Friday, September 25, 2009

How much is too much? Information overload in the growing digital world

Being new to blogging, I found it very difficult to pick a topic to write my first blog about, at least until I read an article from the New Yorker in Professor Turkel’s Digital History class. I found that this article that made me really think, and in turn, moved me to share some thoughts about. So here’s where the blog begins.

Gordon Bell. The man who digitized his entire life. When a friend of his began scanning books into a computer, Bell decided that he would scan everything he had ever accumulated during the course of his life into a computer of his own. Upon first reading the article, I have to admit that I didn't have a problem with Bell scanning the contents of his filing cabinets and boxes that were stored in his house, and putting it onto a computer. I can even see the practical value of this: get it on the computer, save it, back it up, throw out the originals, and voilĂ , more space! But I continued reading and saw that he scanned scrapbooks, photographs, and even labels of wine that he’d enjoyed at some point in his life. This is where it stopped being practical and became unsentimental. As someone who has personally made scrapbooks, compiled photo albums, and written journals, it’s difficult to imagine throwing out the real copies and being satisfied with images of it on a computer screen. Flipping through the pages of these books and reminiscing about all things that have happened in my life cannot be substituted for scrolling down a computer screen with a mouse! How unsatisfying!

I can truly understand why Bell saved his emails (well, maybe not all of them), scanned his pictures (there were no hard drives in the 1960s), and put all of his books onto the computer (easier to access?). Don’t all of us want to be remembered in some way after we die? I think that most people want to leave some sort of a legacy once they’re gone, and saving things like journals, mementos, and pictures to pass on to the next generation is a great way of doing it. But is it really necessary for one person to keep recordings of every phone call ever made, every website ever visited, or even information about the battery life in their pacemaker? I don’t think so. This is pointless and borderline unhealthy! If someone were to write the biography of Bell’s life, I highly doubt that details regarding the mechanics of his pacemaker would make the final cut. But even more so, does he want to be remembered by the battery life of his pacemaker? Why not leave things that shed light on who the true Gordon Bell is for after his death? Things like what his interests and hobbies were; you know, the things that make him a real human being. Mundane and extensive records take away the intricacies and emotions of an individual person and it makes it harder for future generations to identify with those who have lived in the past. And as for Bell, what will happen in thirty years when technology completely changes and he is no longer around to ensure the safety of his records? Will someone be kind enough to transfer all of his life information onto an updated computer? Will anyone even care enough to do this? What if someone decides that the phone call recordings are taking up too much room, and that they can be discarded? All of Bell’s scanning could be for nothing! Wouldn't he have been better off to keep and pass down his old photo albums so that his descendants could keep them in the family line and keep his memory alive?

The reality of it is that digitizing one’s entire life scares me. If I had the choice, would I want to put all of the things that were meaningful to me onto a computer? Probably not. I’d rather enjoy my trinkets, souvenirs, and photographs in real life, where I can hold them in my hands, not from a computer screen.



  1. I think Bell's project is really interesting, and I commend him for saving everything, not just the things that he thinks are important. By saving everything, he is allowing people to interpret his life as he lived it, rather than filtering out things that he thought distasteful or irrelevant.

    That being said, throwing out the materials after digitizing them made me cringe. If, as you point out, all his scanning was for nothing, and the date is not migrated and becomes obsolete, then the lack of original records cripples any researching interested in his life. While digitization has its advantages when it comes to accessibility, it is crucial to save the original documents as well.

  2. Why should we care about the battery life of Bell's pacemaker? If that information is kept at the expense of other information, we might try to assess the relative value of each item, and then decide what to save and what to discard. That was what librarians and archivists had to do when storage space was prohibitively expensive. If storage space is nearly free, and our search functions are good enough to hide information that we don't want to see, then the situation is different. We might argue that it would be a waste of time for any person to decide what to save and what to discard when we can save everything. But more to the point, there are whole classes of people who are interested in the life of pacemaker batteries: battery manufacturers, electronic engineers, physicians, forensic scientists, heart patients, etc. In the age of abundance, we really have to worry about finding information and integrating it, rather than deciding what to keep.