Junkies and wasters

Feeding the addiction

I’m an addict. I’ve been a junkie for about 25 years. I can’t resist my morning fix. Before I do anything useful, I have to have it. And throughout the day, multiple times. My addiction is to news and all sorts of information, to the desire not to be missing out on anything, to be always on, to the desire not to be bored, to be up-to-date, to be connected, and to be reassured that I still matter because someone else somewhere has in some small way interacted with something I’ve said or done, and therefore confirmed that I exist, and that in some tiny, tiny way, I matter a little bit. 

I have the sense that if I’m not online I’m not fully alive. I check my email multiple times a day. I’m always on Twitter. I have an in-depth knowledge of a wide range of current news stories. News, I consume news voraciously. And the idea of sticking with one publication seems simply insane. I use Google News because it’s an all-you-can-read with such incredible variety. And even though I’m a news junkie, I don’t want to pay for it. Funny, I love news so much I don’t want to pay for it. How can I love that which I don’t want to pay for? What sort of love is that?

Funny, being an addict and knowing I’m an addict and promising to change, and sometimes changing a bit for a week, or maybe sometimes for a month, but always reverting back to the same old habits. I don’t want to count how much of my day I waste reading and checking stuff that I don’t really need to read and check. I know I don’t need to read the same news story from multiple sources with ever so slight variations. I don’t need to follow the intricate details of so many events and happenings, so many of which depress me and make me feel that the world is a terrible place. It’s not making me smarter or more enlightened. It’s certainly not making me happier. 

Why do I do it? Because I’m human. I’ve inherited deep and persistent human instincts and traits. More. Free. Fast. Convenient. News. Production. Ego. How can I resist what is free? How can I resist what is fast and convenient? How can I resist what has been specifically designed to be addictive? Speed is an addiction. How can I resist getting more? How can I resist producing and publishing when it’s so easy and free to produce and publish? How can I resist knowing that others are talking about me, retweeting me? 

This book is a journey for me. A tool to help me create a less wasteful life, and to help me reduce the negative impacts of my actions on the environment. I hope it can help you too. 

Life is irony. Most of the professional work I’ve done for the last 25 years or so has been about helping organizations do less but do it better. I have developed a research method called Top Tasks to help understand what truly matters. I’ve tried to help hundreds of organizations get control of their data addictions, while not fully realizing that I have many of my own. Organizations do love to create stuff, to publish stuff, to launch stuff, to collect and store stuff. 

I have worked with organizations in around 40 countries and they all have the same basic behaviors. In all my years, nobody has ever said to me: “Help us become more organization-centric. We’re too focused on our customers.” Organizations love themselves and there is no deeper expression of that love than in the creation and consumption of physical and digital stuff and things. And they love to collect information on their customers, even when they will never use the vast majority of that information. In fact, 90% of the data organizations create and collect they never use. It’s useless data.

These ideas and issues have been rolling around in my head for years. At the same time, Rosilda, my wonderful wife, has been educating me on how to better care for our environment and to live more consciously and mindfully. Greta Thunberg and all those young climate champions were another wake-up call. I’ve started flying less, though still too much. I began to think about how I could play a more useful role. 

Then it struck me—out of the blue—it struck me: Every time I download an email I contribute to global warming. Every time I tweet, do a search, check a webpage, I create pollution. Digital is physical. Those data centers are not in the Cloud. They’re on land in massive physical buildings packed full of computers hungry for energy. It seems invisible. It seems cheap and free. It’s not. Digital costs the Earth. 

We don’t have an energy production crisis. We do have an energy consumption crisis. We consume far too much of everything the Earth produces and in the last 40 years our appetites for everything have exploded, driven and enabled by advances in digital technology. Recycling and renewables are often a form of green-washing for big corporations. To go 100% renewable would not be without its costs, as the machines that make wind and solar technology need to be manufactured, consuming energy, the batteries in our electric cars need precious raw materials. We consume too much energy, that’s the problem, and like our waistlines, these habits have gone out of control. 

Whether it is correlation or causation, we can map the explosive growth of digital over the last 40 years with the explosive growth in resource depletion. Undoubtedly, massive wealth has been created for a tiny elite, with 26 people owning as much as the poorest 50% of the planet’s population, according to Oxfam. While poverty reduction showed promising signs in the early years of this century, as the Web matures, progress has stalled. “An estimated 820 million people did not have enough to eat in 2018,” according to the UN, “up from 811 million in the previous year, which is the third year of increase in a row.” 

In a paradox of sorts, the UN points out that there is also an obesity epidemic, particularly among schoolchildren. According to the OECD, there are strong signs that the middle class, particularly in Western countries, is being hollowed out. “The middle-income group has grown smaller with each successive generation,” the OECD explains. “70% of the baby boomers were part of the middle class in their twenties, compared with 60% of the millennials.” In the US, millions of workers are stressed and in despair, with life expectancy about four years lower than in comparable countries, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Culture of waste

We might argue that digital is not responsible for the wealth or poverty. What we cannot argue with is that digital is massively, unbelievably, wantonly wasteful. Forget about everything else, digital is killing our planet with waste. The World Wide Web is indeed the World Wide Waste. The dark side of digital is that it has been a massive accelerant for our desire to create and own stuff, to consume, dispose of, and waste time, resources and energy at never-before-dreamt-of levels. 

We are ravaging the planet to satiate exploding wants, desires, whims. We are laying waste to our Earth at a speed that has become mind-boggling. And digital itself is wanton waste upon waste. Many smartphones and other digital products are deliberately designed with custom screws and bonded glues to make them difficult or impossible to repair, to be the ultimate in single-use thinking, and to be incredibly difficult to recycle. All for profit. The short-term growth club. Amazon knows that the less time we have to wait, the more we’ll buy, and the more we’ll buy of things we don’t really need. Digital is turning us into screaming babies: we want it and we want it now! 

Up to 90% of digital data is not used. We collect. We store. We create and then don’t use. Data is the atomic structure of digital. Words, music, images, films, videos, software. It all ends up as data. Most data is like single-use, throwaway plastic. What sort of society accepts 90% waste? 

  • Around 90% of data is never accessed three months after it is first stored, according to Tech Target. 
  • 80% of all digital data is never accessed or used again after it is stored, according to a 2018 report by Active Archive Alliance.
  • Businesses typically only analyze around 10% of the data they collect, according to search technology specialist Lucidworks. 
  • 90% of unstructured data is never analyzed, according to IDC.
  • 90% of all sensor data collected from Internet of Things devices is never used, according to IBM.

We download the free app, try it maybe once, and then never again. Research by mobile intelligence firm, Quettra, found that the average app loses 77% of its users within the first three days after the install, 90% within the first 30 days, and 95% within the first 90. All that effort, expense and energy that went into creating things that nobody is using. The energy it cost to download for that one single use. But it’s okay because it was free. Free costs the Earth. Few business models are causing more long-term damage to our environment than the “free” model because it is based on the twin evils of waste and advertising.

Look inside most organizations and you will see that they are monstrosities of digital waste. “My experience is that IT landscapes are 90% waste,” Wolfgang Goebl, founder of the Architectural Thinking Association, told me. “What I’ve seen in many companies is that they could run the same business with 10% of IT applications and servers.” 

While humans love to produce and collect data, we hate to organize, to sift, to edit, to clean up the data waste. Making stuff useful is not something we seem to be good at or want to do. Digital has sold us the dream that all that hard, difficult, grindy work, we don’t need to do it anymore. We can store everything and the search engine or the artificial intelligence (AI) will sort it out. That’s a big, huge lie. It’s one thing to be using raw materials from this planet in the pursuit of producing things that might actually have some use. But to destroy this beautiful planet in the pursuit of producing digital crap? Shame on us. 

We must overcome the pervasive idea that digital removes from us the responsibility to organize things and to clean up after ourselves. This is a truly deep, pernicious and corrupting idea. 

I once had a chat with a manager who was about to retire. He reminisced about how as a young manager—before personal computers—he would get sent on courses about how to organize his office, his filing cabinet. Once he got a computer, these courses stopped when they should have been ramped up, because as he admitted himself, he now had hundreds of filing cabinets’ worth of information to sort through. But the organization he worked with had bought into the false idea that computers not simply stored and processed information, but had some sort of magical organizing function too. 

I have found it almost impossible to get any organization I worked with to properly invest in professionally managing search and findability on their intranets. They will buy the search engine, they will buy the content management system, but they will not pay for the professional management of the information. They refuse. They have this magical thinking that you buy the software and then find the lowest-paid worker in the department to add the content. 

Even on public websites it has been a massive struggle. Only the most progressive managers were interested in investing in information architecture, navigation and findability. And it is a total rarity to find an organization that has a truly professional approach to reviewing and removing out-of-date content.

Our waste production has not just got faster. It has got explosively faster. 90% of data that has been created in the entire history of human civilization was created between 2017 and 2019. Can you imagine that? In two years we created more data than in all previous history, 90% of which is crap. From the Iliad to the Bible to Magna Carta, all the stuff we’ve created throughout history, in two short years we have created more than all humans created before 2017. Think about that for a moment. 

We are the crap-producing society. Crap production is what our age will be remembered for the most. It’s accelerating. According to the World Economic Forum, annual waste generation is predicted to increase globally by 70% between 2016 and 2050. A study by the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, found that we have dumped 2,500 gigatons (a gigaton is 1,000,000,000 metric tons) of waste and pollution into the environment since 1900, with 28% of this happening between 2002 and 2015. So, in a little more than 10 years of the new century, we produced almost a third of the waste we produced in the previous 90 years.

Under certain circumstances, e-commerce could be better for the environment than driving to the store. But if e-commerce encourages unnecessary consumption, then it will be worse. Research compiled by Shopify in 2019 from eMarketer, Star Business Journal, and Forrester, estimated that while brick-and-mortar returns are in the range of 8–10%, e-commerce returns average out at 20%. David Sobie, co-founder of Happy Returns, a network of physical return locations, estimated that apparel returns can be as high as 30%, and that at holiday times online returns can reach 40%. 

Transporting returned products in the US creates over 15 million metric tons of CO2 pollution every year, according to Optoro, a logistics optimization firm. We’d need to plant 1.5 billion trees to deal with that amount of pollution. Not just that, about 2.5 million tons of these returned goods are then dumped, creating even more pollution. 

E-commerce packaging accounts for 30% of solid waste generated in the US, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. About 165 billion packages are shipped in the US each year. That’s a billion trees’ worth of cardboard, according to data from USPS, FedEx, and UPS analyzed by LimeLoop. If 20% of e-commerce purchases are returned, then there are 200 million trees being cut down every year to deal with the passing whims of US consumers alone.

I remember once chatting with someone running a 300-page website. She was stressed because it was a lot of pages to manage properly, and she was getting constant requests to publish new pages. A couple of years later, I met her again and she was in quite good form. I asked her how many pages there were now on the website. “Thousands,” she replied. “In fact, I’ve lost count.” I was surprised and I asked her if she didn’t feel even more stress now. “Not really,” she said. “I just accepted it. I publish whatever people ask me to publish now. Before it was more stressful because I was constantly arguing with people about what should and shouldn’t be published. Now I publish, and nobody expects me to review a website this big.”

That’s it. I’ve seen this behavior so many times, and, of course, I’ve seen this behavior many times in myself. When it gets to a certain level of bigness, you give in and go with the flow—or the flood. When you overload, you pass the threshold of caring. We have surrendered to digital excess. 

When you’ve got thousands of pages, what’s one more page? It’s a problem you feel you can’t deal with, so you ignore it, and hope it goes away, and after a while you stop even thinking about it. Then you wonder why you can’t find stuff, or why stuff is out of date, or why you’ve spent the last five minutes reading something that should never have been published in the first place. We can and must do something about it.

Zettabyte Armageddon 

From 1997 to 2017, global Internet traffic in data increased by a factor of 1.7 million, according to Cisco. That sort of increase is hard to even fathom. It’s not that unusual though to see huge increases in data production once the tools allow it. Data expands to meet the space available. 

The printing press massively accelerated data production. “In the year 1550 alone, for example, some 3 million books were produced in Western Europe, more than the total number of manuscripts produced during the fourteenth century as a whole,” Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten van Zanden wrote in their paper Charting the “Rise of the West.”

In 2018, 33 zettabytes of data were created. By 2025, it’s estimated that there will be 175 zettabytes, and that by 2035 there will be more than 2,000 zettabytes, according to Statista. 

Okay, so I know you’re dying to ask how big a zettabyte is. You know a gigabyte is a lot, right? Yeah, it used to be megabytes. Megabytes were big. But then the gigabytes stomped all over them because the gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes. But a zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes. Yes, a trillion, which is a thousand billion. Let’s try and put a zettabyte into the context of books and trees.

Let’s start by estimating how many pages in an average book. Richard Lea, writing for The Guardian in 2015, reported on a number of studies that indicated that fiction books had increased in length from around 300 pages in 1999 to around 400 pages in 2015. On the other hand, it seems non-fiction books are getting shorter. “As recently as 2011, the average book length of the #1 non-fiction bestseller was 467 pages. By 2017, however, that number has dropped to 273 pages,” Tucker Max wrote for Scribe in 2017. Taking the fiction and non-fiction figures and averaging them gives us an overall average of 350 pages for a typical book. 

An average tree provides approximately 8,333 sheets of copy-type paper, based on analysis by Conservatree. Thus, one tree can provide about 47 copies of a 350-page book. Decoline Shipping estimated that one tree would yield about 62 books. TAPPI, a paper industry trade group, estimated a typical tree will yield about 30 books. 

Let’s say an average tree produces 50 350-page books and that on each of those pages there are between 250 and 300 words. That gives us about 100,000 words per book or five million words per tree. I tested how many KB was used for saving 100,000 words in a couple of formats and got an average of 500 KB. Let’s throw some images and tables into the mix and bring the size up to 1 MB, which would mean that an average tree stores the equivalent of 50 MB of data. 

A zettabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000? MB or one quadrillion MB. If a zettabyte was printed out in 100,000-word books, with a few images thrown in, then we would have one quadrillion books. It would take 20,000,000,000,000 (20 trillion) trees’ worth of paper to print these books. It is estimated that there are currently three trillion trees on the planet. To print a zettabyte of data would thus require almost seven times the number of trees that currently exist to be cut down and turned into paper. 

We could give every one of the 7.7 billion people on this planet 129,870 of these books. They’d have almost 13 billion words to read. An average reader can read 1,000 words in about five minutes. It would therefore take 752 years of non-stop, no-sleep reading for every man, woman and child on the planet to read a zettabyte. One zettabyte. There were 33 zettabytes of data created in 2018 alone, and by 2035 it is estimated that there will be over 2,000 zettabytes.

In 2010, Google Books estimated that there were about 130 million unique book titles published. Mental Floss estimated that there are roughly 800,000 books published every year globally. My own rough calculations from Wikipedia data came to about 900,000 per year. Let’s be generous and say that there are about one million unique titles published each year. That would mean that by 2020 there were about 140 million unique titles published throughout history.

“The average book in America sells about 500 copies,” Chris Anderson wrote for Publisher’s Weekly in 2006. Steven Piersanti, President of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, stated in 2016 that total sales for a typical non-fiction book are no more than 2,000 copies. An average of the two figures gives us 1,250 copies. If we multiply that by 140 million, we get 175 billion copies of books published since publishing began. 

Summarizing all these crazy calculations we can say that one zettabyte—one zettabyte—if printed out would create 6,000 times more print than all the books that have ever been printed. The sheer scale of the amount of digital data that is being created and stored is quite simply mind-boggling. 90% of each zettabyte is useless crap. Why?

Because we can. Because it’s easy. Because it’s cheap. At least, it seems cheap. A megabyte is a lot of data. A gigabyte is a whole lot of data. Based on calculations I will go into in detail later, the transfer of one gigabyte (GB) of data requires about 0.015 kWh of electricity and causes 0.0042 kg of CO2 pollution. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a very inconsequential figure. As the gigabytes pile up it begins to register on the pollution monitor, though. When we get into zettabytes, there are real and substantial pollution consequences. 

How much pollution does the transfer of 2,000 zettabytes of data cause? 

8,400,000,000,000 kg. Eight trillion, four hundred billion kilos.

How many trees would you need to plant to absorb that amount of pollution?

840,000,000,000. Eight hundred forty billion. 

Now we’re talking real numbers, aren’t we?

A tree is a lousy hard disk. It can only “store” about 50 MB of data. We can buy a USB stick for $10 that stores 64 GB. That’s 1,300 times more storage on a thing that fits on our key ring and is so light we won’t notice any extra weight. The brain begins to think that digital is limitless, that digital is as light as air, that digital is as cheap as nothing. That’s not true. Digital has a weight, and because there’s so much digital data—so enormously much—it is weighing heavier and heavier on our planet.

I’m just talking about the data here. The devices required to create, transmit and store this data require multiples of energy to manufacture. The production of these devices is also exploding. They live very short lives and then they are mainly dumped, creating mountains of toxic waste.

The zettabytes of data that we create are 90% useless crap. They are like massive container ships of crap moving back and forth across the Internet, spewing out huge amounts of filthy pollution. 

We must invest massively more in the skills of organizing and analyzing data. Even more critical skills we need to develop are the not-producing-crap-in-the-first-place skills. Or the skill of not saving so much crap. Or the skill of deleting the stuff that wasn’t crap but is now crap. And then there’s the skill of knowing which data we put into cold storage or into the archive or whatever we want to call it. Most of the data we need to store, say for legal reasons, will rarely if ever be accessed, so we can put it into deep low-energy storage, which can save up to 90% in energy costs. 

Cheap. In digital we have lost the concept of value. One of the core underlying problems of society is that our current economic model makes it so easy and cheap to produce, publish and store digital (and physical) stuff. 

In 1956, the IBM 350 storage disk drive was the size of a large wardrobe and stored about 3.75 MB of data. You could rent it for $3,200 per month. In 1967, a one-megabyte hard drive cost about one million US dollars. That meant that content writers really thought about the words and images needed. It meant that software developers really thought about every line of code they wrote. By 2020, Google Drive was offering 15 GB of storage for free and 100 GB for $1.99 per month.

From something that cost a million to something that costs nothing; that is a truly mega drop. Digital, it’s like sugar. Sugar used to be a scarce resource, then it became abundant and we gorged on it. 

Cheap storage combined with cheap processing power made the World Wide Web the World Wide Waste. The Web is an ocean full of crap. We live on the first page of search results, never venturing forth beyond the first few results, so we don’t see all the crap lurking underneath. More people have been on top of Mount Everest than have been to the 10th page of search results. Parents warn their children: “Don’t go beyond the first page of search results.” I searched for “climate change.” Google informed me that there were “about 931,000,000” results. That’s 931 million results! Who visits all these pages? A 2018 study by Ahrefs found that 91% of all pages they analyzed got zero traffic from Google. What’s the point? What-is-the-point?

It’s cheap to store so we store up the problem. When we save ourselves time in the present, the future pays. On the shallow surface, the cost of storing something digital is much less than the cost of editing it, cleaning it up, and getting rid of it after it is no longer useful. We keep making these false calculations of how much time we can save right this very moment if we store the stuff instead of spending time editing it, but we’re storing up problems for the future. We must start calculating the true cost of digital, and that means calculating the total costs of digital products and data over their entire lifetime. Storage is one element of data’s cost. When you’re looking through 10,000 photos for that one that really matters, those 9,999 other photos are costing you your time and energy and ability to focus. 

Knowledge transfer, not data transfer

In the traditional technology industry, data and information have traditionally been seen as storage or transmission challenges. The question is “How do we store this data?” rather than “Should we store this data?” or “How do we use it?” There’s a deep history here. In the roots of computer science is the concept that data and information are things, units, bits and bytes. In this worldview, 1,000 bytes is 1,000 bytes—one byte is the same as another. Humans love to store.

Cheap feeds the addiction of wanting more than we need. If the history of humans were told as a 24-hour clock, for the first 23 hours and 50 minutes, we would have lived a hungry, famine-riven, spartan existence. For the last ten minutes, cheap food would have flowed and many of us would have gone from malnourished to obese, from spartan dwellers to obsessive hoarders. 

Throughout modern history, famine has been a brutal teacher that has taught us to crave more. More food. More land. More energy. More of everything and anything we could lay our hands on. Digital makes us super-hoarders. A megabyte is like an acre of land. Every year, the amount of digital land we can use gets cheaper and cheaper, so we buy more land and store more stuff there. It’s so hard to resist more. 

There is another way of thinking about information and data. It goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. It sees information not so much as a noun (a thing) but rather as a verb. It sees data and information as a process of helping shape and form the mind, as the act of communicating intelligence or knowledge. In this world, information exists once it is known and understood within the mind of the person who has received it. 

The value for a piece of information, from an ancient Greek point of view, would not be measured from the perspective of the creator or the communicator, but rather from the perspective of the receiver. In this worldview, information only becomes information when it is understood, when it has delivered some form of intelligence, knowledge or value. 

If someone asked you the time and you tell them the wrong time, that’s not information. If you start talking about the weather instead of telling them the time, that’s not information. If they asked you the time in English and you tell them the time in Japanese, that’s not information. Their knowing the right time after talking to you is information. 

We must change from a culture of want to a culture of use. Want creates waste. Use creates usefulness. We must measure value based on how well the data is used and understood. Then, we will have much less data and much better data, since we’d have to spend much more time managing the data because we’d be measured based on how useful the data is, not based on how much data we’ve produced. When it comes to data, we must stop measuring outputs and start measuring outcomes. Has the knowledge been transferred? Can the person act on it? 

A circular economy

We live in a linear economy. The aim is to make the thing and sell the thing or publish the thing and then pretty much forget the thing. In our linear economy, waste is not the responsibility of the producer. This irresponsibility is having catastrophic impacts on our environment. In our linear economy, recycling is at best a bandage, at worst it’s a PR stunt. 

The linear economy has been enabled by cheap and seemingly abundant raw materials. Once manufacturers have no responsibility to continuously manage these materials throughout their entire life cycle, once they can create waste and have no responsibility for that waste, then things like single-use plastic and hard-to-repair-and-recycle smartphones become the logical outputs. 

We have an energy consumption crisis, not an energy production crisis. We need to radically slow down our energy use and our waste production. Innovation in digital, whether it is Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, driverless cars or high-definition TVs, tends to have exponentially rising demands in energy. In a world in crisis, digital is a runaway train. 

We need a circular economy. “A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains. We need circular economy thinking. 

Once there was a big plant that was polluting a river. They gave the problem to a group of children. The plant needed clean water as part of its manufacturing process. The children decided that the plant’s waste water should enter the river before the point where the plant took in its clean water. The waste water had to turned into the clean water that the plant needed to manufacture its products. The plant was forced to turn its waste water into clean water.

Here’s some circular thinking:

  1. You make it, you own it forever. It’s never old. You must take it back. Your old products become the raw material from which you build your new products.
  2. You create data, you own it forever. You must look after it until the moment it is deleted. Any data without an owner gets automatically deleted. 
  3. You are measured on outcomes not inputs. What positive outcomes were you responsible for today?

Key actions

Cut the crap. Reduce the produce. Decrease the consume. Before you create or collect data, before you acquire a digital device, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I really, truly need this?
  • Is there something I already have that I can use instead?
  • Am I willing and able to dispose properly of this after it is no longer useful?

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World Wide Waste

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