Access and Feeds

Digital Waste: The Unintended Consequences of Digital Transformation

By Dick Weisinger

Digital transformation is not only happening in businesses, it’s happening in people’s lives too. One side effect of our increased dependence and use of virtual tools and apps is massive amounts of digital waste.

The term ‘digital waste’ here doesn’t include ‘electronic waste’ from hardware, like computers, phones and other digital devices, which is an equally pressing problem on its own. ‘Digital waste’ refers to the intangible data that is created and stored — once created it is out of sight and mind and likely forgotten.

Virginie Guerin, French urban planner, said that “the problem is that you don’t see anything. I think that’s the worst thing and why it’s so hard to make it real to people.”

Think of all the email accounts that you’ve had with emails dating back many years that will likely never be accessed. Those emails are stored on disk drives running somewhere in a data center and also probably backed up on tape or other long-term storage location for recovery, if ever needed. A report by MacAffee estimated that two million homes in the US generate an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the electricity needed to transmit trillions of spam email every year.

Mike Berners-Lee, professor at Lancaster University in the UK, said that “while the carbon footprint of an email isn’t huge, it’s a great illustration of the broader principle that cutting the waste out of our lives is good for our wellbeing and good for the environment. Every time we take a small step towards changing our behavior, be that sending fewer emails or carrying a reusable coffee cup, we need to treat it as a reminder to ourselves and others that we care even more about the really big carbon decisions.”

Storing old emails is just a small piece of the problem and is dwarfed by the energy used/wasted by streaming videos — every day YouTube alone streams billions of hours of video. Chris Preist, professor at the University of Bristol, said that “for global digital services, they have large footprints because billions of us use them. Our individual footprint is small. It is really important that the service designers take responsibility for measures which can reduce the overall footprint, rather than individuals feeling they need to ‘cut down’ for environmental reasons.”

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