Jessica hardly recognized her father. A hale and hearty man, he had become isolated and eccentric. Though he was always reserved, he was harder to keep in touch with, often ignoring messages. And when she did see him, he was absent-minded, as if not fully there.
They used to be close, but the relationship had become fragile and tenuous. Often, she had the strange sense of missing him, even as he sat right beside her.
None of this made his heart attack any less difficult. The sudden death was a knockout blow — a punch that, after four months, still left her withering on the floor. It was the sort of tragedy that blindsided her on an idle Wednesday morning — the sort she couldn’t plan for. She was left to process the wave of emotions.
Beyond the shock, the number of tasks that had to be dealt with — doctors, insurance and lawyers, not to mention the funeral planning — overwhelmed her. Sometimes, she’d take refuge in the logistics. “It took my mind off my loss,” she tells me. But more often, she found it draining and exhausting. She hoped the final task of cleaning out his house wouldn’t overwhelm her.
As a widower, he lived a scaled-down life. And in the eight years since the death of his wife from cancer, he’d moved to a smaller house, sparsely furnished with old books, old furniture and old electronics he had collected over a lifetime.
As Jessica sorted through the curated collection of belongings, she saved the family photographs, some articles of clothing and a few old books. She donated the rest to the Salvation Army and local library. She thought she was home free, as she walked down to the basement. The computers would be quick work.
But in that basement, Jessica discovered he wasn’t a hoarder of physical possessions, but digital material — hundreds of pages of writings, thousands of digital photographs and tens of thousands of unread e-mails. As she delved into the mess, she finally uncovered why her father had become a living ghost before her eyes — only to be left with unanswerable questions after his actual death.
We’re fascinated by hoarders and hoarding, and our interest fuels hugely popular TV shows like A&Es “Hoarders” and TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” On some level, many of us can secretly relate. After all, we all have clutter of our own, whether it’s piles of papers on a table, a stash of books we can’t get rid of or old clothes in a closet. There’s a line between clutter and hoarding, however, and we wonder what pushes us over the edge.
But understanding digital clutter is another matter entirely. Because digital hoarding is virtual in nature, some have a hard time taking it as seriously as physical hoarding. Some say e-hoarding is just a more pejorative way of saying someone is disorganized digitally — just because someone has thousands of unread e-mails, they reason, doesn’t make them a digital hoarder. How can having a few thousand unread e-mails hurt anyone?
Yet Jessica discovered just how complicated it is to wade through reams of digital clutter. When she switched on her father’s computer and opened its folders, she was shocked at the clutter of desktop icons.
“He still had programs installed over ten years ago,” Jessica says. “I’m talking hundreds of old programs. It made the computer run like molasses.”
When she clicked on his e-mail client, she found 20,000 unread, and tens of thousands of read, e-mails. Mostly spam: promotions, mailing lists, and other annoyances.
But important e-mails were peppered in that mess, included bills he’d neglected to pay, personal messages with far-flung family members and attachments with family photographs.
“I thought I could simply delete all the e-mails and deal with it that way,” Jessica says. “Then, I realized there was important stuff mixed in with the crap — and it was going to take a lot of time to sort through it all.”
Jessica tediously scanned the inbox, and a simple process became more byzantine with each new discovery.
“It was like a detective trail,” Jessica adds. “You’d think you were close, and suddenly you’d unearth a whole other cache of stuff to deal with, like folders within folders.” She uncovered bills she had to settle, evidence of his sometimes reckless spending.
She also learned some uncomfortable truths. “It’s not fun to open an e-mail and realize it’s a bill for a bunch of porn he ordered,” she says.
The process, it seemed, was never-ending. “And I hadn’t even touched the actual computer files yet,” Jessica says. “I’ve seen disorganization when it comes to computers and inboxes — I’m disorganized in that respect. But this was a whole new level.” Even though his computers took up only one room, the psychic space they demanded was larger than expected.
Hoarding itself has only been recently studied by psychologists, with the focus mostly on those who collect physical objects, whether it’s old newspapers, canned goods or even animals, in excessive quantities.
These large quantities can clog up rooms and hallways, providing a breeding ground for vermin and insects, creating fire hazards and psychological distress between family members. Child protective services, for example, can remove children from hoarding parents, due to the dangers of the living conditions.
Hoarders often deny they have a problem or seem unable to do anything about it. They often don’t “see” the mess or danger they’re creating around them, or are blind or unable to deal with its effects. They may attempt to clean out a box or a shelf, only to get mired in deciding what to keep or toss. To them, the “collections” can be symbols of a time or person they miss, or even an expectation of hope in the future — people hoard craft or art materials, for example, with the intention of making something beautiful or useful one day, though they never get to it.
Hoarding was originally thought of as an extension of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but studies say OCD only accounts for about one-in-five cases of hoarding, according to Washington Post. Often hoarding is related to ADHD, or it shows up in tandem with grief, depression, anxiety and other underlying, unresolved emotions.
As Jessica moved beyond sorting her dad’s e-mail to his actual computer files, she saw these patterns at work. His main computer was filled with files and programs from the early-2000s. She became suspicious. Where were the recent files?
She found the answer in hard drives, storage devices and computers, all filled with files. He also burned CDs and DVDs of pictures and videos, and filled boxes with jump drives, floppy disks and archaic storage devices clogged with more files.
“My dad kept everything. And it appeared that when he started running out of space, he simply ran out to get himself another hard drive,” Jessica said. “I discovered boxes and boxes of hard drives, hundreds of them. All of them chock-full of stuff. He must’ve spent thousands of dollars on additional storage — money he often didn’t have.”
The files themselves were a polyglot of material. Jessica discovered Word documents of his writings, e-mail records of his finances, old video footage he digitized, collected research he did on his hobbies and interests, as well as audio files of voicemails that his wife had left.
“He must’ve devoted hours upon hours to this digital archive. It was like he was trying to store his entire life digitally,” she says. “It was really overwhelming to sort through, but as I did, I saw some patterns.”
When Jessica looked at the timestamps, she realized he began accumulating the digital material during two major events: his retirement, and the unexpected death of his wife years earlier.
“My dad was one of those men who held the same job for nearly 30 years, and I think losing that was a big blow to his identity,” Jessica says. “It was almost like my dad gave himself a second job when he retired. And it had everything to do with his computer. Gathering all those files must’ve made him feel busy and useful in some way, in a way he didn’t feel anymore.”
But what stood out was how her dad’s hoarding related to her mother. “There were hard drives and jump drives and CDs of photos, pictures, scans of her letters,” Jessica says. “Her death really hit us all hard, but especially him — but he didn’t really deal with it, at least from my point of view. He didn’t want to talk about it, and seemed to move forward as if nothing happened. But looking at all those hard drives full of stuff — we realized he never really got over it.”
Instead, he retreated into a digital archive. “Just the huge amount of stuff made me realize how much time he must’ve spent on it,” she adds. “Time we could’ve spent together, I guess. Time we could’ve used to reach out to him and try to pull him closer in the family. We thought he was keeping busy, but we realized he was probably spending time creating this digital monument.”
One of the biggest problems with digital hoarding is its virtual nature. Because we don’t see it, we don’t see the immediate problems. Digital hoarding doesn’t create the hazardous conditions that physical hoarding does — there’s no danger of rat or flea infestations, for example, or fire hazards. It’s easier for it to go beneath the radar, as Jessica discovered, which makes it more difficult to pinpoint when it becomes a problem.
Others also argue that with the cloud and the increasingly availability of massive physical and cloud storage, there’s no need to delete anything electronic anymore, and risk the danger of losing important information. Everyone can be an e-hoarder now, with little consequence.
But digital hoarding — and even its lesser cousin, digital clutter — does have considerable environmental effects. Servers and computers we store information on devour power and electricity, which still primarily come from fossil fuels. In less than 10 years, according to Forbes, data centers alone will devour more electricity than France, Brazil, Canada and Germany.
By 2020, data centers will indirectly produce more carbon emissions than the airline industry. And while hardware costs are leveling off, energy costs are only rising, making storing data a costlier proposition in the future.
Data hoarding also has more immediate effects on our mental capacities. Photos, bookmarks, e-mails, files, e-books — they all demand some mental energy to process, even if your brain decides to overlook or bypass it. “Digital hoarding is a huge problem. There is so much available storage, we don’t have to make decisions anymore,” David Nowell, a neuropsychologist specializing in attention issues, told the Wall Street Journal. “The problem isn’t that it slows down your computer — it slows down your brain.”
We often hoard digital material because we worry we won’t be able to find it again. Ironically, the accumulation begins to overwhelm and paralyze us, yet we can’t seem to delete it because we need it later.
Mentally, this pattern resembles the brain chemistry of physical hoarders — scans of their brains show their decision-making centers become paralyzed and have a difficult time distinguishing between an object with genuine importance and ones that aren’t important. And when it comes to “letting go” of that random object, they find themselves paralyzed.
Even if we’re not digital hoarders, most can agree that digital clutter itself is becoming more of an issue. We’re inundated with digital data all the time, and it’s easy to let it sit there than process, answer or delete it.
Experts in digital organization counsel a combination of best practices and good habits to avoid becoming overwhelmed with data. They advocate, for example, practicing “inbox zero,” an approach that requires users to keep inboxes as empty as possible, answering messages, filing them into folders if they’re important, or deleting them altogether every day.
They advise unsubscribing from newsletters and mailing lists you don’t read, and setting spam filters as high as possible to filter out unwanted messages. These days, it’s also easy to stream media instead of downloading it and taking up space.
More importantly, they advocate using a discerning mindset when it comes to what information you want to store — do you really need twenty attempts of the same group photo? Take the best and simply delete the rest.
If you’re sitting on top of an electronic backlog, experts suggest declaring a kind of “data bankruptcy.” For example, delete all unread e-mails, and then ask top contacts to resend anything urgent and important. Or delete media files you haven’t accessed in over a year. Think you’re going to read those e-books you downloaded on vacation last year? Chances are, you probably won’t, so just get rid of them.
Jessica is convinced that digital hoarding is a real issue. “I would’ve laughed at the idea ages ago, but having spent weeks going through millions of files, I don’t anymore,” she says. “Things were already tough with my dad’s unexpected passing and medical bills, but going through this just felt so hopeless and overwhelming. We had no idea where something important could be lurking, so we had to scour everything to make sure. It felt like the whole thing would never end.”
Emotionally exhausted, Jessica ended up hiring people to go through the scores of electronic storage with them. The team unearthed financial loose ends to tie up, as well as reorganized the important files.
“Ironically, I ended up buying a lot of cloud storage for that stuff,” she says. “But it was worth it just to get rid of all those computers and drives and junk.”
Still, the herculean task didn’t compare to the unexpected emotional revelations she unearthed. “It was like stumbling on my dad’s inner life and realizing he was much sadder and more isolated than we thought,” Jessica says. “That was not a great feeling to add to the pile of tumultuous emotions we were already dealing with.”
“In a strange way, we stumbled upon the answer to a mystery we had no idea was there,” she adds. She becomes quiet for a moment, thinking over her words carefully. “It’s interesting, because after my mom’s death years ago, dad did get more quiet and withdrawn,” she says. “I thought he was still okay, though. He would come to family gatherings like my kids’ birthday, and I guess I thought it was just enough he was there. I’d come over and check on him, and everything on the surface looked fine: neat, clean, orderly. He seemed busy — a bit more absent-minded. More distant and withdrawn, but then again, that’s dad.”
“Now, though, I have this sad image of him going through his daily routine, and then coming home to sit in front of his computer for hours, the screen lighting up his face in a dark room, alone with his memories and loneliness and isolation,” Jessica tells me. “Nothing but pictures and files and e-mail for company. That really breaks my heart. It brings up questions of what I could’ve done while he was alive to make sure he was happier. But now I’ll never know.” ♦