Digital Clutter (or why Inbox Zero is not a goal)

Digital Clutter (or why Inbox Zero is not a goal)

These days there’s a cloud of excess digital data hovering around my work–not just extra words I’ve typed but all the files I’ve collected, the images I might use for projects, the articles I intend to read. In a blog post titled, “The Data Left Behind,” Maura A. Smale reflects on data that she spent time collecting but won’t include in her final research project. Her post reminded me of one by Inger Mewburn (also known as the Thesis Whisperer) who suggests a “maybe later” folder for words that don’t make the final draft. Digital research has complicated the matter of too much data for many researchers, not the least because it exacerbates tendencies toward “productive procrastination,” (aka surfing the web).

My partner likes to chide me for the years I spent disparaging poor Twitter until I got roped into using it at a conference. Very quickly I became quite enamored with the number of connections I could make with little effort. Pretty soon I was emailing tweets with links to myself faster than I could organize them in my inbox. For a while, it was a dirty little secret how much time I spent reading articles and blogs about data management, GIS, looting of antiquities, and travel. But this fellowship has allowed me to channel those clicks and incorporate them into my reflections and research in a productive way. In fact, some of my teaching and researching philosophy is shaped by the contact I have with the wider world courtesy of a smart phone and a long commute. I’ve developed a small portfolio of organizing tools that help me reign in the chaos, namely Pocket, Evernote and its web clipper, Dropbox, Zotero, an Amazon wishlist, andPinterest, that virtual board designed to tackle this very conundrum.

But are all of my links and collected notes ‘data’ or ‘detritus’?

The results from a Google search for “digital hoarding” reveal much hand-wringing over the prospect of excess data. On a purely functional level, these saved links and articles are a record of reading and research and plans. In more nebulous terms, though, they’re not a to-do list but a security blanket to insulate against writer’s block, a safety net from the pitfalls of isolation, and my grab-bag for inspiration. But these collections aren’t entirely digital, making me think twice about the role of random finds (both digital and material) in the writing process.

Not all of it is evident in my finished research, but the environment I create and the sources I pull from all over are spun into a cocoon for my writing. To be perfectly honest, there are days when my desk at home looks like a magpie won the lottery. It’s a cabinet of curiosities from wallet-sized photos of Byzantine churches to my cat’s rubber band toys to dissertation chapter outlines scribbled on old envelopes. Right now there’s a Boden catalog, a Greek Lexicon, double-sided tape, and enough abandoned coffee cups to frighten any normal person. Incidentally, this scene has not changed since I got my digital act together. Why on earth not?

In feeling a backlash about all the pressure to let go and get organized, I’m not entirely alone. The publishers of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism promise that it “warns against a world of seamless efficiency, where everyone is forced to wear Silicon Valley’s digital straitjacket.” ‘Research’ to me means I collate and curate. I shuffle. I highlight and post sticky notes. A tiny part of me rebels against the notion of perfectly streamlined workflow or dependence on a schedule. (I’m writing this post using links and notes I put together over the course of a month in Evernote and on scraps of paper, moving between several computers and Moleskine notebooks).

If pressed to analyze this phenomenon, I’d say that first and foremost, art can be messy. And, as Seth Godin notes, any work can be art.

So how can researchers organize workflow so that they publish without perishing while maintaining enough flexibility to keep the joy of discovery?  I’m making a commitment to differentiate “inspiration” from “research.” Ideally, I’ll let the grab-bag of links be a starting point, not a strategic manifesto, so that long as the dust bunnies are kept at bay, my role as a digital scholar can safely remain more about curating and selecting ideas and less about a perfectly streamlined workflow. I certainly don’t want to “cure” myself from interacting with the world because I understand it by way of tangible objects and layers of experiences and touchstones.

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