Stuff and information

Paul Graham’s essay last month, “Stuff,” really resonates with me. I strongly encourage you to take a few minutes and go read it. Good, isn’t it?!

Stuff appears to be a key contributing factor to the commoditization–er, evaporation–of my time. In fact, I can effectively replace “stuff” with “information” in Paul’s essay and feel equally downtrodden. I’m overwhelmed with information, probably just like you are.

To paraphrase and personalize some of Paul’s points:

  • Information has gotten a lot cheaper, but my attitude toward it hasn’t changed correspondingly. I overvalue information.
  • Once I’ve accumulated a certain amount of information, it starts to own me rather than the other way around.
  • A cluttered room [or computer file system or feed aggregator or …] is literally exhausting.
  • Another way to resist acquiring information is to think of the overall cost of owning [or even just managing] it. The purchase price [or initial download, even free] is just the beginning. I’m going to have to think about the thing for years–perhaps even for the rest of your life. Every thing you own takes energy away from you. Some give more than they take. Those are the only things worth having.

I’m known to be a packrat, which has certainly saved me and others in the past. However, the burden that comes with this mountain of information (stuff) is wearing. Techniques I’ve described before end up involved more about paying in time lost than in real value gained (i.e. organization for no apparent long-term benefit).

Earlier this week I was meeting with several EMC colleagues to discuss the whole REST/POX/SOAP/RPC/SOA/ROA(/DOA) thing. During this candid discussion–a good subject for another post–someone remarked, and I’m paraphrasing, “Forget about organization; focus on good search. Organization is an intractable problem, and one that no one is willing to pay for to solve properly.” This gave me pause…so, how do I leverage search on the web and on my desktop? Has search truly replaced navigation for me? If not, why?

Back to Paul’s essay and the realization that I may overvalue information, I got to thinking about physical books, digital books and links to books online. Paper is pleasant to hold and read, but it can burn and consumes shelf space. PDFs are fine on a big display, but they require software to read (albeit free) and additional electronic storage themselves–not to mention that they’re fixed/frozen, not dynamic/living, in nature. Links consume far less storage then documents on my hard drive–even nothing when placed into–but they can break or become useful when my ISP decides to disappear. When I go offline, how do I access a particular document given only a link? When I’m away from my computer, PDA, smart phone, etc. how do I read my softcopy document? When I’m away from my home library and a nearby book seller, how do I thumb through a certain chapter for that particular key phrase or figure?

Given all my questions, I need something empirical to help me to change my ways. Ironically, it seems like more data could help my information overload. :-)

The kind of data I’m currently envisioning represents the number of browse, read and write related actions upon sets of electronic documents. For example, if I navigate to a folder that contains two documents but do nothing more, then each document gets a +1 in the browse column. If I navigate here again and open one of the documents, both documents get another +1 for browse and the opened document gets a +1 in the read column, too. If I edit the open document and save my changes, then that document also receives a +1 in the write column.

I say “columns” to represent this metadata due to my leverage of a useful Windows Explorer add-in (i.e. shell namespace extension), Folder Size for Windows, which presents a new Folder Size column within the main file system navigator:


On the other hand, I’m not sure that adding three columns of numbers would be terribly useful.

Fortunately there are lots of ways to project this kind of information. I circulated Visual Literacy’s A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods amongst my colleagues at work back in May and it garnered a fair bit of praise and admiration. More recently, Jeff Atwood blogged more generally about catalogs of data visualization. For example, maybe I could apply Crazy Egg‘s “heat map” concept.

Perhaps I’m simply over-engineering the whole thing.

Taking a step back and returning to Paul’s essay, the following paragraph may represent the simplest way to my information tranquility:

A friend of mine cured herself of a clothes buying habit by asking herself before she bought anything “Am I going to wear this all the time?” If she couldn’t convince herself that something she was thinking of buying would become one of those few things she wore all the time, she wouldn’t buy it. I think that would work for any kind of purchase. Before you buy anything, ask yourself: will this be something I use constantly? Or is it just something nice? Or worse still, a mere bargain?

I’ve successfully applied this practice to physical books and music CD’s–I’m a sucker for both–but I’ve got a long way to go where general downloading and filing is concerned.

Update 8/24/2007: Not that TreeMaps are necessarily ideal, but I ran across a TreeMap-based disk drive content visualization software for Windows and MacOS recently: SequoiaView (Windows) and Disk Inventory X (MacOS).