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The Coming Cure for 'Digital Hoarding'

The next revolution in storage technology will be “context awareness.”

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A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

Confession: I’m a recovering hoarder. I’m actually great at purging, but I do it in rare spurts. I have a hard time parting with things I think I might need, even when I know I’ll never use them.

We all know I’m not alone in this. You’re a hoarder, too. In fact, when it comes to our digital files, most of us are hoarders. Technology has the ability to forever change how we relate to our hoarded digital junk.

When was the last time you deleted a file because you needed space on your hard drive? We used to do that all the time, back when digital space was scarce and expensive. Now, it’s cheap and plentiful. The result is that none of us throw away anything digital anymore.

I don’t use the term “hoarding” lightly. I mean it in its negative, obsessive-compulsive sense. Our digital hoarding is a problem. Why don’t we delete any of our photos, even the bad ones? Because we might need them one day. This is why compulsive hoarders can’t bear to throw anything away. We might need it.

As with physical hoarding, digital hoarding induces anxiety and a feeling of powerlessness. We can’t delete anything, because it might be useful and decision paralysis consumes us. So, we accumulate more. And the more we accumulate, the greater our anxiety we might have something very good or important sitting at the bottom of our pile of digital stuff. Or something we consider unimportant becomes very important. Our solution is not to throw anything into our virtual trashcans.

As a result, we can never find what we want when we need it.

Digital companies are wise to our inability to hit “delete,” and so they created “cloud storage” as a solution to our problem of saving our digital goods in a secure location. Email systems have also adapted, offering search functionality to quickly find a single email buried beneath thousands upon thousands of others.

Google took the next logical step when it divided Gmail’s inbox into “Primary,” “Social” and “Promotion” tabs, giving users an easier way to filter the important messages from the unnecessary ones. And Google’s Inbox app turns your email into a “to do” list, writes Paula DuPont.

Still, the more we accumulate digitally, the harder it is to find what we need. In other words, our storage systems have little to no context awareness. Your cloud doesn’t know what’s important to you. It treats all files the same.

Your inbox might winnow promotional emails from personal messages, but that’s a superficial solution. You learn to ignore your “Promotions” tab, until you realize you missed a really good promotion that was applicable to your life. Maybe it’s a travel tip ,or a deal to use during your next business trip.

Services like IFTTT (IF This Then That) and Nimble offer solutions to rescue you from email inundation. IFTTT lets you set triggers for specific events online and then assign personalized actions to follow them, reports Popular Mechanics. For example, you can set a trigger for emails from an important email address, let’s say, a parent. You would then be asked to set an action to signal a new email, such as a text message to your phone.

The Nimble app offers an array of features, including “Stay in Touch,” an automated reminder system that watches your communications and prompts you to connect at the right time; “Mark as Important,” a star system so you won’t miss timely communications from important people; and “Last Contact,” a sorting format that it says “keeps current workflow top of mind.”

Nimble’s Teachable Rules Engine learns from you — via profiling through keywords, titles and the like — to surface important people. More, Nimble layers on relevant insights that identify why a contact matters to you.

That’s important, because the future is about getting what’s relevant when it’s relevant, with as little friction as possible. Take, for another example, your photos. You really want to keep only the best ones, but the only way is to manually delete the bad shots. What if your phone or PC deleted the bad shots for you? “But what if it deletes a good one?” our digital-hoarding brain screams.

That’s just it. The next revolution in storage technology will be “context awareness.” The system will know what you consider “bad” versus “good,” relative terms that will be tailored to your personal preference, not some universal standard.

In addition, facial recognition software will be able to store and retrieve photos based on characteristics and that technology is getting better. You’ll be able to search images and video like you search text. You’ll be able to say, “Show me football clips,” and get a list of what you want. (Today, if a video isn’t tagged “football,” it’s hard to find.)

Your future storage systems probably won’t “delete” the bad emails or photos — they’ll just prioritize the good ones. For example, your phone will keep only the photos you like (you and your dog). The rest (you and your ex-boyfriend) will be put in some recess of your cloud storage.

Our future storage systems will also prioritize data to fit, not just the user, but also the user’s situation. If you’re sick at home, what email would you rather read — the one from your doctor or from your CEO? The system will organize itself to meet your needs at the time. When you recover, the system will go back to giving your CEO preference.

The solution to digital hoarding is not so much helping us part with useless data. Storage is cheap, after all. The answer is to help what we see as the “good” stuff rise above the “bad” or “unnecessary.” When you cycle through your photos on your phone, you’ll only see the “good” ones. When you open your email, you’ll only see the ones you want or need to see.

With the arrival and mass adoption of context-awareness software, we won’t have to solve our digital hoarding ourselves. In fact, we won’t even know it exists.

Shawn DuBravac is chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association, and the author of “Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Communicate.” Reach him @shawndubravac.

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