Calculating true and total cost of digital to the Earth

Currently, the key digital metrics are volume, production, consumption, engagement. These are waste metrics. Success is about getting people to waste as much time and energy as possible being engaged, to waste as much money as possible consuming things.

Although it’s not explicitly measured—that would be too potentially embarrassing—the motto is that the more waste, the better. Planned obsolescence—the core religion of the digital elite—is in essence planned waste; the worship of waste in the pursuit of innovation and progress. Maximizing waste maximizes growth and profit.

It’s all about how many and how much. It’s about having a website, having an app, being on Twitter, Instagram. Apps get launched, not because they actually have a use, but because of the ego of some manager and to show that the organization has produced something. Not surprisingly, over 90% of apps are not used a couple of months after they are launched. 90% of content published doesn’t get used. In fact, over 90% of Web content is not even indexed by Google. We have a Cult of Volume, of trying to get as much content, as much code, as many users, traffic and hits as possible. No wonder we talk about tech addiction: users, traffic, hits. Interactivity and engagement are just other names for addiction. How do we track people? How do we trap people?

Because so many models are themselves trapped in “free” offers, they must build huge surveillance architecture to monetize their users. On a “free” website, between 75% and 90% of the weight and waste will be for surveillance tracking architecture.

We must make usefulness a key metric. We must ask the deep and hard question: What is it actually worth? I have done so many projects over the years where the worth and value were questionable. In fact, for many projects we skipped even asking the questions. We just got it up there so as to see what would happen. Because we could. We had the resources to waste and throw away, and as we wasted, with one failure after another, we told ourselves that we were the innovators (another name for wasters), the fail-fast, agile crowd.

We must start caring about the Earth’s resources and materials that we in digital waste with such abandon, because they are precious and they are dwindling, and our relentless, exponentially increasing addiction to energy and convenience is literally destroying conditions for life on Earth.

We must have metrics that focus on the true and total cost to the Earth. We must have metrics that focus on long-term value, worth, usefulness. We must clearly identify waste in every area and measure how we are eliminating that waste. We must embrace circular economy thinking where every material and digital artefact that we use can be reused.

Clothing retailer Asket details, for each garment they sell, the energy and water costs from manufacturing to selling. One of their T-shirts, for example, causes 1.9 kg of CO2. Which is roughly what I calculated is the amount of CO2 caused by creating a 1,000-word piece of content.

How do we measure the CO2 of data and content? How do we measure how much water a webpage drinks? (A data center can drink over a million liters of water every day.) Start with the devices. All data—all content—is created on devices. Devices have three major costs to the Earth:

  1. The cost to manufacture
  2. The cost to use
  3. End of life costs

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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