Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 20th Dec, 2010

Sorting things out

I've just spent the last two days working at my Dad's place, packing up his worldly possessions for his imminent move to assisted living. It's a long process, fraught with frustrations and difficulties. He has a lot of stuff, and he wants to keep most of it - much of it things that I think he hasn't used in the last decade, isn't likely to use for the rest of his life, and are of no great utility or scarcity. For the rest of the week I'll be boxing stuff up and transporting it to storage (another favour from another part of the family) and trying to keep him focussed on choosing the things that he absolutely cannot live without to take with him. There'll be plenty enough of that.

After the first day I found myself reflecting on my own possessions. I have a cupboard full of computer equipment - boxes of USB cables, collections of zip disks (and a working drive too, I checked the other day). Stacks of CDs, backups of my music collection, several terabytes of spare drives, enough components (minus the case) to make a complete half-decent gaming computer, etc. etc. etc. I have a garage whose walls are stacked with wood that I've collected for wood turning (one of my other hobbies) as well as parts for the electric motorbike. I have CDs that I would never voluntarily listen to again, books that I do not want to read. Why do I have all this stuff?

For some of his stuff, at least, he has a justification: for example, he has a collection of quarter-inch audio tapes spanning his entire career as a sound engineer. What are my USB cables here? A record of my history as a parts hoarder?

So I'm going to have a big give-away at an up-coming CLUG meeting, as well as try to sell things for reasonable prices. What I can't sell I'll give to a charity. What I can't give away I'll recycle or throw away. I always feel much more frustrated when the piles of junk are threatening to swamp all vestiges of free space. Some of this will also be a de-cluttering of my life: try to reduce the things I'm holding onto just because I might get into e.g. ultimate frisbee some day. I'm a neophile and I'm interested in all sorts of sports, hobbies and intellectual pursuits, but the downside of this is that I have to actively say no to some things because I simply have no time to do them if I'm going to have any time to do any of the other things I already do.

Explaining packing up Dad's stuff to people has made me philosophise about why this occurs. We firstly have to discard the related problem of hoarding things because they have physical value. "Waste not want not" still works even when a hardware store is a fifteen minute drive away, and I suspect it'd still work even in a "Diamond Age" of created matter: the time to get and make the thing is still a cost, even if the item is given away for free. We don't hoard photo albums or old emails or have favourite albums solely because of their ability to hold photos or words.

The other value of what we hoard is in the memories things evoke. We have wonderful associative memories, but it means that it's harder to step through them sequentially and enjoy it all again. The gold medal isn't really for winning the race, it's for us in the future to remember what we did in the past. These things become tied together: I have a pair of ice hockey boots that I keep because they're useful and it's cheaper to use them than to hire skates (and the hire skates are nowhere near as good as mine), but when I see them I remember the good times I had when skating.

The good thing, though, these days, is that things that evoke our memories need not take much physical space. Why have suitcases full of photo albums that you never browse, when you can fit all the photos on a USB disk that you can stick into a digital photo frame that will then cycle through the photos and show you them. The digital generation understands this in a way - few people other than devoted photographers want to mess around with film these days, because where do you keep the stuff? Not online, that's for sure.

I can't help thinking we're swinging too far the other way. People take hundreds of photos a day on holidays, a number they have no way of even reviewing - and less inclination to. We praised digital photography for being able to know what the shots looked like and re-take them if needed; now we just shoot fourteen of everything and assume we're going to have time to review them later. But I'd rather have the portability, choice and post-processing options of digital - and I'd rather page through photos on a large computer screen than in little 4"x3" segments of reprocessed dinosaurs.

And we should remember that the ultimate point is our memories. Who cares about your ninety-eight photos of the Tiergarten if all you can say about it was "I don't know what it was like, I was too busy taking photos?" Likewise, who cares about a great big chunk of tapes, if all that matters about them is that you did great work producing them? I couldn't be stuffed trying to convert any of the audio. But the photos of my Dad and I building a cubby house? Those to me are worth scanning and preserving.

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