The Weight of Data

[As ever, this is on the BBC News website too]

I have just deleted fifteen gigabytes of data from my laptop. Gone are the unwanted video clips, the duplicated photos, the filed columns and the unlistened-to music, all consigned to the great Trashcan in the sky.

Yet it weighs the same as it always did, just over 2 kilos to carry around with me from meeting to café to home every day.

And it’s still 2.75 cm thick even though it now contains significantly less debris.

When I clear out my paper files the recycling box rapidly fills up as my shelves are emptied of unwanted reports, old drafts of completed work and the rest of the detritus that accumulates around any freelance journalist.

And once I’m done the folders are thinner and lighter, offering me clear evidence of a job well done and rewarding me by the change in their physical aspect.

There are no such rewards for the assiduous hard drive cleaner, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it is so easy to live with a bulging mail inbox – it doesn’t actually bulge.

Perhaps the covers of our computers should change colour to indicate just how cluttered they are, so the social embarrassment of pulling out a pulsating red laptop at a meeting would be the equivalent of having your briefcase spill open on the escalator to reveal half-eaten sandwiches and unread papers.

Or we could develop the data equivalent of the diving tanks on submarines, taking on extra water as the number of unopened 10Mb files on your hard drive increases.

Somehow I don’t think this will catch on.

Part of the problem is that new technologies have entered our lives so rapidly that we have not yet developed the appropriate psychological mechanisms needed to cope with them.

Anyone over the age of thirty can probably remember the first time they used a computer, never mind their first mobile phone.  Mine was half way through my student years when I used an Acorn Atom, the precursor of the BBC Microcomputer, to run an experiment I was doing as part of my psychology degree.

That means that many of the assumptions we make when dealing with computers are actually based on our childhood experiences with physical objects like books. So we should not be surprised if the strategies we adopt do not always work properly.

It bears some resemblance to the different ways people find their way around the physical world, something I also learned while studying psychology at university.
Route learners remember the specific instructions needed to get from point A to B, recalling whether to turn left or right, which waymarks to look out for and so on.

This can be very efficient, but if you stray from the path then you can be in real trouble, as anyone who has tried to follow a garbled set of directions from the pub to a party will tell you.

It’s also tricky when you try to get back to where you started from, as routes tend not to be easily reversible.

The alternative is to build maps in your head, constructing an internal model of the space on which you then ‘draw’ the route, making links between the instructions you have been given and a larger representation.

With a good enough map you can get back on track if you take a wrong turn, and it’s relatively straightforward to turn around and retrace your steps because you aren’t relying in looking out for a church spire that is actually behind you.

Something similar seems to happen when it comes to navigating the world of data stored on our computers, the world that SF writer William Gibson named ‘cyberspace’.

Most of us, and nearly all of my generation, are route learners in cyberspace, managing to find our way through layers of folders, network connections, URLs and social graphs by recalling links and connections.

But soon we will have a generation capable of dealing with the complexity by building maps and managing internal models of the information spaces we all spend so much time interacting with.

My son has spent his entire life surrounded by computers and is a keen and enthusiastic gamer. When he plays Oblivion or Halo or Star Wars Lego he immerses himself in the virtual world shown on the screen in a way that I find simply impossible, no matter how hard I try.

I am always conscious of the controller in my hand and the flickering pixels on the screen in front of me as I wander through the game world. He is inside it, projecting his awareness into the point of view of the character he is playing and aware of the game environment surrounding him.

He knows I don’t have this skill, and every now and then when we’re playing a co-operative level on Halo he will turn and shoot me, just to make the point clear.

The question is whether this ability to perceive the on-screen world as an informational ecosystem will be carried over to the relatively dull context of files, folders and hyperlinks that we see on our laptops and desktop PCs.

If it happens it will mark a significant development in our relationship with computers, as we will no longer need the real-world indicators that have worked for us so far, like the weight of a report or the number of pages left to read in a book.

Bill’s Links

Acorn Atom:
Route learning vs map learning:

3 Replies to “The Weight of Data”

  1. A friend has a paperwork filing system known as his Time Redundant Storage. It consisted of a shoebox that he filled with correspondence as it arrived. When it was full he binned the oldest letter from the back and replaced it with the latest at the front. Utter genius.

    As for remembering routes, it’s now recognised that London cabbies develop a larger hippocampus as they study “the knowledge”. They can certainly remember the longest route to any given destination.

  2. “Perhaps the covers of our computers should change colour to indicate just how cluttered they are, so the social embarrassment of pulling out a pulsating red laptop at a meeting would be the equivalent of having your briefcase spill open on the escalator to reveal half-eaten sandwiches and unread papers.”

    Yes! That might help to get my users to get proactive about the size of their mailbox. You should patent it.

  3. The other day I remarked to a friend who asked how my writing was going, that it was simply not as satisfying to delete a file in frustration as it is to tear a piece of paper… you can’t cellotape it back together either, a few clicks and it’s right back there so you even skip the regret stage.

    I’ve pondered this mapping thing myself on some level… I think it was when I saw that helmet that allowed thought patterns to control stuff — and I know I wondered if I’d be the generation too old to truly grasp it when it eventually surfaces.

    It’s quite amazing now thinking about it, how we still equate computer things to tangible objects.

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