We don’t have data centers. We have data dumps

I have yet to meet a medium-to-large organization that knows how much data they have. I have yet to meet one that knows how many computers or servers they have. And with the Cloud, the problem is getting totally, absolutely, infinitely worse. We are sleepwalking into a data crisis and the consequences already are very substantial. They will get much, much worse.

We have been led to believe that digital is immaterial and that the digital space—the Web, cyberspace, metaverse—is infinite. And that the cost of this space is so vanishingly small that it is free. These are all carefully crafted lies with the purpose of creating addicts for digital products and services. Digital is built on a wholly unsustainable model of overproduction and overconsumption. For the current ecosystem of digital to remain profitable, we must produce as much and consume as much digital content as possible.

If digital were a restaurant, they would whip the plate away from you before you had even finished the first course, and place the next course down in front of you, even though you didn’t order it, and they would do everything possible for you to eat and eat and they would make it extremely difficult to leave the restaurant, and even when you did, they would have someone follow you everywhere, trying to entice you back. This is what digital has become. A world of overconsumption and overproduction, of planned obsolescence and enormous, deliberate waste. Digital has become an invisible engine of the climate crisis.

The data center industry has grown enormously because of this overconsumption and overproduction of data. However, long before data centers were a boom industry, there was a data boom. “What we have here is what we describe in Green IT circles as the vicious circle,” John Booth, a data center expert, told me. “Somebody creates a really large data drive, and then the software developers fill up that data drive with all sorts of extraneous code, and the hardware manufacturers seem to think they need an even larger drive. And it just goes on and on and on. But I think that time is coming to an end. Moore’s Law has effectively died.”

Some thought that Moore’s Law would last forever, that digital processing and storage capacities would get cheaper every year, and that we could solve our data problem by simply buying bigger and cheaper storage devices. 2022 has been the year when a new reality has dawned. The quantity of data has continued to rise exponentially and the cost of that data, for a whole range of reasons, has begun to rise too.

Data has been of control for a long time, yet this could be hidden by very cheap storage costs. Years ago, most organizations essentially gave up on the very idea of professionally managing data. “I absolutely agree with you,” John Booth said. “I call that sort of data frivolous data.” I said to John that in typical organizations, data theatre was being performed. Chatbots and AI and search and all sorts of fancy technology talk and investment were masking the fact that nobody had a clue what they were doing when it came to data management. That it had become a theatre of the absurd. “That’s a really great term,” he replied. “I would absolutely agree with you. We are collecting data for data’s sake.”

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