Marie Kondo can help us clean our houses, but can her method help us with digital clutter?
Cyberhoarding causes anxiety among people unable to filter a messy modern world
It is not always easy to get organised, but, fortunately, Japanese author Marie Kondo has arrived on the scene this year to offer some welcome assistance.
Her hit TV show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, comes on the back of a 2011 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, both of which provide a modest and methodical approach to life laundry: get rid of the unnecessary and keep items that inspire “tokimeku” – or, as Kondo’s translator puts it, things that “spark joy”.
After you have undergone the “KonMari” process, your surroundings will radiate a new-found peace and tranquillity. This, at least in theory, should also instil some inner calm.
Part of the appeal of Kondo’s show is the way that it evokes a simpler time, before rampant consumerism enveloped us and the internet changed society. The chaotic nature of the digital world, completely antithetical to Kondo’s ethos, is playing an ever-greater part in our lives.
The need for digital declutter
In some parts of the world, adults spend half their day consuming content on one screen or another and that clutter, which can cloud the brain and induce anxiety, is a much harder foe to battle against than merely slimming down your wardrobe or giving away your books. As a result, the “spark joy” rule is harder to apply; the arrival of new information is relentless, and maintaining any kind of order can be a struggle. Kondo’s advice may work in the home, but our digital lives feel destined to be untidy, unmanageable and unsettling.
The design of modern devices is built around the idea of simplicity, but as they become more capable, they create more clutter. Apps, often downloaded but rarely deleted, end up strewn across multiple screens, surplus to our requirements. We have sophisticated digital filing systems at our disposal, but using them can be tedious; the most common manifestation of this is the computer desktop that becomes a dumping ground for all our files.
It is a similar story with email inboxes: they are filled relentlessly, but are rarely cleared. The technology world recognises these problems, and from time to time it offers us features and tricks to help us cope, but the battle against the disarray can feel unwinnable.
As taking pictures has become easier, we have created a glut of images, stored across multiple devices, that is almost impossible to navigate. As we download music and movies, our hard drives fill up with media we may never have the time to watch or listen to. As the apps and services we use gain new functionality – extra tabs, buttons and menu items – they can become dauntingly complex to use. And the ongoing battle for our attention results in an excess of information, frequently of low quality, that we have little time to consume, and little patience to filter. The resultant mess creates a sense that we have lost control, and this, according to studies, leads to stress and physical ill health. It is why Kondo does what she does.
The phenomenon of 'cyberhoarding'
The blame for this could be laid at the door of Silicon Valley companies who foist information upon us relentlessly. “The encouragement to consume is intrinsic to capitalism,” says Ciaran McMahon, author of a forthcoming book called The Psychology of Social Media. “What’s happening in digital spaces is simply a reflection of what has been happening in developed societies for some time.”
But if we are hard-wired to be interested in new things, the sheer quantity presented to us by the digital world is going to be overwhelming. Indeed, notifications and reminders arrive constantly. On social media, we are urged to add friends and follow more people, while online services are easy to sign up to, but harder to walk away from. It can feel as if we are caught in a digital trap.
What’s happening in digital spaces is simply a reflection of what has been happening in developed societies for some time.
Ciaran McMahon, author
Some of the responsibility is ours. The phenomenon of “cyberhoarding”, where we develop an inability to jettison digital possessions in a way Kondo might endorse, is widespread; we never bother weighing up whether a digital artefact “sparks joy” because it is easy to obtain, easy to keep, and cheap to store. But this accumulation of stuff carries a psychological weight. “The digital objects we hoard represent a part of us,” says McMahon. “Consciously deleting them is akin to taking a scalpel to our own memories, and not everyone has the psychological wherewithal to do that.”
So what's to be done?
Throwing away items related to the past, even old text messages, has been likened to “the death of a dream”, as it forces us to consider what is important in our lives. Either way, we cannot win: throwing things away is traumatic, but keeping them causes anxiety.
It was reported in October that a group called the European Problematic Use Of The Internet Research Network is looking into the cyberhoarding phenomenon. “Nobody knows the extent to which this is developing and causing problems,” said the group’s founder, Professor Naomi Fineberg.
Life is inherently messy and chaotic, and perhaps the digital world is a more accurate representation of that, unlike the superficial order imposed by Kondo. But that does not stop us from yearning for simplicity.
Digital firms claim that they are helping us by decluttering apps and services, but these changes are usually cosmetic – after all, no service wants to loosen its grip on our attention. Advice on how to cope with digital overload is plentiful, but some tips, such as listening to podcasts at faster speeds, exacerbate the problem. Tools to help us declutter can become administrative burdens. We can delete old apps, weed out old photos, unsubscribe from email lists, close down accounts with services we no longer use, employ password managers to defog our brains and download software to purge old computer files, but it doesn’t bring joy; it makes us resentful.
Perhaps one day, artificial intelligence will help us to determine what we ought to keep or throw away, but the sense of unburdening that is prompted by Kondo’s show feels unattainable. “We are going to need a new kind of cyberpsychological therapy to help us understand our digital selves,” says McMahon. “But a quarter century into the public internet, that has yet to emerge.”
The Psychology of Social Media by Ciaran McMahon is available from April 25. It can be ordered online now
Updated: February 6, 2019 07:00 PM