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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Save Everything - But Don'T Be Tidy!
Filed data or big uni-heap - what's your preference?
With storage now so cheap should companies even be thinking about deleting old data? Peter Cochrane has been having a clear out...

For the first 20 years of my working life I established and took pride in the systematic reading, cataloguing and filing of all relevant reports and publications. But little by little the amount of published material increased, as did my span of responsibilities and activities. Things began to slip, accelerating away from me.

It became imperative I develop new strategies to survive the growing tidal wave of information. Reading much faster was the first solution but that didn't hold back the tide for long. The next was getting others to read for me and provide a verbal brief. Finally I developed text précis software to take out the people. This too faltered after a while and so my current protocol goes like this:

- Is the document title interesting and relevant? If NO, then delete or destroy.
- Are the graphs, pictures and illustrations interesting and relevant? If NO, then delete or destroy.
- If YES to the above read the abstract. Is it interesting and relevant? If NO, then delete or destroy.
- If YES to the above, decide to read NOW or LATER.
- If LATER enter into electronic or paper read file.
- After skim, précis or detail reading, save electronic copies or scan in all paper pages.
- Extract any illustrations and tables of interest and file.
- File the electronic copies.
- Destroy all paper copies.

Now here comes the hard part! I average 1,000+ documents a year for filing and I don't have time to be a librarian, to studiously catalogue and file away all this material. Of necessity I had to find an alternative solution.

I have been racked by a need to be tidy, well-ordered and organised all my life. The basics were impressed upon me by my parents, schoolteachers, professors and mentors in industry. So I started by methodically filing everything in well-ordered folders - which quickly degenerated to a uni-heap system.

A single folder filing system for all random input seems a bit drastic but it works. Just throwing it all in a pile and using the FIND FUNCTION when searching seems to do the trick. I have thousands of files accumulated over decades that I never sort, review, check, order, catalogue or indeed clear out. Provided hard drives continue to get bigger and cheaper, I should be OK for the future too.

I should point out that not all of my filing is done this way. When I create a new document I file neatly in well-organised folders. And I may be just wasting my time but I don't have the courage to go the whole hog and move to a single uni-heap system. I can't shake off the teachings of parents, teachers and mentors!

When I compare all this to nature it seems genetics may be the nearest equivalent. Our genome is a library of countless past failures and bad ideas. We all carry the code of the most primitive of animals in our evolutionary record and we are mostly configured from a lot of old junk no one ever bothered to file correctly or delete.

Our basic genetic specification has never been tidied up and over 99 per cent of our genomic data could probably be thrown away and we would be none the worse for the loss. In fact we may well be significantly enhanced. So why am I worrying about the chaos of my filing system? I'm sure 99 per cent of that could be thrown away and I wouldn't even notice.

While the natural world seems fundamentally chaotic there is an interesting meld of order and chaos. Crystals are a primary example, with atoms distributed on a regular lattice to create quartz and diamond. The number of petals on a flower also observes a well-ordered pattern. Between the extremes of order and chaos we see widely differing electrical, chemical, mechanical and biological properties. Moreover, our perception and perspectives are also governed by this span. Absolute symmetry of form and architecture are often less interesting and appealing. The inclusion of a few flaws and disorder can be magical in the definition of character and attractiveness.

So does all this translate into our IT dominated lives and my filing crisis? I think so. Libraries, books and PCs are mostly semi-chaotic filing systems brimming with unwanted junk. We may strive to be tidy and ordered, to dispense with the unwanted and no longer required but we are not very good at it. The good news is that it doesn't seem to matter - our storage technology is keeping ahead of our ability to create even more junk.

This is all fortuitous as we fundamentally lack the means of deciding what data to keep or what to destroy. While our photographs, letters, emails and video files may be of interest in 100 years, our tax records can be legitimately destroyed in seven years. Some companies already destroy all paper correspondence over 12 months old - and in a fast moving world, could they afford to keep it all anyway?

I know full well that junking anything deemed useless today will see it needed tomorrow! So, my new IT credo is to just collect and record everything the looks interesting and never throw anything away. My excuse is that I can't afford the time to trawl through all my old records and sort the good from the bad. And storage space is so cheap anyway. Just buy another hard drive and file or delete the old one!

This column was dictated over a coffee in my bombsite of a garage on a freezing January day while sorting through a lot of stuff I should have got rid of years ago, including project files from my early career. Typed copy was received from my PA on the A14 between Coventry and Ipswich a few days later, edited on my G4 laptop and dispatched to via GSM passing Cambridge. And my garage now looks respectable at last!