The simplest type of waste is the visible kind. It is easy to identify rubbish on the streets, or fly tipping on a country road, but as we engage in progressively more complex systems - mechanical, chemical, digital, we experience increasingly more complex forms of waste that are harder to identify.
Much of the early types of waste from manufacturing were clearly visible - the massive slag heaps of the coal industry or the bellowing smoke from a factory's chimney stack. The evidence of waste was there for everyone to see. In Britain this resulted in the first environmental law - the Alkali Acts, passed in 1863 to limit the pollution given off by the production of soda ash.
100 years after the first waste laws were introduced the emerging chemical industry was brought into the spotlight when Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published. She highlighted the damage we were unknowingly doing to the ecosystem by the use of pesticides. This invisible damage was particularly exampled by one pesticide - DDT - which was being successfully used on farms to kill off a range of pests but had an enormous knock-on effects on the food chain; killing off birds, wildlife and even humans in a couple of instances.
The increased use of digital products highlights a new era for waste. Not only the complex components used in the production of TV, computers and phones that then need expert dismantling in order to be recycled, but the digital services that create complex cultural waste that we don’t yet fully understand.
We can categories digital waste into 3 groups.
‘Bit Rot’ - out-dated computer applications and their offspring files.
Forgotten digital services that retain your user ID
Unwanted evidence of ourselves online (photos, videos, etc)
Vint Cerf, who is the Vice President at Google and is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the internet, coined the phrase 'Bit Rot' to describe the redundancy of digital content that requires a reader application. If that content is not updated regularly, its reader application becomes obsolete and the content unreadable. If you think of all of the digital format presentations you have done in the last 15 years and how many would still be usable then you start to get an idea of the loss of knowledge we are experiencing - think Alexandra Library of the modern world.
Forgotten Digital Services
This year there are 1.4 billion smartphone users on earth. Assuming that each one of these will be signed up to some kind of digital service - which many of the manufactures insist on at some level - that’s a lot of digital service relationships getting started. WIth the average life of a smartphone lasting around 2 years that service might be active for only a couple of years.
We rarely close the digital relationships we start. We might stop using them but these unclosed services will still be present on databases, returning results to search engines and although many users will be unaware of this, the identity they created will still be active.
Unwanted Evidence Online
Professor Mayer-Schönberger, in his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton, 2009), highlights the problems of the accessibility to so much from our past and the potential damage caused by a compromising Facebook picture or some outdated information taken as fact. The context of these artefacts are vital to understanding them. This includes the context of time. Much of the content we keep online, will remain there long after the office party and long after you leave that job.
With each new industrial movement we have to look harder for the wasteful consequences. The intentions of factories in the industrial revolution was not to create smoke and smog, it was to manufacture products on a mass scale. It took the death of hundreds of people to highlight the need for the clean air act. The chemical industries of the 50s and 60s did not intend to kill off the entire food chain with DDT. Their intention was to aid farming production by reducing common pests. It took observations of the wider food chain to notice the real impact.
Worrying digital narcissism
New industries are often blinded by the benefits of the any new technology. The digital industry is no different. But unlike the industries of the past, the impact of digital waste won’t be a physical one, it will be a social and physiological one.
The emerging physiological tics we develop from using social media, the low level anxieties from fear of missing out, subconscious comparisons with “friends” or the embarrassment of being tagged in someone else's photo are all examples of the impact of this surfacing digital waste.
We need to sober up from the endless benefits of digital technology and start assessing its wasteful consequences. We need to evolve our understanding of digital waste, develop a vocabulary to acknowledge it and techniques to counter its long term effects.