Letting Go of the Digital Hoard

Today, I finally let go of most of the digitized information I gathered and collected over the last ten years while building my career as a network engineer. I had all kinds of resources organized on my computer just waiting for that one day I knew would come eventually when I would need it for reference. I would have the exact information I was looking for, and because I kept it all in a searchable database, I could recall it instantly. Only that day never actually came.

My digital hoard contained many different references. Vendor white papers and documentation I’d collected, blog posts and even entire blog websites, all the RFCs, many IEEE documents, various training materials, various presentation slide decks, and so much more. When I first subscribed to O’Reilly Safari, I created browser bookmarks for every book I had already read, and every book I thought I would either read or possibly reference some day. The list grew to nearly 400 books.

My motivation for building such a massive collection originated from fear of not having the information I wanted when I needed it. But, for the past couple of years, I had a lingering feeling that my collection was ultimately useless, despite being well-organized and keyword-searchable. Over time, I started to think more about how I reference existing content, which is usually used to produce new content of some kind. I started to realize, how can you reference something in your collection if you don’t know it is there to begin with?

That’s what the indexed search capability is for, right? It finally dawned on me that due to the nature of our industry and technology in general, if I want to learn something or create new content, whether that is a blog post or something I am getting paid for professionally, there’s a very decent chance that whatever is in my collection is going to be out of date. That’s right, in almost every case when I need to know or reference something, I am going to start with a public search engine, not my digital hoard.

Though I came to this realization awhile ago, I had a hard time letting go due to the sunk cost fallacy. After all, ten years is a long time to put into a collection. It wasn’t hurting anything to just sit there on my computer. Several gigabytes of data are no longer the burden they once were. I still kept a few resources that I have actually used and know very well, along with a few items that I know are very rare and difficult to find.

This may sound silly, but I also originally held onto much of the hoard due to respect and admiration for the people whose work I collected, especially blog posts. Many of you reading this post are included in that list. I ended up finding so many great people in our industry to follow that I started having trouble keeping up with everything. I started to simply clip the blog post or article because maybe I would read it later. But, with very few exceptions, we get less time to do these things as we progress in our careers, not more.

I realized that with the minimal amount of self-advertising I have done for my own blog posts, people are still finding my content when it is relevant to them. The same thing will continue to happen for me when I need to learn more about any particular topic. I don’t need to maintain my own private copy of everything I’ve ever found even remotely interesting. People don’t learn by osmosis. A collection of information is worthless if you don’t know what is in it beyond a superficial level, and even more so if that information is never actually used. I can let the digital hoard go, and it feels like a part of my life has been deeply uncluttered.