Increasing complexity increases waste

So much that digital touches turns to complexity and that, in shorter and shorter periods of time, turns to waste. The beating heart of digital is pumped with a toxic flow of waste.

For years, as I worked in this digital industry, I had these nagging feelings that something wasn’t quite right, that there was some sort of a deep problem with the industry. I, like many others, started off by selling digital as good for the environment. It was so obvious that an email was better than a paper letter.

Globally, we send about 400 billion letters a year. We send 400 billion emails a day. With this massive quantity of emailing, office paper use has actually gone up. The waste is everywhere. 84% of emails are spam and spam exists in these unbelievable quantities because of the ‘free’ nature of the Internet. Free costs the Earth. I calculated that we’d need to plant 30 billion trees every year to offset the pollution caused by unopened attachments, unread email and spam.   

In practically every organization I worked with I found massive digital waste. I mean massive waste. Working on intranets was like having to put on hazard suits and masks and dig into gigabytes of waste data, created and stored in multitudes of redundant and overlapping systems. All this digital stuff was essentially left to rot. And it hasn’t changed. I worked on my first intranet in 1997, my latest one in 2021. The same basic problems. Lots of initiatives to create things, little or no attention given to maintenance. Everyone is a creator. Nobody looks after anything.

This is the culture of waste and wastefulness that digital encourages. By its nature, digital is transient, impermanent, and it encourages the creation and duplication of things that have shorter and shorter useful lives. It is also a culture that either naively or cynically believes that all data should be stored because it might have some future potential use. And who are we to judge what might be useful in the future?

Why do we store so much data? Perhaps this alternative definition of Big Data might shed some light: “When the cost of keeping data around is less than the cost of figuring out what to throw away.” Organizations have neglected their roles of maintaining quality data because that requires hiring quality people who have to think about what to collect and what to store. Why do a job well when you can automate cheap crap production and storage?

Modern technology does some things absolutely wonderfully well. Yet so much of what modern technology does is unadulterated crap. Data centers should be called data dumps. The tech industry has accelerated the climate crisis in multitudinous ways. One of the ways is in building large parts of the industry around crap data production and crap storage.

If you can’t dazzle them with diamonds, baffle them with bullshit, they say. A system may be complex. That doesn’t mean a system is useful. Increasing complexity in hardware design leads to devices that are hard to repair and hard to recycle. Increasing complexity in software design leads to vast quantities of crap data.

At some point, we need to develop a much more skeptical and realistic view of the true value and costs of modern technology.

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