Focus on the waste: Developing an earth experience culture in digital

The greatest challenge we have today both in the physical and digital world is waste. It’s not an energy production problem we have. It’s a waste production problem. The defining characteristic of “rich” world culture is profligate waste. We create, for example, so much plastic waste that geologists are seeing a sedimentary layer of plastic emerge. In the sea it is expected that before long the weight of plastic will equal the weight of fish.

When I think back over a 25-year-plus career of working on the Web, the one overwhelming impression I have is the enormous quantities of digital waste I have come across. Rarely, if ever—and I include myself in this reckoning—did I hear any concern about reducing energy consumption, reducing the numbers of systems, devices and software, or reducing the vast quantities of useless data and content that organizations were creating at increasingly furious speeds.

As the world burns and floods, it is quite extraordinary that in digital design and development, we’re partying like it’s 1999 or whatever. Even convincing people in the digital industry that what they do consumes energy and creates waste is a challenge.

Digital has facilitated and accelerated a corrosive, destructive and mega-waste culture. Before digital, humans created waste with shovels. Digital gave them diggers. Before digital, designers’ wildest dreams stayed as wild dreams. Digital allows all the wild dreams to flood out. “There’s a book inside everyone” was an old saying. Digital let the book out. And there is a deep culture in digital that says that’s great. Store everything in the data lake and we’ll sort it out later. This is a culture of waste. A culture that believes that there is no cost to all this creation. No cost to all this storage. At least, no cost worth worrying about. But the cost closest to zero is the most dangerous cost of all.

You can’t have Fast Fashion without digital. In a world of pencil and paper you simply can’t create 24 “seasons” a year. The MacBook allows the designer to go wild, while Instagram feeds the addicts. We buy three times as many clothes today as we used to and wear them half as long thanks to digital. Globally, every second, the equivalent of an entire garbage truck full of textiles is dumped or burned. Every second. Digital is the great facilitator, the great enabler, the great accelerator of waste.

One way to begin to change this destructive, future-annihilating culture is by becoming obsessive about reducing waste, and digital waste in particular. 80% of the total waste that digital creates happens during the manufacture of the device. So we must seek to own the minimum number of digital devices and hold on to them for the longest time possible.

Right now, Big Data is having its Big Bang, creating unimaginable and unmanageable quantities of mainly junk data. We must think much more and create much less. We must share and reuse much more. Pause. Resist. Slow down. And when we do create always allocate time for review and deletion. If you take those ten photos, take time to review them because, guaranteed, you’ll delete nine of them and be much better off because you have the one photo left that will mean something.

4 thoughts on “Focus on the waste: Developing an earth experience culture in digital

  1. Sara

    It seems to me that often people are smart and have a lot of big ideas on the possibilities of work they can do with the insights data promises to provide. But we have only so much time in a day, week, year. I don’t think most people are mentally equipped to say, “I want to create the stars and sky but I only have time to plant a bush.”

    How do you get people to understand that yes, data can provide you with infinite knowledge, but only a tiny percent of it is useful within the time and resource constraints we have?

    At my company I’ve always struggled with stakeholders demanding that we track data on individual users so that we can search an email and know everything this person has done with us. Every button they’ve clicked. Every page they’ve visited, etc. Why! They seem desperate for this knowledge but there is no practical application. We aren’t even getting top tasks right!

    (I bought your book on web waste, but it hasn’t arrived yet so I apologize if this is a topic you’ve covered in your book!)

    1. Gerry McGovern Post author

      These are great points, Sara. I like that quote: “I want to create the stars and sky but I only have time to plant a bush.” It sums up quite nicely the struggle of modern humanity.

  2. Andrew Charlesworth

    Hi Gerry,
    I’ve come to this from a link Kate Thomas posted under my rant on LinkedIn about innovation versus maintenance, so you’ll know I agree with you 100%.

    It seems Schumpeter has been hijacked by consumerism; creative destruction interpreted as planned obsolescence

    Whereas a concept of stewardship would be truly innovative, creating demand for new skills and breaking the growth/resource-consumption/environmental-destruction cycle. Sadly we are simply distracted by the next shiny new thing that promises to save us (narrator: it never has and never will).

    Apologies if this is what’s covered in much greater depth in WW Waste. I’m adding that to my reading list.

    1. Gerry McGovern Post author

      Hi Alan,
      We need so many more voices like yours saying the things you’re saying about slowing down, embracing and enjoying much more what we already have. This is how we get to the circular economy, the sustainable world–sharing, reusing, holding onto.


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