Confessions of a Digital Hoarder

I used to look at this and think: one day, this will all be mine.The collections many geeks amass wind up being one step short of hoarding. We insist upon having every example of whatever thing strikes our fancy; for me, this is a trifecta of video games, movies, and music. For a long time, it wasn’t uncommon for people to enter my home for the first time and be rendered speechless by the bookcases lined with various types of optical media and video game cartridges. I would boast proudly of the fact that my DVD collection alone was approaching 400 titles, and I was very proud of the fact that I’d wired nine video game consoles to a single television set. My home was (and remains) a nerd paradise, due in no small part to the geeky habit of collecting.

In the late 90’s, collecting music became remarkably easier with the popularity of the MP3 and the rise of piracy platforms like the original incarnation of Napster. The playlist replaced the mix tape, and my once-overflowing shelf of compact discs remained somewhat stagnant. I still purchased albums by artists I really liked, but one-hit wonders and music for friends began to litter my music library. Girls I dated would add their music to my collection, and vice versa. By 2005, my music library held something in the area of 4,000 songs and 15 gigabytes of hard drive space. I purchased my first iPod with a bonus check and proceeded to re-rip many of my albums at a higher bitrate so I could hear my favorite songs in higher quality.

A few years down the road, I purchsed an 80 gigabyte video iPod that was I would fill equally with music and tv shows (mostly The Office). On a fateful night, likely due to my own meddling, my laptop bit the dust. Having lived paycheck-to-paycheck for some time, the idea of buying a new computer outright was pretty much impossible. For a few days, I tried to repair the iBook, and though I could get it running for a few days, the hard drive would always freak out within 48 hours.

My iTunes library was, thankfully, entirely synchronized to the iPod. Though Apple didn’t support syncing files from the iPod to a computer, there were ways to make that happen. Still, without a computer to sync to, my music library was stuck in a sort of limbo, never improving or evolving. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling the loss of my computer, and it was then that I made a somewhat life-altering decision: I was going to sell my rare video games to fund the purchase of a new laptop.

The realization was simple: I used my computer ever single day. I used it to listen to music, to communicate, to read, to educate myself, and to just pass time. My collection languished on a shelf, there to impress the occasional onlooker but little else. Many of the games I’d once loved were now playable via Nintendo’s Virtual Console on the Wii, and, if I was really strapped for cash, most old games were playable for free(albeit illegally) thanks to the magic of emulation. So, what was more important: a stack of plastic used to denote status among people with very little status to begin with, or a small portable device that connected me to the world? The choice was obvious.

One of several bins I used to keep under my bed or in the closet.I never had any incredibly rare games. I wasn’t one of those people who bought games and left them sealed in their original shrink wrap, so I wasn’t pulling in huge amounts of money for each title. In aggregate, however, I did take in well over $1,000, and it was enough to get me halfway to a new MacBook Pro. My parents agreed to loan me enough to cover the rest so that I could buy the laptop I wanted rather than buy one that was just enough to get buy. I named that portable powerhouse “Faust,” as I’d sold my soul to get another object I desired even more.

I didn’t give up anything in the way of music or movies, however, and the collection on my computer continued to grow. My music library was now over 50 gigabytes(10,000 songs), and I had to start choosing which movies and tv shows would fill the remaining space on my iPod rather than just throw the entire library on it. I replaced the 250 gigabyte hard drive in my laptop with one double the size, and proceeded to fill that one, too. I started burning the smaller iPod-formatted videos I’d made and/or downloaded onto DVD-R discs so I could free up space on my computer for new content. 

Through all this, I became not only a hoarder of digital bits, but a resolute completionist. If I had one song by an artist, I had to have the entire album that song came from. If I liked an artist, I needed their entire discography. I’d buy every season of a TV show I liked, and every movie in a series, even if I didn’t care much for some of them (SpiderMan 3, for example). I never deleted anything.

In late 2010, I started making a much more decent wage and undertook an even crazier ambition: I built a media server. I got hold of a used MacMini and hooked it up to my TV. I already had a pair of external hard drives to hold the shows I’d been hoarding, and a second one that was even bigger to act as a backup in case the first one failed. With the help of Plex, a free piece of software that manages and serves up media, I found myself with instant access to any form of passive entertainment I could ever want. In time, I collected an array of large hard drives that until recently held over three terabytes (that’s over 3,000 gigabytes) of video and nearly 70 gigabytes of music(over 14,000 songs).

I found myself falling into that same rut of wanting to have everything — just in case. I wanted to have the perfect song for any occasion, and access to any tv show I could think of in case the whim to watch it came over me. Every Netflix disc that arrived in my mailbox was ripped and moved to the digital library, regardless of whether I liked the film. Because, who knows, maybe one day someone would want to watch it. I was ripping Blu-Ray movies at full quality. That’s around 10 gigabytes an hour!

It got to the point that the only way I’d be able to add more media would be to build another hard drive array — something that costs hundreds of dollars I wasn’t looking to spend. I started browsing through my collection of TV shows and found ones I had no intention of watching again. I found shows I’d put on there for friends to watch that I had no interest in. Some for friends I wasn’t even talking to anymore! “Just in case” was never going to happen. I had no intention of watching the first season of Grey’s Anatomy; I’d downloaded it in case a friend wanted to watch the show from the beginning again. Deleted. I was never going to watch Coupling; I’d converted it to iPod format for a friend. Deleted. And so on. I freed up almost 500 gigabytes of space.

Last year, Apple made an announcement I’d been waiting for since the original iPhone: a phone that had enough storage for a large music library. A 64 GB iPhone 4S is still too small to hold my entire music library, but I was sure that if I got rid of some of the music I didn’t listen to, it would fit. I’d only feel the need to carry one device instead of two(an iPod Classic and a smartphone)! Through it all, I still felt the need to have access to every song I’d ever heard, just in case.

The emptiest my DVD shelf has been in over a decade.For the last couple weeks, I have been pruning my iTunes library. I’m down to 9,187 songs, and little over 48 gigabytes of space taken up. I’m not done. Each song I delete stings a little bit, but at the same time, a burden feels lifted. This library is for me, after all. Why was I keeping songs I didn’t even like? Am I ever going to find myself wanting to listen to Duncan Sheik? (Answer: no.) Do I really need every remix of Enjoy the Silence ever written? (Answer: no. Plus, my buddy Dmitry probably has them all should the unlikely need ever arise). Will I ever have the free time to listen to old episodes of Retronauts or Judge John Hodgman?(Answer: not likely.)

Collecting is a time-honored nerd tradition. But I don’t run a museum. I don’t even have the space for “one of everything.” My need to have it all eats up time and money, and I don’t even enjoy the majority of it. I have video games on my shelf I have yet to play. Albums I’ve never listened to all the way through. Books I have every intention of reading, but haven’t. And more than that, stories of my own I should be writing.

Forget fear: collecting is the mind-killer. The more I break free of the need to possess everything, the freer I become.

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