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The Internet May Encourage ‘Information Hoarding’

If you like how the Internet remembers every single detail of your life, does that make you a hoarder?
September 27, 2010

If you have yet to see TLC’s documentary show Hoarding: Buried Alive, and you don’t know what hoarding is - it’s a condition in which people compulsively acquire and keep things. The brief clip below gives you a sense of how this psychological disorder manifests and how crippling it can be.

Last night as I watched the show for the first time, I was struck by how familiar some of the homes were. That’s when I realized that my own parents, whom I had always euphemistically described as “pack rats,” were hoarders.

The next thing that struck me as I looked around my own home, despite its relative orderliness, was that perhaps they had passed this trait on to me.

Then I thought about the reasons I enjoy being a journalist and a blogger: immersing myself in the day’s news, spending idle moments cataloging potential story ideas, the security of knowing that I always have something interesting to read in my gargantuan Instapaper queue…

That’s when I started Googling “Information Hoarding.”

It turns out this is a real condition. The Fall 2006 edition of the OCD Newsletter has a nice write-up on the subject (pdf), covering everything from people who collect magazines and post-it notes to those who stuff their browsers with links.

The question is: Is the Internet a force for good or evil when it comes to hoarding information?

Has endless access to a bottomless pool of knowledge and distraction, all of which can be recalled in an instant via Google, eliminated the pathological dimension of obsessive information collecting, by eliminating the physicality of the hoarded item, or is the ‘net more like crack for a relapsed addict, encouraging all of us - even those who are sub-pathological - to go deeper and deeper into habits that cost us the one resource that is scarce in this marketplace of free ideas: time.

From the Information Hoarding: The Need to Know and Remember (pdf), by psychologist Renae M. Reinardy:

“Cyber-clutter can occur in individuals who do not have visible clutter in their home or work-place but have thousands of pieces of information saved on the computer or on CDs. Many information hoarders also get stuck in life because they are still gathering information on what they want to do, but never achieve the sense of knowing needed to actually make the decision to do what they desire.”

Dr. Reinardy identifies information hoarding as anything from feeling an excessive need to keep up with the day’s news to obsessive online researching of purchases in an attempt to reach a state of “fully knowing” what to buy.

Reading Dr. Reinardy’s article on the subject, you can’t help but think that the the accelerated news cycle of the web is encouraging sub-pathological or even pathological levels of information hoarding in nearly everyone.

At the least, the internet caters to this kind of information addiction: every site produces dozens of items of new content a day, all of them demanding your attention. There’s so much material that it has to be further organized by other aggregators and social news sites, which are in turn re-digested by the giant, churning knowledge engine.

The difference between information hoarding and the regular kind is that information hoarding has the potential to be invisible. No one knows how much unlistened-to music, unread material or unwatched movies you have stored on your hard drive, unless your habit has grown so out of control that you’re one of those people with a network-attached home RAID array.

What’s more, nothing in the internet economy, which revolves solely around the ability of people like me to waste the time of people like you, has any stop signs or warning labels affixed to it. Who could possibly argue with being more knowledgeable, more connected, more informed? Here’s a great example - this is what my Twitter client, Tweetdeck, looks like every time I pop it open (which happens often):

And I’m hardly alone: Tweetdeck is the most popular Twitter client.

The opportunity cost, of course, is that we’re all inside stroking our iPads instead of… well, you know, whatever it is people did before the web. I seem to have lost touch with that bygone time. Maybe I can Google it…

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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