Digital Housework

"No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved, y'know, for a little bit. I fee like the maid: 'I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for ten minutes? Please?' " - Mr. Incredible starting at 0:55 in this clip from The Incredibles

I can't keep entropy at bay. The tendency toward randomness and disorder keeps creeping back in. Today I'm dealing with the equivalent of that mountain of laundry that needs to be done. Or more aptly, the garage you need to clean that holds all the boxes you've moved from place to place without ever opening and sorting them. Today, I'm cleaning up digital files.

In How to Do Nothing Jenny O'Dell wrote about the attention economy's logic "that 'disruption' is more productive than the work of maintenance--of keeping ourselves and others alive and well." She wasn't referring to digital maintenance--if I really do what she calls for I'd have a lot less to maintain--but her point still applies.

It's so much more exciting to start something new than to clean up something old, right? To heck with Marie Kondo; in a consumer economy the thrill of buying a new set of shelves far outweighs the tedium of sorting the things we'll set on them and making a run to donate the items we no longer need or want, let alone dusting those shelves in a couple of weeks after they're no longer new and exciting. In the digital context it's more fun to take today's pictures than to review yesterday's pictures, delete the ones we don't want, and organize them in some useful way.

I appreciate and am inspired by O'Dell's deep thinking about the ways in which we have given away our ability to pay attention, to concentrate, to notice what really matters. We are creating enormous economic value for nothing, doing unpaid digital labor that Facebook or Twitter or Google Ad Services monetizes and sells to shareholders. If we are to extract any true value for ourselves, we're going to have to give some thought to maintenance, not just creation.

I have the digital footprint (and attention span) of an early adopter of some, but not all, of the many shiny-object services of the digital age. I've been on Twitter for over a decade, Facebook about that long. I got interviewed as an early user of LinkedIn in my former hometown because I had so many connections before others were using it regularly. I let a TV station follow me around when I was checking in on Foursquare when that was still a thing. I have an Instagram account I never post to and no doubt dozens of dusty spaces on the web with my name on them created for some forgotten reason. When I changed jobs I had to do at least 59 things to deal with my online presence.

There's no way I can track down and delete all these things I'm not maintaining. I do wonder at times about the amount of server space being held for neglected accounts. How long do you suppose my old "burner" email accounts will be available?

I'm not even going to try to find and delete everything I don't use. I'm going to start by cleaning up what I do use. I'll try to define some rules for what I do and don't save that may make maintenance easier going forward.

Take Dropbox, for example. Handy utility. I have that and Google Drive and wherever the images go that are all automatically saved by my cellular service. How much cloud storage does one person need? Not as much as I have access to. Yet I managed to fill the free Dropbox space and start paying for more a few years ago when I was taking lots of pictures in my work as executive director of Washington Bikes. Every bike ride, ribbon-cutting, Bike to Work Day Energizer Station got captured with multiple images.

And they're all still sitting there.

I keep meaning to go in and clean up. Every time I start, I get a few images deleted, then get side-tracked into thinking about whether I want to save some, renaming a few so they have a more meaningful filename than the date they were taken, opening several to determine which one is the best in a series (and I'm no photographer so none of these are very good to begin with), thinking about whether someday I may want to be able to illustrate this particular historic moment for some reason and no one else has any pictures of this, and and and.... You can understand why my Dropbox is so full it will no longer sync across devices and they want me to pay more to get more storage space.

No. It's maintenance time. By which I primarily mean, be bold and hit DELETE, at least on some of those folders.

Like housework in the real world AFK (Away From Keyboard), this may not stay done. The dust bunnies will creep back in. I'll lose track of my good intentions about not saving everything as files when I could simply bookmark a report I want to refer to.

(Oh no, my bookmarks--those need organizing and clean-up too. Or maybe not. My maintenance energy only extends so far and I need to prioritize. Focus, Chamberlain, focus.)

A while back thanks to Twitter, which I do find valuable as a place to give and receive information from people who are still better value filters than a Google search, I encountered The Maintainers, "a global research network interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world."

Working in transportation as I do, I know our maintenance backlog is enormous and still growing. The belief that something new is more important than taking care of what we have is evident there as in other sectors of public policy and our economic structures. Lack of maintenance carries a hidden cost to all of us, from repairs to personal vehicles shaken by rough roads and potholes to the broken elbow I received crashing on a trail thanks to a broken surface I tried to avoid on my bike.

One of the costs of failure to maintain my digital space is direct: I'll be charged another year's storage on Dropbox if I don't get my usage down. Another is indirect; if I try to find something in those files I'm digging through all the clutter, just like going through boxes in my garage in search of a specific item time after time.

Maintenance protects, sustains and adds real value in the real world. We need more of it. It may not be shiny, but it's essential.

And here I sit, writing a shiny new blog post instead of digging into those dusty old cloud files.

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