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Digitizing life's clutter

Putting all your sights, sounds and stories on a disc or a computer has its advantages. But don't discount what may be lost in the transition.

March 01, 2009|Michelle Quinn

OAKLAND — As the goods in our daily lives transform from analog to digital, it's hard not to wonder: Where did all our stuff go?

We take photos, but the leather albums remain empty. The music collection bulges but requires no space next to the stereo. When "War and Peace" lives on electronic reading devices, it can no longer serve as a doorstop or a sign of being well-read.

This dramatic change has upended the media business, offering new ways to find audiences yet undercutting decades-old methods of making money. Even as it has empowered the likes of Google and Apple, the digital transition has hobbled record labels, pushed newspaper publishers to the brink of financial ruin and threatened film and television companies.

But the shift also has happened at a more personal level. In the home, we are torn between the ingrained urge to collect and the newer desire to feel light and mobile, said Aimee Baldridge, author of "Organize Your Digital Life," a recent how-to book from National Geographic.

The average U.S. consumer owns 792 digital songs, 672 digital photos and 666 digital videos, according to a 2008 study by the Consumer Electronics Assn. In the next five years, this is expected to at least triple.

"People are overwhelmed, and their lives are cluttered with things and information," Baldridge said. They "are looking for ways to simplify. Digital technology seems like a way to sweep things clean. But often it complicates things."

The drama has played out in my family, changing the ecology of our home and our experience of culture. The towers of CDs have been razed. Bookshelves are trimmer -- new purchases go into our Amazon Kindle e-book reader. There is no movie collection piled up beside our television. Why should there be? We have iTunes to download films.

When we do get DVDs, they're whisked back to Netflix as soon as we watch them, or we gather around the computer screen to take in films via the company's "Watch Instantly" streaming video service.

Photos, music, books and videos disappear into the black hole of our computer's hard drive, where we forget about most of them. Many of the framed photos around our house are from before 2000, when the digital camera became king. The online newspaper doesn't call out to be read like its printed sibling did lying on the breakfast table.

"It used to be, as Marshall McLuhan said, that the medium was the message," said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley forecaster and consulting associate professor at Stanford University. "Now the medium is invisible."

Our home's purge of physical media was driven by my husband, Michael. He's a university librarian, trained to look at shelf space as critically as a Wal-Mart bean counter: If the inventory isn't moving, stash it away.

His motto, "Everything has a place, everything in its place," has become a survival strategy for our family of four to coexist in a 1,200-square-foot house with no garage. It drives him to digitize and organize.

I can't help but push back. Though I have reported about technology for two decades, I find myself trying to horde things I can hold in my hands.

Of course, there are technology solutions for revitalizing digital content. Digital photo frames can be replenished wirelessly. Devices such as the Roku box and Apple TV make it possible to stream videos from the computer to the living-room set. Grandma in Atlanta can visit a video-sharing website to catch her grandchild's first step in Seattle.

We can scroll through playlists on our iPods or computers to find forgotten classics. I once couldn't find a marimba CD. When I discovered its digital replica on our computer, where Michael had stashed it as part of his great physical album purge of 2006, I found a half-dozen like it I had forgotten.

And software engineers at Amazon.com, Apple, Netflix and elsewhere have created "recommendation engines" to suggest new books, music and videos based on feedback about those we've already bought or rented.

Still, Baldridge doesn't recommend a wholesale switch to digital. "It's evolved so rapidly, it's hard to get a handle on what the benefits are, what the uses are and what's overkill," she said. "What I advise people to do is find a good balance between digital and physical stuff."

For many, the digital train has left, and we are on for the ride. It's changing us. A vast, impersonal library of media is replacing a small, idiosyncratic collection of books, music, photos and video that made their presence known.

"We have physical and tactile relationships with things we don't think we have a relationship to," said Paul Duguid, a professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley. "It will make the world a confusing place if we have to remember things by menus."

Without cultural artifacts lying around, we lose the status we used to derive from them. It's hard to surreptitiously take stock of someone's musical tastes if you have to sneak a peek at their iPod or ask for their computer password.

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