Should we worry about a Digital Landfill?

Our society has made significant progress on reducing landfills.  From companies like Subaru’s Zero Landfill Plant in Indiana to the many trash and recycling bins on campuses, shopping areas and homes, we are conscious of not wasting our physical resources.

So, I’ve wondered if we are creating the equivalent of a digital landfill? I’m not talking about the plethora of physical computer equipment (and precious, rare-earth minerals) in landfills but the actual concept of wasted, unused bits and bytes.  It is so easy to write an app, a software program and create data (like photos, music, e-records, analyses, etc.), that we do it without thinking. 

How many times do you take a picture of the same thing to get it right? We used to take just one in the physical film days but with a digital camera/phone, we can take 20 to get the one we want.  How many apps do you have on your phone or iPad that you don’t use anymore, and probably just used once or twice? And if you delete it, what’s really ‘gone’?

Innovation requires many “at-bats” before we get it right.  We have an idea, test, learn, apply and iterate.  That's how we create meaningful and valuable solutions to problems. I’m not recommending we don’t keep trying.  Yet, I do wonder if we are becoming habituated to wasting the resources associated with the digital world: time, effort, thought, money.  After all, these are not as tangible and visible as soda cans, paper cups and plastic utensils, but they aren’t infinite.  Somehow it seems ‘ok’ to buy and/or download more ‘stuff’ and use up more ‘space’ with every picture, sound, video ever taken.

As we try to increase our consciousness of what and how we consume in the physical world, so we are better stewards of our natural resources, does the limitlessness of the digital world mean we over-consume? Does it mean we’ll just download apps and keep saving data because we ‘can’, because there is no tangible landfill or obvious sign of waste?  Are we merely transferring our consumerism from physical to digital? And is that ok? What are the 2nd and 3rd order consequences of that?

I don’t have the answers – I just have the questions.  What do you think?

Thank you again, Denise Fletcher, for telling me to write this!