The Mess Manifesto

Why we need to stop worrying and learn to love digital disorder

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Photo-Illustration by John Ueland for TIME

I have the opposite of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which therapists call not-giving-a-crap disorder. At least therapists who are my mom. Instead of checking things over and over, I do not check them even once. I have not only gone to the airport at the wrong time for my flight; I have gone to the wrong airport. One day I complimented my wife for buying a cool blue elephant-shaped footstool, and she told me it had been in our house for two years. And that we have seven more of them. The way I like things arranged is however they are right now.

And yet, in the past few years I've become a compulsive organizer. I have been sucked into hours of deleting pictures on iPhoto, then organizing the rest into little titled folders, as if the Laszlo Stein Presidential Library will have separate displays for an 18-month-old Laszlo with food on his face and a 19-month-old Laszlo with food on his face. I've lost days fiddling with the bottom of my Netflix queue, which is the section that should be labeled "movies I will never see." I could have read a Tolstoy novel in the time I've spent managing my songs on iTunes, putting old e-mails into folders, watching TV shows I don't really care about just to get them off my DVR and moving the downloaded Tolstoy novel from my computer to my iPhone and then to my iPad.

We are all OCD now. We do these things not just because digital filing gives us the satisfaction of cleaning without the unpleasant feeling of getting up from our chairs. It's because we're constantly confronting the onslaught of information, and our brains are trying to make patterns out of the randomness. We believe that if we just finish a list of every movie we want to see, we can finish that task, despite the fact that Rob Schneider is going to make more films. We have seen the horror of infinity, and we respond by trying to give everything in it one to five stars. Which is precisely the reason God has avoided taking Gene Shalit.

Even our relationships need to be sorted neatly into groups on Facebook. "I've interviewed kids who spend an inordinate amount of time building their friend circles--who gets to see this and who gets to see that," says Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. "Eight-year-olds manage databases. Not only of their songs but of their people." Though, to be fair, 90% of the people in those databases are Justin Bieber.

Organizing old records used to be an excuse to look at artwork and read liner notes. Now it is just an excuse to not do work. The problem is that unlike in the physical world, there is no actual benefit in this digital organization: no smelly food out of the fridge, no clean desk to work at, no clear path from the bathroom to my bed. No woman has ever told her girlfriend that she sees a future for a relationship because the guy she is dating has a really clean PC desktop. No woman will ever sleep with you because your music collection is sorted by genre, artist and the date each album was released. That didn't work in the 1980s either, but at least yanking out old Yes albums gave you time to bore her into sitting on a couch. Worse yet, no one visiting my house will ever see the unread Tolstoy books I have shelved so neatly on my iPad, and I don't know how much longer I can keep giving people unasked-for demos of my iPad.

We need a digital Zoloft, something that will force us to allow messiness into our digital lives. Now that our e-mail and date-stamped photos are searchable, there's no need to build all these folders. We can delete TV shows without watching them, leave movies on our Netflix queues. We need an app--I'm calling it 1-Year-Old Boy--that grabs stuff out of our folders and throws it around, possibly while laughing, possibly while pooping, probably both. It will hide a few episodes of 30 Rock from us when we have more than five to watch, and it will hide them in its mouth. And it will remind us that anarchy is the best way to actually enjoy things: it's the newness of watching a movie we didn't know about, of hearing a song we didn't set up on a mix, of seeing a cat do something stupid right in front of us instead of on YouTube. Though it wouldn't be a terrible idea for you to create an Awesome Column Fan e-mail group to forward this column to.