To accomplish my recent cross-country move (NM to PA), I reduced my possessions by a great percentage and stuffed everything into the bed of my pickup truck. In so doing, I have had to think deeply about the objects that come into our lives and how best to deal with them.
The subject of decluttering is especially relevant now that digital versions of traditionally physical objects become commonplace. Pictures, recordings, and texts are all becoming digitized, and we’re crazy if we think there’s no loss in that. Sure, there are enormous benefits from space savings and easy access, but we should be aware of the consequences of our choices.
Digitization: Scan and Shred
Before my move, I’d been reading http://unclutterer.com and http://zenhabits.net. There’s something romantic about living with fewer physical possessions. Before my move, I had accumulated excess stuff, and I had to make fast choices about what needed to be trashed, donated, or sold. Or digitized.
On top of that, bills and other documents just became mountains of sensitive personal information that had to be treated like toxic waste. I wanted the information, but the paper itself needed to be trashed.
So my guiding principle was that the “information” was important while the vehicle was not. IE, a picture of a receipt is just as useful as the actual receipt unless it was for a really expensive item. I signed up for Carbonite online backup and scheduled backups to an external hard drive. There was very little danger that all the information I collected would suddenly vanish.
For the month before my move I used my scanner with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and my girlfriend’s digital camera to take pictures of receipts, forms, photographs and other odds and ends. I then arranged them in folders on the hard drive with obvious names so that I could easily search for them. If the item was sensitive clutter, I shredded it. I also looked at e-book versions of books that I owned and donated or sold many of my physcial books.
I scanned, shredded and donated to my heart’s content. It was and is magical to be able to just click the Windows button on the keyboard, type a keyword in the search box, and have files pop up. For many items, there was no more digging around in boxes or file folders to find them. If I scan the receipt there’s no more fading of the text.
As I purged, I felt mental clutter vanish along with the physical. It was exhilarating.
The Wonders of the Lilly Library
During the move, I visited the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. There I was shown amazing artifacts that existed because someone decided that they were worth saving. George Washington’s hair. A Haydn piano sonata manuscript. Mexican Gregorian chant found in Guatemala.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The caption below it explains that it was only preserved because people thought it was a divine relic. Thanks to them and the Lilly, the text is available for performance and has been performed by early music musicians at IU.
The library is full of things like that. There are several manuscripts of famous books there that contain the handwritten edits of the authors. There are rare and interesting bindings that all reveal the love that somebody had for that particular book. There are multiple copies of the same text but housed in bizarre and wonderful ways (The Book of Common Prayer being a prime example). It became clear that the value of some books was not only housed within the information but also within the physical form of the book itself.
After I had left the library, I realized that there were a few things that I had regretted shredding, and I was grateful that I hadn’t shredded everything that I had digitized.
What is worth preserving?
There were a few things that I photographed or scanned and couldn’t bear to destroy. Letters from my grandparents and my journals were prime examples. I scanned one journal and got the “information”, but it wasn’t the same. The look and feel of the thing conveys much of its information, and at least for now, I’m not a good enough photographer to capture it adequately. So I kept it.
But on the other hand, we as human beings cannot continually collect without some sort of reckoning at some point. Either we:
- Invest an increasing amounts of time and money to store and take care of things
- Or sell them
- Or give them away
- Or throw them away
- Or have them slowly rot away to be ruined
- Or die and leave stuff to people who will have to make this choice for us
The person who started the Lilly library was very wealthy and could choose option one for his collection. But the rest of us? We have lives to lead, and many of us don’t know where we’ll be from one year to the next. To maintain an ever increasing library of worthy physical objects is simply untenable without major personal sacrifice. Decluttering can feel like a moral objective.
The Choice: Decluttering vs Preservation
We have an amazing opportunity for new ways of organization and storage of “possessions” in digital forms. We also have so much inflow that it becomes important to deal with it in some responsible manner.
But I think we should make thoughtful choices in our decluttering about what we destroy or toss out even if we make digital versions. Those treasured objects at the Lilly are the result of many people making choices about what was worth keeping. The person who decided that Washington was a great man kept that lock of his hair and preserved it. That was a choice. Seeing a digital photo is not the same as seeing it preserved.
To illustrate a great loss: Henri Duparc went through a major purge where he destroyed many of his compositions, which included an entire opera. We now have a body of seventeen art songs of his and a few other works. What did the musical world lose when he did that? We may think that our digital information is immortal, but if everything that we write nowadays is hidden behind a password protected vault, then does it exist if we suddenly pass away?
But even if there are digital versions of scores and books that are easily accessible, by keeping everything digital we remove the possibility that future generations will understand how we edited something. That Haydn score at the Lilly had alternative passages to what is presented as the accepted version. If he had just created it in Sibelius, tinkered until he was happy and then printed it, we would not see his creative process or have alternative options for performance. The same can be said of countless other manuscripts within the library.
One could argue that this is not as important. With recordings we have access to performance practice information in ways we can only dream of with music of Haydn and Mozart’s time. This is valuable and may counteract the loss of hand-written edits. Plus, our software is becoming more advanced, and many now offer “versioning” of files that preserve older edits so that we can review our overall process.
Furthermore, as we become more digitally savvy, we might create new outlets for creativity that simply leave the older paradigms behind. How about ebooks with animation or books laid out like video games? Or perhaps we’ll invent something completely new. We just don’t know where our shared creativity will take us.
So I can’t come up with any hard and fast rules, but I think it’s a discussion worth having with ourselves and each other. As much of our information becomes reduced to ones and zeros, we need to question our values when it comes to preservation.
What is worth preserving in a physical form?
Often the comments are as valuable as the articles themselves.
- Digitize Everything by Mike Elgan
- From Lifehacker
- Trend spotting: Tech-savvy minimalism by Erin at Unclutterer
- The Wastefulness of Deccluttering; or How to Make Less Count for More by Leo Babauta at Zen Habits
- Books Have Many Futures by Linton Weeks at NPR.
- And just in: Seth Godin will no longer publish traditional books.