Mike Mahon’s digital life occasionally resembles a disorganized closet. A year ago, the 30-year-old programmer from Austin, Texas owned two laptops and two desktops, eight e-mail addresses and three separate versions of Microsoft Outlook, where he entered various and sometimes conflicting calendar appointments and phone numbers. The resulting digital disorder was debilitating.

“I got to the point where I couldn’t get anything accomplished,” he says. “The more chaotic it got, the more depressed, overwhelmed and powerless I felt.”



Mahon suffered from a malignant and rampant malady of bad digital hygiene. And you may too. Do you keep old PCs and carry obsolete mobile phones around only because you never transferred the data on the devices to your new gear? Have you ever sat in front of your home PC, wishing you had access to a specific file that’s miles away, on your office computer? Are your desk drawers stuffed with a rat’s nest of cables, chargers and CDs for gadgets you’re not sure you even own anymore? If so, friend, get help now.



With the arrival of another holiday season, and another trip home to help our aging parents cope with the rampaging juggernaut of technology, the Plain Text staff has had to come to terms with its own glaring technological inadequacies and digital clutter. Our home and office calendars don’t synchronize. We have five separate copies of Web bookmarks on five Web browsers sitting on three computers, one of which we haven’t used in two years. A dusty old scanner that hasn’t worked since the 1990s sits under our desk, and a crowded shoebox of business cards with phone numbers waits (and waits) to be entered into our address book. And soon we’ll be gifted with even more snazzy gadgets to work into our already cluttered digital life.



But don’t despair. Solutions may be on the way. Silicon Valley has come up with a digital deodorant of sorts, in the form of its newest wave of companies and Web sites, dubbed Web 2.0. The term has many interpretations, but Web 2.0 can be viewed as a cure for bad digital hygiene. Startups like Flickr, MySpace and del.icio.us, all Web 2.0 firms, ask users to submit their personal information and media to the Internet, then offer ways to organize that data and make it easily searchable. For example, you can upload your bookmarks to del.icio.us, access them from any computer, then stop worrying about inconsistent favorites menus on your various PCs and browsers.



Many of the newest efforts at the major tech firms deliver as a byproduct just such hygiene improvements. For example, Microsoft and Google are working on ways to push software tools like word processors and spreadsheets from PCs to the Web so users can store their documents on the Internet; that will help them leave behind clunky efforts to e-mail files from one hard drive to another. Many companies also now offer with their products something called an API–a set of tools that lets other software developers write interconnected programs. The trend is gaining momentum, but it offers hope that programs will finally work together seamlessly. If tech companies clean up their act, it will allow us to clean up ours.



Digital cleanliness is also a hot passion for thousands of independent, free-thinking programmers on the Net who are fans of author David Allen’s 2001 book, “Getting Things Done”. The book’s philosophy, GTD for short, offers a regime to improve workplace productivity. The online GTD community has tailored its time management and stress reduction techniques for the Internet age, and on sites like lifehacker.com, followers share ways to cleanse their digital lifestyles.



“The most common misconception is that technology yields to outsized improvements in productivity without behavioral change,” says Merlin Mann, a San Francisco writer who runs another GTD site, 43Folders.com. Mann is one of those life hackers constantly thinking about ways to improve digital hygiene; on his site, he offers advice on such as tips on how to get rid of old computer junk and once proposed something he calls the Hipster PDA–a stack of 3 by 5 inch note cards you stash in your pocket. Mann is no Luddite, but he advocates drastic simplification in technology use. And he practices what he preaches. He recently bought an Apple PowerBook laptop and made a deal with himself that it would be his only computer; he also funnels his 25 e-mail accounts to one single address.



Mike Mahon, the formerly digital hygiene-deficient programmer from Austin, is a GTD convert and reader of sites like Lifehacker and 43Folders.com. Mahon now stores his bookmarks on del.icio.us, uses Google’s Gmail service instead of his disparate home and work email accounts, and has transferred all of his appointments to Yahoo’s online calendar service. Ironically, storing his personal data online with the Internet companies makes him feel like he has more control, not less. “Life is still just as scattered,” Mahon says, “but at least the data is all in one place now. When you clear out all the little things you worry about, you can think much more creatively.” It must feel like the equivalent of taking a long, luxurious bath.



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