The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Coping With Stuff, Down Here and Up There
We’ve all got storage issues to confront. And when we do, some people take great pleasure in getting things organized and others get headaches. A small percentage descend into madness, while an equally small group see and then seize the business opportunities that are generated by the need to keep life, things, and information under control. Over the past few weeks, the media’s been filled with evidence of all of those responses.
As the fall television season begins, bluntly-named series devoted to documenting extreme examples of those who can’t deal with all the stuff they’ve got are back. Hoarders, in its third season on A&E, features subjects “whose inability to let go of their belongings is so out of control that they are on the verge of personal disaster.”
And on Sunday nights, those who can’t get enough of this curiously popular cable genre can tune in Hoarders: Buried Alive on TLC and go “inside the homes of extreme hoarders to explore the psychology behind their compulsion to accumulate and store large quantities of nonessential things.” I’m not sure if the popularity of these shows can be attributed to the fact that they’re scary, entertaining (especially for those who indulge in schaudenfreude and take pleasure in the misfortune of others), or a little bit of both.
Luckily, coping with the challenges of keeping our possessions in order never quite reaches such extremes for most of us. There will always be people, and I’m one of them, who think a trip to one of the 48 Container Stores around the country is an entertaining and enlightening way to spend a couple of hours fantasizing about clever strategies to tackle chaos. The estimated one-out-of-ten American families who feel that they’ve already run out of space goes a long way toward explaining the phenomenal spread of mini-storage facilities. According to the Self-Storage Association, approximately 46,000 of those typically windowless, corrugated metal structures already dot the American landscape. The self-storage industry, as it turns out, has consistently ranked among the fastest-growing sectors in the commercial real estate for 35 years straight.
The most recent piece of storage news, however, hasn’t been about archiving things on earth, but about the battle to gain a foothold in shaping a new generation of storage solutions that will be housed in virtual, digital clouds. In the closing weeks of August, a pitched battle between Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. to purchase 3Par, a company specializing in cloud computing technology, mesmerized Wall Street investors and the IT community. (HP won, by the way, paying $2.3 billion for 3Par—three times the stock’s price before deal was completed; ten times the company’s revenue over the last four quarters.) Why such heated competition? According to the Financial Times, big technology companies are scrambling to help customers do more with the massive amounts of information they generate and collect. The scooping up of companies developing virtual storage systems has been going on quietly for years. It’s accelerating and attracting attention now because as more and more data is collected—it’s estimated that the amount of data accumulated doubles every month—it needs to be moved off hard drives to remote, yet still accessible storage locations.
In the past, people stared at far-away and mysterious constellations of stars in the sky to divine what might happen next. Now, to deal with what’s happening right now with what some have dubbed the “data hell” we’ve generated here on earth, we’re taking things into our own hands and creating massive, yet accessible virtual clouds to keep data, memory and our everyday lives from spinning out of wack. As they used to say back in the 60s, that’s cosmic. Or, as Etta James, Judy Garland, and Chet Baker (click here for his rendition) put it, when they performed Jerome Kern’s 1920s hit, “Look for the silver lining, when’er a cloud appears in the blue.”