Why do we copy and paste so much?

In digital, I’m forever copying and pasting, and saving as. In digital, it’s so easy to create copies. Sometimes, when I’m writing and I’m not happy with a sentence, I’ll delete the whole sentence and start again, even though it might have been better to work on the original sentence. It just seems more convenient to select and delete or to put my finger down on the Back button.

I know I’m not alone. I remember years ago talking to some people in the Microsoft Excel team and they telling me about how they tested hiding the big Copy and Paste buttons behind a dropdown because they thought that everyone would by now know where to go. Wow! Did people in the test get frustrated. They wanted that big button, and to this day you still see that big Copy and Paste buttons take pride of place in the top left of Microsoft Word and Excel.

I’m afraid to cut and paste. Just this morning I needed to move a file. I copied instead of cutting. “What if something goes wrong,” my mind said. “You need to be able to get back to the original.” What if something doesn’t go wrong? What if everything works out fine and I get done exactly what I need to do? Will I go back and delete one of the redundant files? Probably not.

Digital makes us copiers. Digital makes us duplicators. We copy because we can. We copy because there is no obvious cost and we are risk averse. We don’t want to lose something. We know that digital is inherently unstable and transient, that in the blink of an eye, months of work can disappear. So, we take out insurance by making copies.

What’s the cost of copies? Very little it seems. Except that we created more data in the last two years than in all of previous history. That we are now creating zettabytes of data every year and storing much of it in the Cloud, and cloud storage is so much more polluting than storing locally. Storage is like global warming. In our everyday lives, the growth of storage is imperceptible. It’s like the rising sea levels. Its impact and consequences will be felt in future generations. Digital storage is exploding and it will do tremendous damage to our planet if we don’t radically change our behaviors and stop saving and copying everything.

What happens to the copies when we change the original? Will we go back and update the older copies with the new version? What happens to the copies when we decide to delete the original? Will we go back and delete the copies? What happens when someone takes a copy and makes a small change?

Copies create simplicities for the present and complexities for the future. Digital makes things easy for the now and stores up problems for the future. We have become copyists. Every copy we create has a weight. It consumes energy and creates pollution. What we need more than ever today is a philosophy of not copying or not duplicating, of using what we have. If we do copy we must remember to delete, and we must become just as good a pruner as producer. Otherwise, we’re just contributing to the enormous ocean of both digital and physical waste that humans have been mass-producing these last fifty years.

3 thoughts on “Why do we copy and paste so much?

  1. Thom

    Hi Gerry, considering the global pandemic we’re all experiencing, perhaps do more posts on how digital can help us through the next few months. Interesting as it is, I’m not sure if people want to hear about Cut-and-Paste at this particular moment in time.

    Yours
    Thom

    Reply
  2. Vicky Sargent

    Hi Thom, if you read Gerry’s forthcoming book World Wide Waste, as I’ve had the opportunity to do, you’ll see how ‘cut-and-paste thinking’ has helped get us to this particular moment in time. People really should want to hear about that.
    Best regards
    Vicky

    Reply

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