From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

April 25, 2005*: Digital vs. Physical

Anyone who visits my desk, either at home or at work, will quickly realize that my frequent claims of being a highly digital person are extremely exaggerated. How can anybody with so much paper strewn around his desk claim to live a digital life? What's more, it's not as though I have one life that takes place on paper, and another on a hard drive - the print and the bit not only coexist, they interact quite freely. Many of the papers covering my desk are versions of papers I'm working on writing that exist in numerous additional versions on my hard drive. And of course papers that I save sometimes get scanned and stored away on the drive, while at the same time I'm careful (for some totally unclear reason) not to throw out the original. I've bookmarked articles that I've also saved via Furl, or clipped a snippet of in NetSnippets, and also saved digitally, either as HTML or as a Word document, but none of that has stopped me from also printing out copies of them - in order to have more papers to clutter the desk.

So it would appear that my life isn't divided into compartments separated by the digital and the physical. Instead, both aspects seem to compliment (might I say back-up?) each other, rather than infringe on each other. I rarely feel that I have to make a choice - which is better, and which worse (and certainly, the digital can't be all-inclusive). But sometimes I'm confronted with clear and convincing evidence that the digital holds some very convincing advantages. Our move back to our remodeled home offered me just such evidence.

When we vacated our home nine months ago we moved with the basic essentials, and packed up as much as we could into well-marked boxes, storing them in whatever temporary storage we could get. There were, of course, clothes and kitchen utensils to pack, and a vast number of books. All these were relatively easy to deal with - it was the papers that offered a real challenge. My shelves and desk (and numerous drawers) are filled with papers - clippings that get moved from place to place with hardly a glance being offered them. It's a fair guess that had I lost these papers before getting around to rummaging through them, a number of months could have gone by before I would realize that something was missing. What's more, the boxes of clothes and utensils and books were basically zero-growth items. When we started unpacking them their quantity was the same as it was when we packed them up. Not so with the papers. Though many of these had been stuffed into boxes and bags and stored away, their quantity continued to increase during our exile, competing with whatever boxes we kept in our temporary lodgings for the very limited floor space. True, I threw out newspapers with a much greater frequency than to which I was accustomed, but numerous work-related papers continued to clutter the desk and overflow from it onto the furniture and the floor.

My hard drive isn't particularly different. It too is cluttered with files. Some of these are organized logically, according to the standard hierarchical filing system, but a significant, and always growing, number of files have basically been left where they were first, haphazardly, saved. Today I, happily, have programs that allow me to find these relatively easily, but even when failure to logically file meant not being able to find something important it was never easy for me to file as I knew I should.

But of course there is a very major difference. My computer weighs the same and takes up the same space no matter how many files I keep stored in it. That doesn't only mean that I can move it back to my desk and have my work finished in only a couple of minutes, instead of having to unpack and arrange numerous bags and boxes. It also, and perhaps primarily, means that I can neglect that task without anyone, including myself, knowing the difference.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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