Why you should digitize 'everything'

How a lifestyle experiment and a disaster made me realize the value of turning atoms into bits

Two events this week, one personal and another that is making international headlines, made me rethink what can, and should, be digitized: Everything. If you're a regular reader of this column, you'll remember my piece "Paperless office? Ha! How about a paperless life?" In that column, I talked about my quest to eliminate paper in favor of electronic alternatives. But this week I realized that some things other than paper documents and media can, and should, be digitized.

The first event that sparked this epiphany was my transition to semi-nomadic living. My idea was to take the monthly expense for a big house and divide it between a small studio in California and hotel rooms, bungalows, huts - whatever -- as my wife and I travel around the world for much of each year.

The challenge: What to do with all our stuff? Our goal: Get rid of half our "stuff" by selling it, donating it or throwing it away; place about one quarter into storage; and move the remaining quarter into the studio.

The second event I mentioned was a disaster in my city. I live in Santa Barbara, Calif., which as I write this is surrounded by raging wildfires. At press time, some 30,000 people have been evacuated. Many had to get out with less than 20 minutes' notice.

Which raises the question: What do you give up when you streamline, downsize and go digital nomad? And what do you lose when your house burns in a fire?

Furniture and buildings can be replaced. But what about old family pictures? Paintings your children made in kindergarten? Trophies? Award plaques? Objects passed down from previous generations?

Like everyone else, I suppose, we've got boxes of ill-defined "stuff" stored away -- papers, clippings, memorabilia.

Because much of our stuff was poorly organized, we slogged through every possession, every box, every drawer and considered what to do with every possession we owned. Besides being extraordinarily time-consuming, the process was also very difficult. When it comes to deciding whether to keep or discard something, where do you draw the line? Old holiday and birthday cards? OK, those can be discarded. Mother's Day cards from kids? Hmmm. Trophies? Yikes! There are a million items that make you feel a loss when you toss, but if you keep them, they'll be buried unseen for decades.

It's these same items that are irreplaceable after an unexpected fire, flood, hurricane or other regional or personal disaster.

The solution is to digitize everything. Here's how.

1. Capture

Set up an old digital camera on a tripod, or a newer one set at a lower megapixel size. (You don't want gigantic images to process; 3 to 5 megapixels is about right.) You might point the camera down at a table, or set up some kind of easel. But make it easy and quick to set something down, snap a picture and move to the next item.

Then, do what we did. One by one, go through every box, drawer and item in your house that could contain something of value, and take a picture of it. Photographs. Awards. Scrapbook items. Clippings. Whatever. Don't agonize, just take a picture of everything that might be of value later on.

Then, grab that camera and walk around the house snapping pictures of everything you own of value -- furniture, jewelry, cars. These pictures could help you with the insurance company if tragedy does strike.

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