Archive and Simplify

One of the hallmarks of 21st century culture, particularly here in the States, is deep commercialism. And I say commercialism in what’s almost a religious sense. We are taught, from every angle, that buying things will improve our lives. Everywhere you turn, there’s a new book, gadget, or service purported to make us happier, more organized, healthier.

Not only does this have the tendency to put us into a spending and debt spiral, but when combined with the natural human tendency to fear loss, we end up with the “hoarding” phenomenon. Our commercial education does not include instruction on how to get rid of things. We leave books on our shelves as status symbols or reminders of our education, despite having no intention of ever reading them again. Obsolete or highly specialized gadgets sit unused for years. Sentimental tokens of our youth and mementos of long forgotten events pile up in boxes seldom opened. We laugh at the people on the reality shows, but almost everyone participates in the phenomenon to one degree or another.

The digital age affords us some tools to get out of at least some of this, however. Storage of photos, videos, and text is so cheap that archiving the whole of a life’s accumulated paper junk could fit on a device costing $100 or less. (I’m not unaware of the irony in that, but bear with me.) Imagine you have a box full of miscellaneous stuff: letters, birthday cards, programs from special occasions and theater events. It takes up two or three cubic feet of space in a closet somewhere. It’s moved from one home to another over the years, never opened except to peek inside to get the general idea of its contents. It would take time, but not much difficulty, to scan those articles into digital format and dispose of the old paper.

These techniques can apply to some more bulky objects then paper miscellany, too. For example, I still hold on to little crafted gifts that an ex-girlfriend gave me back in college. It’s awkward whenever I stumble across them: they’re reminders of bittersweet memories of old hurts, and for my life partner, they’re reminders of a part of my life she wasn’t present for. I cling to them for the sake of those bittersweet memories and out of appreciation for the hard work that went into making them. But I don’t need them. Why not, then, photograph these objects, write down my thoughts about them, and then gently dispose of them?

To take the ideas still further, I picture a 21st-century memoir, in the form of a wiki. Memorable events from one’s life live on pages, linked to one another in a network of hyperlinks not unlike the odd connections already present between our memories. When hooked up with the archives of documents and objects described above, it would become a library of a life, enduring as long as the Internet does. Attics worth of detritus reduced to electrons? The idea appeals to me.

I might give it a try, in fact. Probably starting with those crafty gifts…

(This, too, was transcribed: first spoken into a digital voice recorder, then uploaded and automagically translated to text. Cool, huh?)

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