Journal 5-16-20: I need some space, Google

green exit sign

My relationship with Google is entering an “I need space” phase.

This all started when I got a notice across all my Google services saying I’d run out of space. I fall in a strange place in their usage tiers. I was using 270GB, but have to pay for 2TB, which comes out to $99 a year.

I’ve been using Gmail since I had an early invite sometime back in 2002 or so. I thought Google Drive came sooner, but it looks like I’ve been using is since launch in 2012. I tried Buzz, Wave, and was a big fan of Google RSS Feeds.

I was sold on the beginning of the idea of never having to delete anything. Back in 2002, the idea of having all my email available, out of sight but available through search, was fascinating. I could have a database for my life. 

There have been a few times this was useful. A few business dealings that were easier because I had the emails to show where something had happened the way I said it did. I had the names and contact info of all people involved. The amount of bytes those emails take up is negligible. 

I imagine the rest of my gmail account storage is made up of all the advertising emails I stopped bothering to delete. I archived them and felt accomplished because my inbox was empty. I can only recall a few times that I went back to search for a coupon code.

My Google Drive has been useful backup, but I realized that the files I was backing up weren’t anything I bothered to look at again. I’ve realized that I have some real digital hoarder tendencies. I’m always saving drivers, old software, PDF files or articles. I like the idea of being able to go back and find these files, but I never actually do. Or I haven’t yet. I’ve wasted hours collecting these files and saving them. (If you like Alphasmart Neo machines, I have all the Palm software available for them. I have old Linux distros, Mac software when I don’t currently use an Apple products, the list goes on.) As storage became cheaper, I would move these files from drive to drive, and then back them up to Google Drive.

Then Microsoft got me. I’ve been using Word for most of my work editing, and I got a terabyte of storage included with my Office 365 subscription. This was the same price as two terabytes storage with Google, but I only had 270GB in Google Drive. I was wasting money here, so I decided to backup all the Google Drive files to my PC and move everything over to OneDrive.

Throughout my career, I’ve used Google Drive during meetings to open a text file and take notes. I used Google sheets to map budgets or just list tasks, collect information that was best arranged in cells. It’s possible I’d created thousands of these files.

They’re all gone now.

I didn’t realize that the “backup” in Google’s “Backup and Sync” application doesn’t actually backup Google Doc files to your PC. It only saves pointers to your online drive. I’m sure this information was available. I probably read it somewhere. I should have checked the files before I started deleting files in Google Drive.

But I didn’t. And now I’ve deleted most of my digital archive dating from 2012. Not necessarily the random files I uploaded. I lost the files I created in Google Docs. That feels like an extra gut punch.

What’s interesting is that I don’t feel worried about it. I’ve realized that I was never going to look at most of those files again and they probably won’t have relevance on my future life. In a way, the files were always invisible. I was trusting Google to hang onto them for me, and if Google has done anything consistently, it’s take away features they once offered. What do they say about relationships: Pay attention to what people do, not what they say?

There are a few recent series outlines that I lost that will need to be re-written. That hurt, but I also know it’s something I can do again. That’s just time. The other notes and files belong to a part of my life that’s behind me now. 

(I also had the feeling of frustration that I see on seniors faces when technology doesn’t make sense. I thought I understood how to use this, and it didn’t work as I expected. That’s an incredibly frustrating and defeating feeling.)

As I get older, having grown up on the internet, I go back and forth on “right to forget” laws. I remember the rhetoric about accountability, transparency, and moral behavior that would be brought on by always having access to your thoughts and behavior. That’s true for bad actors. For most of us, I think our digital shadow is just a weight we have to carry. One of the promises of the future is reinvention, and that’s hard to do when you can always go back and read the stupid things you said in 1999 on Metafilter.

I’ve also been thinking about writing and creativity when you can iterate a document you created five years ago. I remember reading some writing advice from the seventies, where the author talked about using a typewriter, and how they advised every writer retype the previous day’s last page, just to get a sense of where they were going. They would also retype an entire short story from memory once the first draft was done. That way they had a consistent tone and voice, and anything that didn’t make it into the remembered version probably wasn’t important anyway.

We don’t work that way anymore. The digital version is always there. It’s multiple versions still live in Track Changes. I wonder how historians of the future will study manuscripts or novels to see how changes took place. Will Track Changes make things easier, or will they need to log into special AI-powered machines to even access the old software?

I feel recently like my focus is a window I have to force open everyday. Everything is fighting me to keep the window closed. Notifications on my phone. My toddler. My dog. As I edge the window open, all the junk in my mind is also dragging down the moment of creation. Have I written this before? Should I go search for the file and just work off that? Am I not being as productive as I could be?

I think I’m going to spend more time focusing on the next sentence in front of me. Writing new sentences that become new whole ideas. If I repeat myself a bit, I can go back and look at the finished previous version. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll just keep writing forward.

As far as my files go, I’m going to give OneDrive a shot for a while, since it appears to save everything in Office format as a whole file on my PC. I may look at some other backup provider if I go over 1TB, but that’s a ways off.

I’m thinking about dumping gmail for my personal email as well. I want to delete more and not trust some other party to decide what’s important to me or not. I’ve archived thousands of emails and never looked at them again. It would better if those bytes were just gone. 

I’m still thinking about that.

Thanks for reading.


You can email me at james[at]

Image: Unnamed Road, Youxian Qu, Mianyang Shi, Sichuan Sheng, China by @1amfcs