Category Archives: Discardia

“Forgetting as a feature, not a bug”

[New] technologies are currently being viewed as either substitutes for, or possible augmentations of, human faculties. I argue that the proffered scenarios of computerized ‘help’ for human activities evident in the ubiquitous computing world tends to focus on augmentation of human remembering, with sensors and computer networks archiving vast amounts of data, but neglects to consider what augmentation might mean when it comes to that other human activity, namely, forgetting. (5)


Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is reading an article by Liam Bannon, director of the Interaction Design Centre at the University of Limerick, on forgetting as a feature, not a bug.

I started down the path of thinking about how computers currently handle the process of forgetting, and as part of that better understand what kind of metaphors are missing for the task of augmenting forgetting.

There's the notion of "garbage collection", when unwanted memory is reclaimed. That process relies on a way of marking unwanted (computer) memory as forgettable. Every so often the garbage collection process runs, slowing down the system as it does, and cleaning up the mess left behind.

Computers also have the notion and defect of a "memory leak", where unwanted memory accumulates in a state where it's taking up space but not really doing anything. A slow memory leak in a long running process will eventually bring a system down as more and more system resources are absorbed and never freed.

When memory does go bad in a computer world, it's "bitrot" – think about old tapes that have glitch errors, or more importantly old computer programs that have a hard time digesting new formats of data. This often happens when a new and improved technology foregoes compatibility with old formats, with the clean slate being easier to build from rather than re-encrufting some old system.

Cloud computing has its own feature of forgetting, in the "sunset" phase of an online service where unpopular, unprofitable, or unendearing features or services get deliberately turned off. If you had relied on that system for your external memory you are in for a rude surprise.

The worrisome aspect of computer memory is its binary nature, where a single transient glitch can render mass storage unreadable, and so rather than the healthy forgetting of the human brain you get sudden unrecoverable failure. Your carefully pickled up thoughts or rolodex full of context vanishes, and suddenly you have to rely on your mental rolodex rather than the paper or electronic one to recall details.

(Filed under Discardia.)

(Edited March 2013 to expand and add section on sunsetting internet services.)


Summer 2011 discardia notes

Discardia is a quarterly holiday where we decide to let go of some things around us in order to make way to do things for the new season. It's a modern invention of Dinah Sanders, who writes about it at The season runs from the solstice or equinox to the following new moon. For summer 2011, the dates are June 21 through July 1.

For my kids, Lego is the part of their existence which most calls out for straightforward decisionmaking to create order amidst the chaos. Before you can do a rebuild of a model that you already have, you need to find all of the impossibly tiny scattered pieces that make it up. A multipart storage box container is a great way to occupy a small boy's hour cleaning and sorting, because only when you have all of the yellow pieces together do you find the tiny Lego-sized firefighters accessories. Once you get down to the level that you can find the tiny black fireman's axe, the small child is content to build with it rather than agitate to buy more.

Books are my bane of accumulation existence, to the point where deciding what to do with them takes more energy than actually reading them. We have used Paperback Swap to maintain a steady state of inventory and still get new reading materials, and Books By Chance to dispose of surplus. Fortunately, the Lego situation (q.v.) is under control enough that I have reclaimed one bookshelf, which is being carefully curated as best I can to contain the collection that I would keep if it were my only shelf of books. Every decision to add to it means there's a corresponding decision to remove a book, and that keeps the shelf from accumulating dust and ennui.

The element of my life that absorbs more time than it should is the Internet, especially the Internet of flitting around from site to site trying to decide that someone has written something new worth writing. My self control is weak for shiny new things, but what I have discovered is that I can replace self control with ritual sometimes, and a ritual of writing on a specific topic for a specific person rather than reading aimlessly repays the time. I don't know yet how to cure a ritual addiction to being online, though Paul Jones's "no email" project points to one way to discard a portion of the online existence while staying connected.

Thanks to Dinah Sanders for the "decide and do" theme for this season's Discardia. John Weise and Stephanie Bentley run Books By Chance, a consignment used bookstore which helps deal with my book surplus. Duane Collicott's Bricks for Brains provides an annual Lego surplus at Brick Bash. Reach Paul Jones by any of a thousand online systems, all except email. LEGO is a registered trademark owned by the LEGO Group, and don't you forget it.

Discardia for Spring 2011 runs from March 20 to April 3

Discardia is a holiday to celebrate and teach letting go of what doesn’t add value to your life – whether a physical object, habit, or emotional baggage – and replacing it with what makes your world more awesome. (Dinah Sanders)

Each quarter I celebrate the modern holiday of Discardia. This quarter's Discardia runs from March 20 (the vernal equinox) to April 3 (the new moon). Here's some of the things I did with my kids this Discardia season.

My younger son wanted a new LEGO set, but all of his current LEGO bricks are scattered hither and yon. After much shopping at the hardware store, we ended up with a multi-compartment portable storage box. Now the boys can sort through the LEGO they have and find the parts they want to build their own custom creations, instead of asking me if they can buy a new set. It made cleaning up the living room a lot more straightforward.

Edward Vielmetti celebrates all holidays in moderation. Reach him at

My year without the internet (as suggested by my son)

"When you retire," he says, "you should go offline for a whole year."

The idea is to sell all of your computers, turn in your cell phone, and generally shun any computer technology. Perhaps you'll still write, but it will be longhand or on a typewriter. If there's a phone call to be made, you'll have to be there to receive it, since there is no answering machine. No Twitter, no Facebook, no blogs. Whatever money you save in computing and telecom costs, you spend on pens and paper and postcards and stamps.

I'm not certain what this word "retire" means, but it's an appealing idea. For me, it would mean rewinding the technology clock back to the early 1980s.

A piece of the inspiration for this is the late Steve Cisler's unconnected project.

discardia for midsummer 2010: paperback swap

The challenge is to get rid of some set of books that have accumulated, while simultaneously fulfilling the need to always have some kind of new reading in the house.  

A new (to me) way to do this is Paperback Swap, a system which works as a trading board for books.  You are entitled to books in the proportion that you send books to others, and every book you request is free to you.  The catch is that you pay postage for the books you send to others.

Because of the sender-pays structure, many of the books listed are lightweight and cheap to mail. There's some calculus in people's minds that probably says "I'm willing to pay the cost of shipping to get rid of this."

I can imagine a lot of other things that could work the same way, looking especially for items that have relatively high value compared to weight, but where you might accumulate unwanted and unused items over time that have more swap value than use value.  It looks like Swap-bot fills some of that need for Etsy-class homemade items. 

More on Discardia from Dinah Sanders.

discardia runs 20 Mar 2010 – 14 Apr 2010

The season of discardia is upon us again.  

It's time to unsubscribe from mailing lists, take out the trash, empty out your pockets, weigh your inbox and reduce its weight, clean out the cupboards and more.

It's also time for me to stop even pretending that I can follow everything that have at one time been interested in and let some things that fascinate me slip by the wayside for a while, so that in some future I can come back to them and be surprised by how much progress has been made since I was gone.

My one purchase for this discardia season is going to be a digital scale, so that I can give a number to just how much crud I have sitting in front of me and measure the progress of removing it.  

heave ho, 

Distraction, scatter, gather, focus, discardia: a five part cycle

Herein a recipe for producing what looks like some kind of careful long term reasonable insight into a question, but what is really a coping strategy for the complete inability to be attentive to anything for very long.

Be distracted away from the thing you are supposed to be doing; that part is pretty easy.  Wander off randomly into the wilderness of recent changes to the Internet or a random page in your personal knowledge management heap or some long-dusty book in Google Books.  Note some small fragment of something that isn't at all relevant to what everyone else seems to be looking at right now but that somehow temporarily holds your interest long enough to compose a few paragraphs with a few links.  Write about it here; try with desperation to find a category it should already belong to so that it has some illusion of continuity with what you have been doing all along.  Hit "save", hit "publish", and return to the task at hand.

Scatter your attention all over the Internet to a range of places where recent changes seem to be more predominant.  Post to Twitter, or Facebook, or your favorite online newspaper's best reader comments section, or to some seasonally or topically appropriate blog where you know that the author welcomes your readership.  Be outwardly visible and pay attention to someone else, something else, some place other than yourself.  Make the rounds of the usual places and hit a few new ones.  Stop before everyone is asleep.

Gather up things you have written on a topic, things captured during previous distractions or scattered to the four winds.  If there is a search engine, search for your own long-forgotten commentary on something, and collect it back to somewhere central.  If all you have is paper, leaf through it steadily and methodically until inevitably that journal yields a relevant fragment.   Pile up the fragments, enumerate them, list them out carefully as though they were bits of papyrus needing careful reassembly.  See what you might have known in the past and re-know it, relearn it.

Then, when all of the distract-scatter-gather process has all been put into motion, can you focus on that one thing you have been getting ready to do all this time.  Come back to what you have gathered up and re-assess the work as a whole.  Allow yourself to work methodically through the work you have gathered together, to pull it apart, to see what the whole set looks like and not just little bits of it.   Pull through everything that is relevant and stitch it all together into something new, something that lasts longer than a simple short distraction but that hold and sustain a concentrated narrative with examples and ideas and themes and notions pulled out from a long time.

The whole process should run on some cycle appropriate for the task or the season.  As I write, I think about the quarterly holiday of Discardia, where you celebrate letting go, and of all of the distracted and scattered thinking I have about that event that culminates in an every three months deliberate effort to tidy things up.  The collected effort of pulling things together means not only that you have everything in mind but also that you can free yourself of the distractions that eventually got you here – and that you get, periodically, a chance to edit out some randomness and make it look like you are more organized and orderly than your easily-distracted nature would allow.

This season's Discardia holiday is coming up on June 20-22, 2009.