Moving beyond the Cult of Volume (Part 1)

If there’s one thing digital has done it is to explode the creation and production of digital stuff. It requires herculean efforts to focus on quality in a digital environment because digital tools are so relentlessly focused on quantity. Digital feeds and accelerates a culture of waste.

Liam Nugent has been leading teams that design and build software for over 15 years. He tells me a story of a classic example of how digital drives unseemly waste. “This particular form had seven yes / no questions on it,” Liam explains. “And the client said, I’m not really sure how many routes that will open up to the user. I’m going to have to get you to get a designer to draw them all out. And I said, no it’s okay. You don’t need to. A wee bit of maths. Two to the power of seven, quick calculation, it’ll be 128. But they wouldn’t accept that and eventually I capitulated. So, we had a designer create in Photoshop 128 files.

“So, instead of one 5–10 MB file there was a 640 MB to 1.28 GB file to be transferred. But, of course, the file transfer was just the tip of the iceberg, as it usually is. Think of all the wasted time and energy—the sheer useless monotony—of creating 128 essentially identical files.

“My strong suspicion was that when the work was eventually done, the client opened it to check that it had been done, and they never looked at it again. For all I know, it’s still on their hard drive.”

Liam suggested doing it in HTML, which would be much more practical, useful and would use vastly less weight and energy. What was the response? “That will look terrible.” In the pursuit of superficial beauty, we do so much damage to this beautiful planet.

What Liam initially did with the client is something very rare in digital-land. Actual thought, some logic, some planning. Do some maths, use your brain, think. It’s a rare thing in a profession driven by a frenzied production culture. There is the idea that everything is changing so quickly that therefore nothing can be understood or planned for, that nothing can last, so there’s no value in thinking beyond the next deadline, the next iteration, the next sprint.

Digital has shrunken our brains, shrunken our vision. We don’t even try to see beyond the next release. We are all racing, sprinting, iterating, innovating, and the majority of what this digital industry is producing is disposable crap. We have been trained to accept that nothing should last more than a couple of years.

Planned obsolescence is the driving philosophy and we even have to fight for the right to repair the stuff we bought with our hard-earned money. Think about that. Digital brands go out of their way to create products that are difficult to repair by using glues and special screws, they try to force you to use only their parts, they use threats of voiding warranties.

It’s hard to pursue quality in a world obsessed with quantity and convenience. The client of the digital agency is often their own worst enemy. However, digital culture is waste production culture, because hardly anyone thinks or cares about what happens to the thing once it’s produced. We must change this stunted mindset because this is the culture that is the polluting engine of global warming.

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