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Yesterday morning I was cleaning off my hard drive. I picked out a folder which I thought had nothing of interest in it. I hit delete with prejudice. Last night I wondered what happened to my photos of Seattle...

I guess the bright side is that I'll be there again sometime.

It brings to mind a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with someone who has their entire email history stored somewhere somehow. I was making the point that although I share the tendency to pack that information away in case I need it someday, there really is very little of it that I will ever look at again. Email really does have a very short shelf life and the endless stream of new email allows no time to linger longingly on meeting minutes from 1997.

I learned to keep all those things from being in an environment where litigation was likely and email and faxes and contracts had some evidential value. You can't just hit the delete key and hope it all goes away. Some of it I kept because it was new to me and I thought I might refer back to it at some future time or perhaps I put a lot of time and effort into it, or perhaps I was just lazy, or over cautious. Much of my mail nowadays is interesting but ephemeral.

Still it gives me some psychic pain to delete something interesting and potentially useful that lands in my mail box. One thing which eases this pain is knowing that someone else out there was the source of that information and as long as I know that person I have a link back to the information. Or in some cases the information is stored out in the cloud. Usenet posts have a lifetime longer than the average computer. Archive.org lets me look back and see what used to be.

So far, I've just been talking about the cost of deleting things, I haven't talked about the benefits. There is some cost benefit. Hard disk space gets cheaper every second, but is still not yet free. Searching and finding space needles in the evermounting haystack has a time and computing cost. As things get better this cost approaches 0 but never quite gets there. You save almost nothing in cost by keeping everything

So where IS the benefit of hitting the delete key found?

The value is found in looking forward rather than backward. I don't know how to measure it, but I think the value is immense.

So here are my packrat rules for information storage:

  • Keep the keys - links to important places people etc.
  • Put the good work on a shelf somewhere you can find it again. A central library is a good idea here.
  • Print out contracts.
  • Put raw material that you need for a temporary endeavor in a separate well-named folder so you can find it and dispose of it when you have created something useful out of it.
  • Forward the rest to a friend who keeps everything
  • Hit the delete key with impunity.

I can't say that I actually do all of this, but I am trying.

For related information on the perils of living in the present look here: Attention Interface

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