Virtual Self-Storage

This sentence in the recent Trendwatching newsletter made me sit up and take notice:

TRENDWATCHING.COM expects services like Gmail to morph into the digital equivalent of self storage spaces now found in most big cities.

That’s what’s really going on today–people are using the internet as their own personal storage unit, but one with limitless capacity and universal access. My girlfriend’s father owns a small empire of physical self storage units and does quite well with them; he likes to say that he has “plenty of job security as long as my business is based on mankind’s inability to get rid of stuff.” This inability led one client to pay for 12 years of storage–not even visiting the unit for the last 8–and when he stopped paying, the managers found only an empty dresser, four new tires, and a few personal items stored there.

In the digital world, this inability remains. Perhaps rooted in the same selfish and cautious packrat tendency, we treat digital information like it has physical value, buy bigger and bigger hard drives, and more and more books to help us deal with our mounting landfill of data (Data Smog, Information Anxiety).

Neo-dot-coms are falling all over themselves to be the ones we store our data with–Google’s Gmail offers a gigabyte of storage for your email, which prompts many to use it as a file storage system, emailing big files to themselves for later online access. Blogger, TypePad, and Nokia’s Lifeblog all want you to store your thoughts, photos, and videos on their sites for posterity’s sake–and why not pay a little subscription fee, even if you don’t visit again for 8 years?

That’s the crux of the problem, and the core of the business plan–if every user really used their data like they say they will–accessing pictures, videos, and text daily, sharing everything they do with friends, archiving each thought–then companies would likely be unable to support such services. But they don’t, and the reality is that we can’t. It’s not a problem of lacking storage, it’s a problem of lacking processing ability–human processing ability.

The fact is, we don’t forget things because our brains lack the capacity, we forget them because it helps us move on with our lives. One book on my wishlist is The Mind of a Mnemonist, which tells the story of a Russian man studied by A.R. Luria who couldn’t forget anything, including the sights, sounds, and smells of every moment of his life. It completely flooded his senses and made him unable to function.

If we did have access to every past moment of our existence, displayed in full streaming video and surround sound, then what is to push us forward, let alone allow us to? We could spend all our time reliving only those moments that we most enjoyed, spend it completely satisfied–satisfied enough that we wouldn’t need to go back out and try again. More realistically perhaps, we would feel an obligation to the data, being hardwired to value information and entertainment, and simply spend our entire lifes trying to catch up to the amount accumulated thus far. Back in the physical world, one man has tried to read every page of the New York Times each day since 1975, and is currently one and a half years behind, despite skipping the Sports, Escapes, and Circuits sections.

It turns out that Mark Hurst’s bit literacy is still important since the time he wrote it “almost four years ago: before Congressional legislation against unwanted e-mail; before the TiVo became popular; before Apple’s iPhoto was launched; before 12-year-olds got sued for downloading music.” We still don’t know how to deal with data, still treat it like gold, are still enthralled with the dot-com-era euphoria of “limitless knowledge”, and “infinite access”.

So, one might reasonably ask, what’s the problem of getting some potentially valuable or entertaining bits, if they don’t clutter my living space, don’t weigh me down, and don’t cost a penny? The problem is that the bits are different from paper-based information. Bits are more engaging, more immediate, more personal, and more abundant than other types of information. In the middle of lunch with a friend, we’re interrupted by bits — perhaps a stock quote — and we instinctively reach for our PDA to see what it is. Or we sit down to “read through some e-mail” and blow through two hours like it was twenty minutes. Like the magazines and other anxiety-producing information, the bits call for our attention — but the bits call more loudly, more sweetly, more frequently, and in more areas of our lives.

If bits are more engaging than even paper-based information, then we had better be very careful how we get and handle our data, and who we store it with. We can’t be the man trying to read “every page” of the Internet, even if we do “skip the sports section”.

I’m not convinced that more information storage is better, even if it is “free”. Neither do I think “less is more”–I’d rather side with Milton Glaser in saying that just enough is more–and I believe that just enough data storage may not be very much at all. It’s a signal versus noise equation, and there’s a lot of noise out there. Buzzzzz…