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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Digital Waste
by John Hoey
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Is there such a thing as digital waste? Well, first of all there's the silicon wafers and magnetic media and circuit boards and cables and plastics and metals that make up the hardware of the digital world. Then there's the data and information that gets stored and transported via this hardware. And then there's the knowledge that's presented, understood, and conveyed using this hardware and information processing. What happens to old computers? Is data lost forever in old redundant hardware? Can there be such a thing as waste knowledge?
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So far as the old hardware goes there are good reasons to encourage recycling. Circuit boards contain relatively high concentrations of toxic heavy metals (high that is compared to their distribution in the Earth's crust.) Hence the desirability of recycling to prevent contamination of the environment. Consequently, many jurisdictions have regulations in place to require recycling and recovery of certain scrap computer hardware. And no doubt such regulations are feasible for large corporations and organizations to abide by. But with the one billionth personal computer estimated to have been sold already by April 2002 there must be the equivalent of a huge mountain of junk computers comprised of those in personal and small business ownership. Given that capitalist economics doesn't yet favour recycling and recovery versus continuing extraction of depleting resources it would seem certain that a large amount of this toxic material ends up in landfill sites.
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Data stored on old hard drives constitutes another form of digital waste. If the information was deemed useful then it will probably have been copied and replicated on some new hard drive. So in that sense nothing has been wasted or lost. But suppose the data stored on the scrap hardware represented personal private information about many individuals? What about the legal duty an organization may have to protect and ensure privacy? Short of physically destroying the hard drive it could be costly to ensure data cleanliness in redundant hardware.
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And then there's all the information lost on outdated storage media, and in files from earlier and now incompatible versions of software. Well, if this data really mattered that much then surely somebody would have copied it or transformed it to some other format or in some way preserved the information in a retrievable form. The fact that I probably can't any longer access some of the earliest emails I sent and received could make me feel like I've lost something important. I have to remind myself that I haven't looked at those messages for seven years so what really would be lost if I never see them again? I am reminded of a comment from a photographer who noted that the idea of conserving a record of ourselves, our family, our friends in the form of photographs is really very new in evolutionary terms. It has been around for only four or five generations and human beings existed perfectly well for hundreds of generations with only a brain to remember the past. Does the fact that especially with digital media we can easily refresh our mediated memories lead to an ever greater difficulty with living in the now?
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There is a great freedom that comes from jettisoning baggage that has got dragged along with you although it can be a big shock at the time. I experienced this recently when a laptop I used stopped working. I had always planned for such a catastrophe by backing up important data on to compact discs stored remotely. But I discovered to my horror that I had ended up loosing 3 years of email archives. Now, some time after the event, I realise that these were in fact just conversations that do not need to be recorded. Any messages that constituted something of potential legal significance I had already printed off and stored in the old-fashioned-but-oh-so-much-more-user-friendly interface of a filing cabinet.
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Perhaps the biggest and most immediate form of digital waste is the increasing waste of time that digital devices bring about. The promises of greatly enhanced opportunity for leisure time created by the digital revolution seriously heralded in the 1970s and 1980s seem as ludicrous now as the assertion in the 1960s that nuclear energy would make available free electricity. 'Spam' unsolicited commercial email must be the most ubiquitous form of digital time wasting. I feel slightly embarrassed to admit that until recently I received over 500 junk emails per day. This quantity steadily grew from about four or five per day ably assisted by Microsoft's remarkably promiscuous XP and Outlook Express which by default will both happily communicate with nearly any other internet entity. Two or three days without logging on resulted in nearly two hours of downloading digital rubbish. But what a special pleasure to discover the server commands: blackhole (to disappear junk messages in to cyber space) and fail, no such address here, (to send the junk back to its author.) Eighty spam messages a day is tolerable but even so has required a change of address to win back the wasted time.
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The problem of wasted time resulting from the use of digital media and communication certainly has more to do with organization (or 'knowledge management' if you make your living from consultancy.) In a very real sense 'less is more': be careful about organizing and using less information that is really important and you'll have more time to get on with your life. For everything else there's always the-about-to-be-IPO'd-so-the-venture-capitalists-can-cash-in Google.
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