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Right click, empty bin: The complicated existence of our digital files

Taking out the digital trash.

Art by Nandini Dhir

Are you sure you want to permanently erase the items in the Bin?

You can’t undo this action.

This is the kind of pop up warning that appears if you try to empty many types of digital bins. It is often accompanied by a danger icon, featuring an exclamation mark to remind users that once they confirm the deletion, the files once stored within the bin are now really gone. 

To a certain extent, this makes sense. If you accidentally delete a file, you can firstly try to catch it in the bin, and restore it back to your documents, and then, secondly, you can check if it’s in the bin before permanently deleting its contents. These steps can be particularly helpful if the document that you moved turned out to be the crucial piece of information you needed to get something done. Although, if you were to throw out a handwritten piece of work in real life, intentionally or unintentionally, there won’t be any pop ups to remind you that you can’t get it back. 

In the article “Computer Files are Going Extinct,” media technology writer Simon Pitt describes how the files on our devices are often digital replications of physical and analogue parts of our lives. An icon for a page can refer to a document in a word processor, a notepad icon represents an app made to be your digital notepad, complete with its own digitally reproduced notepaper textured backgrounds, and so on. 

As these technologies encouraged users to create more content in a variety of forms, the initially limited storage of devices would quickly fill. After all, if a shelf can be filled with folders, so too could our devices. Digital bins, or recycling bins or trash folders or archives and many other similarly functioning folders provide users an easy way to maintain free storage on their devices and remove files, programs and virtual clutter that they no longer use. 

In a graphical user interface, this often came to be represented by an icon of an actual bin, with changing graphics to signify that it was full or empty. The supposedly simple feature of modern computing has been the subject of many more changes and arguments, including 1988 legal action between Apple and Microsoft, which prompted consideration about how much of the function, structure and design of computer systems could be unique.

But in a time where we don’t rely on floppy disks, or even CDs or USBs, do we worry about taking out our digital trash anymore? 

As technological development took storage solutions from expensive and small capacity to affordable and large volume, there is now the ability to create, and keep, even more without having to consider deleting any of our files or programs. Even when the device’s physical storage isn’t enough, cloud storage solutions continue to become increasingly popular with many offering decent amounts of storage for free before needing to join a paid storage plan. These paid storage plans often include options for a terabyte of personal, or shared, storage. For reference, a single terabyte could hold five hundred hours of video or, as Dropbox describes it, six and half million pages of documents which, if printed out, would fill one thousand and three hundred filing cabinets.

Although the long term feasibility of these kinds of free solutions is less clear given the many global impacts of the services and ongoing changes on many of the systems, like Google’s recent changes to what counts as storage on Google Drive, and what happens when the free limit is exceeded or the account is inactive for a longer period of time. Nevertheless, multiple terabyte hard drives and solid state drives are regularly sold for as little as less than one hundred dollars, to a few hundred dollars. 

A quick Google search for deleting files or freeing up space on a variety of devices spawns pages of how-to guides offering manual and automatic ways to clear space on devices and why just emptying the bin might not have given you back the space needed, or solutions for the storage mystery known as system files. One such automatic solution offered is to set up automatic emptying of the trash bin, but if files don’t end up sent in the bin initially, the success of this is somewhat limited. Many of these articles suggest a recurring need to delete files, yet focus on avoiding annoying pop ups that warn users of running out of space by ostensibly deep cleaning your device to find the files that you can’t see or easily locate. 

If we can buy more, or get it for free, do we ever really run out of space? More and more, it seems a lot less like making decisions about what we create or keep on our computers, and more about what is, ostensibly, the most space saving solution.

At the end of the day, what are we really saving it for?

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