ilk are more than happy to offer neatly curated – and often personalized – suggestions for what to watch next (often, it’s the movies and shows they make). In practice, I find these suggestions rarely match up with the list I keep on my phone of things I actually want to watch – the new releases and cult classics and recommendations from friends. In fact, some of my favourite bands and movies can’t be streamed at all. But that’s the trade-off, isn’t it? We outsource the messy management of the collections we once painstakingly maintained. We cede these decisions to private companies and corporate interests. We get more convenience, but I’m not sure we get more control.
Increasingly, I think of all the data I hoard in a darker light: as a liability. I think about what someone would be able to glean if they had access to my e-mail, my messaging apps, the photos in my iCloud account, the contents of my laptop. There are the countless websites and apps I use, each one exposing a shard of my splintered life. If I were to seriously try to catalogue all the personal information I’ve sent to other people – trusting that they, too, will keep this data safe – I don’t know that I would ever sleep again. I know there’s a lot of me out there, and likely a lot of you, too.
I do what I can to protect myself. I create strong, unique passwords for all of my accounts and keep track of them all with a password manager. I’ve enabled two-factor authentication on as many accounts as possible. I have backups in case disaster strikes. But more than anything else, I’ve embraced the idea of saving less and consolidating where I can. I find myself making more conscious choices about what I store and where. Do I really need to scan that letter? Do I really need a photo of that meal? Does this file need to go in the cloud? A few years ago, I simply deleted everything in my e-mail inbox that was more than a few years old. It was that or buy more space. I searched for anything important, for things I might later miss, but I was otherwise blissfully unaware of what I may have lost. I try to spread my files across as few apps and services as possible, and keep my most important files close. I want to minimize the amount of me at risk.
I like the idea of having a smaller footprint, but tech companies don’t make it easy. I’m conscious of how the data I create is analyzed and monetized by all the apps and services I use (especially the ones that are free or inexpensive) and why companies are always looking for more. The more things we store in their clouds, the more we use their products, the more raw material there is to develop new features, train new algorithms and gain new insights about how we work, who we know, what we talk about with our friends, what we buy and what we consume – all so they can make more money. Letting tech companies sift through my photos, manage my documents and recommend what I watch or listen to is certainly convenient, but I’m still wary of ceding control. I often wonder how impractical it is to live more of my life offline, to yearn for a time when our digital footprints were small enough to have a discernible shape.
There are only so many hours in the day. We can only do so much – and, like cleaning out the fridge or doing the laundry, I’m keenly aware that keeping my files neatly organized is a type of labour, too. So I’ve been trying to be smarter about what I do, how I do it and when. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The distinction between online and offline is gone – our digital files are as real, permanent, precious and purposeful as the things we once stored in our closets and drawers, except there’s so much more to store. We’ll all have to reckon with the weight of our data eventually. Now is as good a time as ever to figure out what works for you.
Some things matter more than most, and those are the things I treat with most care. I’ve put a lot of thought into how I write and where my work is stored – always on my laptop, so I’m never at the mercy of the cloud. I care about music a lot, and I’ve become less keen on streaming over the years. Not enough to abandon its convenience, but I still keep a collection of MP3s on my computer of the albums and artists I love the most, the ones I want to support, the ones I can’t get anywhere else. And while time has softened my resolve to keep the old e-mails, the chat logs, the scanned documents I can’t search, I’m not ready to get rid of them just yet; for now, I’ve relegated them all to my backup drive, neatly archived and hidden away, where at least I can forget they’re there – a compromise. I do my best to create a discrete container for these things, a digital box I can easily grasp, pick up and move around, such as the one beside my desk.
This doesn’t work for everything. There’s just too much. And so, in an effort to dull my feeling of organizational dread, I place more and more trust in the cloud. You’d think I would feel relieved, but I just feel a different kind of dread – do I really have more control if I’m just giving control to someone else?