Cy­ber­hoard­ing

Most of us havean un­man­age­able num­ber of apps, pho­tos, emails and doc­u­ments. But a few easy tweaks could bring it all back un­der con­trol says Alex Hern

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page -

Five ways to de­clut­ter

You have Marie Kon­doed your wardrobe, re­cy­cled your old news­pa­pers and taken un­wanted books to the char­ity shop. It may feel as if you have suc­ceeded in de­clut­ter­ing your life, but then you turn on your phone or open up your lap­top and find a whole load more to tidy up.

Some­times, it gets out of con­trol. Just this week, the snap­pily named Euro­pean Prob­lem­atic Use of the In­ter­net Re­search Net­work warned of the dan­gers of “cy­ber­hoard­ing”, an in­abil­ity to delete in­for­ma­tion gath­ered on­line. Re­searchers weren’t sure whether this was a new con­di­tion or an ex­ten­sion of a more com­mon off­line af­flic­tion.

For most of us, though, there is hope: just a few easy tweaks (and a cou­ple of harder ones) can help you to get your cy­ber-col­lec­tions un­der con­trol.

Too many apps

If you have used a smart­phone for any length of time, you prob­a­bly have pages upon pages of apps in­stalled and lit­tle ap­petite for im­pos­ing any or­der on them. You may, just about, have a home screen you’re happy with, but ev­ery­thing else lies in a jum­bled mess, with the apps ar­ranged vaguely in the or­der in which they were in­stalled. Or per­haps rem­nants of ear­lier or­gan­i­sa­tion at­tempts, in the form of mostly empty fold­ers.

Here’s the so­lu­tion: ar­range the icons for aes­thet­ics, not use, and then ig­nore the home screen en­tirely and search for any­thing you need to use. My phone has all its apps sorted into 12 fold­ers, based on colour: blue apps, green apps, orange apps and so on. If I need an app, I use the search bar. Usu­ally, the app is al­ready there be­cause your phone knows a scary amount about you, and can pre­dict your needs bet­ter than your own mother; if not, just a cou­ple of clicks will bring it up. And if you have for­got­ten its name, well, you can prob­a­bly re­mem­ber the colour of the icon, right?

Messy desk­top

The dig­i­tal desk­top is a lot like the real one. For some peo­ple, it’s a space to be kept clean and or­dered, a sub­strate on which work rests. “A dis­or­dered desk is an ev­i­dence of a dis­or­dered brain,” as the say­ing goes. (Prompt­ing the ob­vi­ous ques­tion: “What does an empty desk show?”) For oth­ers, it’s a handy flat sur­face on which any and all doc­u­ments are kept, for ever. You may be one of those peo­ple who make oth­ers scream when they use your com­puter for the first time.

The real so­lu­tion is the same on and off­line: clear your desk, you slob. But if you want a slightly quicker an­swer, try the har­ried of­fice worker’s so­lu­tion and put ev­ery­thing in lit­tle piles.

Mac users who up­grade to the lat­est ver­sion of the op­er­at­ing sys­tem, Mo­jave, can sim­ply rightclick on the desk­top and se­lect “Use stacks”. By de­fault, that shuf­fles all the files on the desk­top into small pseudo-fold­ers, ar­ranged by file type. If you’re not a Mac user, or can’t up­grade to Mo­jave, there’s noth­ing else quite so snappy, but it’s fairly easy to do ap­prox­i­mately the same thing. Just right click on the desk­top and se­lect “Sort by kind” or “Sort by file type”, then drag files into a few fold­ers man­u­ally. The trick is to not over­think it: come up with a sim­ple sort­ing scheme you can do with­out think­ing, rather than a com­plex one that takes men­tal en­ergy to im­ple­ment.

‘Many of us use our in­boxes as a to-do list. But a to-do list that can be added to by strangers at any time’

Over­flow­ing in­box

The boul­der of a mod­ern Sisy­phus is his or her email in­box. Un­like ev­ery­thing else on this list, an email in­box isn’t un­der your con­trol: whether and when it gets filled is en­tirely up to oth­ers, mak­ing reg­u­lat­ing the flow a spirit-sap­ping chal­lenge.

One trick is to ac­cept that lack of con­trol and move on from the in­box. Many of us use our in­boxes as a to-do list. But a to-do list that can be added to by strangers at any time, day or night, is a recipe for dis­as­ter. In­stead, use a real to-do list and leave the in­box to its fate as a quagmire.

Or take the other ap­proach and bring it un­der con­trol with the nu­clear op­tion: email bank­ruptcy. Just a few clicks is all it takes to se­lect ev­ery email you have re­ceived and delete the lot. Just a few more clicks, and you can send a short email to ev­ery­one you know, ask­ing them to re­send any­thing im­por­tant. If they don’t, it wasn’t worth read­ing in the first place.

A less ex­treme form of the same re­sult can be achieved by tak­ing ad­van­tage of nat­u­ral breaks in your work: hol­i­days, ill­nesses and the like. When you get back from the time away, you can use your de­par­ture date as the cut­off: any­thing sent be­fore you left wasn’t ur­gent enough to do be­fore your hol­i­day and is prob­a­bly ob­so­lete. So delete it. And if it isn’t, well, they’ll get in touch again.

Photo frus­tra­tion

It’s easy to jus­tify photo hoard­ing. The point of pho­tos is to store trea­sured mem­o­ries, so surely the more the bet­ter? But with smart­phones, the quan­tity can end up be­com­ing over­whelm­ing, leav­ing even the good mem­o­ries im­pos­si­ble to find. Worse still, the bal­loon­ing stor­age space re­quired can be­gin to ex­ert its own pres­sure.

The trick isn’t to clear out your col­lec­tion – it is to bring in some­one else to act as dig­i­tal ar­chiv­ist for you. If you let them, Ap­ple (for iOS users) and Google (for An­droid and Win­dows users) have so­lu­tions. The first thing to do is em­brace the cloud – even if it means pay­ing a bit. For £2.50 a month, Ap­ple gives iOS users enough stor­age space to store all the pic­tures they could ever take (and to make back­ups of their de­vices to boot). The same ser­vice is free with Google, but, as ever, you pay with your data: the search firm will use your up­loaded images to im­prove its own ma­chine learn­ing sys­tems.

Then let the al­go­rithms do the cu­ra­tion for you. Ap­ple and Google Pho­tos of­fer fea­tures that would have seemed mag­i­cal just a decade ago, from text search for images (let­ting you find “dogs”, “Christ­mas” or “beach hol­i­days”) to au­to­matic se­lec­tion of pic­tures – al­go­rith­mi­cally trim­ming your 500 hol­i­day pic­tures to just 40 or so in­ter­est­ing ones.

Trail of dis­as­ter

One of the trick­ier things about dig­i­tal clut­ter is that it’s pos­si­ble to build it up with­out know­ing or mean­ing to. Ev­ery day, as we go about our lives, we leave a trail of data be­hind us. At best, it doesn’t help us, just those who har­vest it; and at worst, the in­for­ma­tion can be ac­tively dan­ger­ous if it gets stolen.

Did you know, for in­stance, that Google tracks your lo­ca­tion? Even if you told it not to? Or that Face­book uses in­for­ma­tion oth­ers give it about you to tar­get ad­verts?

So delete it. Un­less you are con­sciously build­ing an ar­chive, or will def­i­nitely need ac­cess to the data in the fu­ture, it’s prob­a­bly in your in­ter­est to clear up that data ex­haust. That means delet­ing his­tor­i­cal tweets and old Face­book posts, clos­ing ac­counts for ser­vices you aren’t us­ing and maybe even spin­ning up new ac­counts pe­ri­od­i­cally to thwart the creepier web gi­ants out there. It can be a bit of work, but be­ing forced to re­friend ev­ery­one you know is a good way of re­al­is­ing that you don’t need 2,000 so­cial me­dia con­nec­tions after all.

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