Essays on Technology and Culture

On Collecting Versus Digital Hoarding

The Saturday morning before my big move, I woke up to find the external drive I keep all my media on: music, movies, books, TV shows—my entire iTunes library—had died. My first thought that I really didn’t want to spend the money t replace it. Recovery wasn’t a concern. Everything had been backed up to my Time Capsule. The worst that could happen would be losing the last couple albums I imported into iTunes, but that wasn’t the case. All I had to do was replace the hardware. I ordered a 1TB USB drive from my local Apple Store. After recording that week’s Crush On Radio, I picked up the drive, ran home, and started restoring.

The process took the entire weekend, largely due to the sheer size of my library, and a few false starts. The experience has forced me to think about why I have such a massive media collection. What compels me to hold on to all of this stuff? What compels me to get more? Is it some sort of psychological disorder? The most insidious thing about hoarding files is that it’s largely consequence free. If you’re a digital hoarder, you don’t have to worry about the same problems that come with real objects. No matter how many MP3s or ePubs I have, they’re not going to collapse and crush me to death. [1] Hoarding MP3s doesn’t make for the kind of compelling visuals that suit an episode of Hoarders.

Pretty, but it doesn’t make for compelling television.

At least when it comes to music, I have some justification. I’m an avid music fan, music writer, host a music-related podcast, and I am a completionist. When I like a band, I want everything by that band, or as much is feasible. In the world of collecting physical goods, one is limited by budget and availability. Some stuff is outright rare, and if you want it, you’re probably going to have to pay through the nose. The Internet puts almost anything we could possibly want at our fingertips. With a fast enough connection, the complete discographies of artists are at our disposal in minutes. All you sacrifice is the actual, physical product. Since I’m the sort of person who actually listens to music, albeit a lot of the same music over and over, this is fine with me.

On the second episode of Crush On Radio, we briefly discussed our digital music collections and how we managed them. Before Crush On Radio even started, I had tried to do some pruning of my collection, but now every week at least one album’s worth of material gets added to the library. I’ve also been lax at purging the stuff I don’t like. I rarely get a chance to get back to the albums I downloaded to check out and never have. Last year, I got the latest album by Cut Copy, Zonoscope, but only finally listened to it a couple months ago. It’s an amazing synthpop album, and I love it. Unfortunately, I haven’t played it since, but I probably will, in time. Perhaps it’ll be a pick on an upcoming Crush On Radio

However, I’ve never been a huge movie person, with the exception of Wes Anderson movies. This makes the large movie folder on my media drive all the more absurd. Why then do I have so many movies I’ve watched once—or never—taking up space? Laziness, no doubt. About the only evergreens in my movie collection are concert films. [2] It’s much the same with the piles of unread e-books and unwatched TV shows. As much as I’d like to catch up with Doctor Who, I’m only at the start of Series 3, and only getting further behind. The only TV series I like an am up to date on is Boardwalk Empire, and that’s because I got in at the start. Even the shows and movies I have watched sit around, and I don’t know when, or if, I’ll get around to watching them again. More to the point, why bother keeping them when I can stream them on demand through means legal and otherwise.

What I have to do is re-evaluate when, where, and how I consume media—especially music, and be more judicious in what I acquire and when. Also, I have to be more judicious in what I purge. If I’m unlikely to go back to something, why keep it around? No matter how big my media drive is in capacity or small in package, its contents take up non-physical space in my psyche. I see the cover art as I scroll through iTunes. I am nagged by the empty space under “Play Count” when I click them, and try to decide if it’s truly what I want to listen to, or not. What gems are sitting there that I’ve missed? More importantly, perhaps, what junk is sitting in there that is not going to be worth my time at all? As I figure all this out, I expect to revisit this topic. If you have any suggestions, reach out.

  1. The story of the Collyer brothers is really interesting. Their Wikipedia article is only a start.  ↩
  2. Stop Making Sense is amazing. So amazing, we did a whole Crush On Radio episode about it.  ↩