The myth of infinite data growth

As our environment comes under more and more pressure from the growth demands of rich humans, more and more recognize that this growth and overconsumption are the core problems we face. One area, however, that is still obsessed by growth, that still thinks that accelerated growth is the very goal of civilization, is the technology industry.

Deep within the culture and DNA of the technology industry is a foundational belief that all data is good, that the more data we have the better. According to this culture, data is critical to our economies and societies. Without digital data, we cannot function. Any costs of producing, processing and storing data are infinitely less than the benefits that come from this data. Data will solve everything, including all the crises we face. We just need more technological innovation and more data.

Those in the data center industry are giddy with growth. They can hardly keep up with the exponential demand. For data, it is boom time on a busted Earth. We may have a fresh water, biodiversity, soil, climate, plastics and ocean acidification crisis, but in the world of AI and data centers, it’s bonus time and maximum growth time. In conversations I’ve had with those in Big Tech over the years, it’s like they’re living on another planet, which possibly, in their minds, they are.

For all the benefits it brings, data causes multiple harms. Such harms have been easily hidden up until now because the relative environmental impacts of data have been small in comparison to other sectors. Not so anymore. Data centers are growing at such a pace now that they can no longer fly under the radar.

Hundreds of millions of computer servers will be required to meet data demands, with massive mining and manufacturing impacts on materials and pollution. Major demands on land, water and electricity are being made to process and store data. E-waste is the fastest growing and one of the most toxic waste streams in the world. Data has major consequences. These harms are minuscule in comparison to the core harms that data causes.

By far the biggest harm of data is in its use. The engines of Big Tech are advertising, overconsumption, waste production and planned obsolescence. The primary purpose of most data is to encourage maximum production of data by people, and then use this data to build surveillance capitalism infrastructures whose core purpose is to police the growth of overconsumption.

When we must focus on less, less, less to have any chance of a survivable planet, almost the entire focus of Big Tech is on more, more, more. At what point will we realize that the ‘tech visionaries’ who claim to have all the solutions, are in fact the problem?

We must begin to seriously examine data. What data do we need that has a true and real impact on genuine sustainability? What data is being used by the Growth Death Cult to drive infinite growth down the infinite highway on our finite planet? What data is waste? What data causes harm?

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