In Praise of Deletion

Gather round, children, and Old Man Lartigue will tell you a story set in the distant past of 2004. In that year a new web service made its debut, called Gmail. It was exciting and revolutionary in many ways, and soon became the standard that other email services sought to copy. It had a bunch of nifty features, but there was one it didn’t have: a delete button.

Sure, there was a way, buried behind a menu or two, that you could delete an email, but at the time there was nothing right up front that allowed this. Google’s reason for this was, “Why would you want to?” Since they were giving you tons of space and a powerful search engine, they argued, there was no need to delete anything.

I don’t know when they gave in and finally put a delete button on the main screen, but it wasn’t too long afterwards.

Can you imagine keeping everything you ever owned? Even if you had a living space big enough to comfortably store it all, and let’s say you had a robot butler who, given an accurate enough description, could locate an item somewhere in the house, what would be the point? I look at just my office and all the clutter and stuff in it and it’s overwhelming enough; I can’t imagine if it also included every single thing I’d ever owned.

We often hear about people with amazing memories and, though my wife would argue against this, I have a pretty good one myself, when it comes to some things. I know all the lyrics to hundreds of songs, some of which I haven’t heard in years, and some of which I don’t even like. I’ve discovered I remember a lot more about my middle- and high-school days than many of my peers who were also there, which includes a lot of embarrassing, miserable stuff I’d just as soon not be able to call to mind quickly and accurately. But there it is.

Forgetting — within reason; I still know how my mom died — can be a blessing. Getting rid of stuff, physical stuff, is often followed by an overwhelming sense of relief. We need our physical and mental spaces thinned out from time to time.

And yet…

I have two things that won’t let me do this. And they’re both related to the iPad. Cutting-edge technology with the same bizarre attitude that Google had back in 2004.

The first is the iPad itself. Every app I’ve ever bought (including apps I bought for free) is available to me. If I delete it from the iPad itself, I can still re-install it from “the cloud” (ugh) later on. Whether I want to or not. There’s no way that I’ve found to say, “Yes, I downloaded this, but it was terrible, I’ll never use it, and I never want to see it again. Make it go permanently away.” Because why would you want to? Why wouldn’t you want access to every single app that ever had an icon nifty-looking enough to make you hit “install app”? After all, if it’s not actually on my iPad taking up space, what’s the problem?

Here’s a screenshot:

If there were something in there I’d like to re-download, I only have to go through nearly 200 items to find it, and most of those 200 items are things I don’t ever want to see again. Hopefully I’d be able to remember the name of what I’m looking for but sadly, that portion of my brain is often tied up with keeping track of the second verse of “One Night in Bangkok”. I’d love to clear out most of this junk, but Apple sees no reason for me to do so.

Similarly, the comiXology app — which, don’t get me wrong, I love — also assumes I want to hang on to every single comic I’ve ever bought from them. This includes free ones and samples. I bought Grandville by Brian Talbot, so I no longer need access to the free Grandville preview comic, but I can’t make it go away. Again, I can make it be off my device, but it’s still going to hang around in my purchases forever. I bought a few things to try out, didn’t care for them, would like them completely gone, but that’s not possible. ComiXology is designed to delete older things you haven’t read in order to free up space for newer things, which is fine. I like that. But then when I want that older thing again, I get to wade through the longbox of history. I complained about this before and heard some noise about it being implemented, but so far it hasn’t been.

A friend suggests the reason might be that they’d rather deal with whiners like me, who want something that few other people care about, than people complaining about being “ripped off” because they permanently deleted something after being asked by six menus if they really for sure really wanted to do so. I think he’s right, and that’s a big part of it. But I think there’s also a healthy dose of “why would you want to?”, of people for whom having access to everything that ever was, no matter how unimportant or undeserving, is a feature, a desired thing.

Embrace the delete button, folks.

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One Response to In Praise of Deletion

  1. Bully says:

    Amazon Kindle at long last added a feature to take a book out of your library permanently, but it’s hidden deeply on their website. What’s wrong with a “I never want to see this turkey ever again, take it out of my history forever” button?