Reducing waste in the digital design process

Digital design tools rarely pay attention to weight and waste. We must become much more focused, as we design and create digital data, about its weight and the often huge waste that it leaves behind in the form of drafts, copies, etc.

I’ve been doing a lot of audio editing recently and it’s shocking the amount of data that gets produced, the vast majority of which is unnecessary and wasteful. I’m not going to name the software I’m using. Over the years, I’ve found that practically all software behaves the same wasteful way.

If you’re doing podcasting, you’re working with MP3. I’ve talked to professional journalists working for large broadcasters and they all say the same: use MP3 throughout the editing and broadcast process. The alternative is WAV, which can be 8-15 times heavier. If you’re a journalist out on the road, sending reports back over Wi-Fi in a hotel, those huge big WAV files can really slow things down. MP3 does the job just fine.

And yet most podcasting systems I’ve used seem to default to WAV. The editing system I use is even worse. I record in MP3. So, after an interview I might have a file that is 30 MB. When I import it for editing, it gets converted into WAV, and goes up to a size of 220 MB. That makes no sense. You convert downward, not upwards, surely? We’re not producing an album of music here; it’s just a simple audio interview. It gets weirder. As I edit the file, bringing a 60-minute interview down to 15 minutes, the WAVs get bigger. For my final edit, I end up with a WAV that is over 400 MB.

It gets worse. For one project I’m editing short snippets from various interviews into a single edit. The total weight for this project, which is 13 minutes of finished audio, is 3.9 GB! When I save it to MP3 for broadcast it comes out at 11 MB. That means the edit was 355 times heavier than the final file. Why is this happening? It seems that even if I take a 10-second snippet from another interview and add it to the new edit, the software carries across the entire file that the 10 seconds came from.

It’s crazy, environmentally destructive stuff. It is perfectly normal practice for the digital technology industry. Creating copies of copies of copies is actually seen as best practice. There is a cultural aversion to—sometimes even disgust at—the very idea of deleting things. All data is equal in digital culture. The 3,989 MB of edits are just as valuable as the final 11 MB that gets published. And they will never be deleted because you might want to go back and go back and go back. Except you don’t go back. Over 90% of data is never accessed again three months after it’s first stored. This “just in case” attitude is destroying the planet.

To get 150 MB of broadcast material, my system created 13 GB of data. That’s 99% waste. (Which sadly is typical for humans. We are so incredibly wasteful as a species.) And there’s no easy way to delete that data. I have to go into the folders and select the right files to delete.

Data centers are data dumps that demand huge quantities of materials, water and energy. Data waste is growing at uncontrolled and wholly unsustainable levels. And at the same time, we’re being sold the Big Lie that going more digital will help save the environment. We need a radical cultural shift in how we think about and manage data.

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