digital footprints

1366334836000 » Tagged as: carbon footprint , Tagged as: digital garbage , Tagged as: e-waste

Garbage in Storage

daya dissanayake

The International Conference on Waste Management was held in Colombo recently. It is time to think about the digital waste too. We are all aware of, or trying to ignore our Carbon footprint and the legacy we are leaving our children, due to the effects of the release of so much CO2 to the atmosphere. And we gloat about our contribution to push back global warming by minimizing use of paper and print media.

Dr. Alexander Wissner-Gross at Harvard University estimates that "every second someone browsing a simple web site generates roughly 20 milligrams of CO2". Recently CNN quoted the computer security organization McAfee, that electricity needed just to transmit the trillions of spam emails sent annually equals the amount of electricity required to power two million homes in the U.S. while producing the same level of greenhouse gas emissions as more than three million cars.

Youtube has claimed that they have crossed the one billion threshold recently. There had been only 50 million visitors a month when Google acquired it in 2006. Facebook had reached this figure five months ago. Facebook had 1,526,360 users as at March 21st, 2013, while the global audience was 963,675,160 on the same date. Still there is no waste management with any of these sites.

We accumulate trash and garbage in our computers, android phones and even in e-book readers, in the same way we collect such unwanted material in our homes and our offices. We often believe that if we clean up our store-rooms, our filing cabinets, our hard disks and thumb drives, we would suddenly be in urgent need of what had been trashed. That is why we are reluctant to clear the trash folders in our computers.

When we had to work with a 512 k memory and a 10MB hard disk, we used to keep all our data and files in diskettes, and as the memory and storage capacity kept on increasing, we kept on storing everything that we came across. Some books, old newspapers, even our school notebooks we keep, "for sentimental reasons". Now no one talks in Kilobytes or Megabytes, but in Gigabytes and even Petabytes, (10 and 15 zeros). The technological answer is to digitize all the old documents and save them on our own computers or on the clouds. This is really good and useful technology when it comes to preserving ancient documents, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, or our own ola leaf documents. It is very useful for the museums around the world, and archives.

Like every invention, technological development of mankind, the evil and destructive effects of our new technology far outweigh the benefits. It is like the latest drugs for cancer. The harm these drugs do to the human body is far more destructive than the cure it brings. In the same manner the new digital storage technology will only increase the garbage in storage. Storage space is virtually unlimited and we never for a moment think of the cost of this storage, not just the carrying cost, but the total cost to nature, our Mother earth.

In the early sixties the saying among the computer users was "Garbage In - Garbage Out", meaning if we feed garbage into the computer we only get garbage out of it. Today the problem is we input all the garbage, which not only process them into more garbage, but we are storing all the input and output data in the computers. Some of the household garbage in the city garbage dumps would deteriorate soon, but the garbage of the hardware components of the computer world would take millions of years to deteriorate. The soft garbage of data and documents would never deteriorate as long as the storage facilities are maintained, and the garbage dumps will go on growing till some day they will smother mankind out of existence.

In the old days, we were very careful with our photographs. Cameras were expensive. The photographic films were expensive, developing and printing was expensive. In low light we had to use flash bulbs, one bulb for each shot. Colour films had to be sent to India for processing. We would print only the best photos we had taken, and they would lie around in boxes or photo albums gathering dust.

Now photography is of unlimited capacity, we can go on taking photo after photo as long as the memory card and battery would last, but we can always replace the card and the battery, or dump the photos in another storage dump and recharge the battery. We are happy that it costs nothing extra. We do not even need a camera today, because the phones are sometimes better as a camera. What we do not realize is the massive Carbon footprint we are leaving as we store all these unwanted photographs. We do not have time to enjoy a visit to a landscape where natural wonders still remain, or at any social gathering, because we are so busy taking photos. We only see where we had been only at home later on a screen.

We have forgotten, that we have the best cameras on earth, our own eyes. We have unlimited storage capacity and memory power, to store every beautiful and memorable thing that has happened in our lives. We do not need to continue to leave a digital carbon footprint. Prof. Paul Reber estimates that the human brain has a storage capacity around 2.5 Petabytes. This capacity could hold three million hours of TV shows, most of which would be real garbage.

Nothing is permanent in life, we don't live forever. Nothing lasts for ever, either natural or man made. So why should we try to beat the universal system by trying to preserve them? And in preserving all the digital garbage, bring a quicker end to the Earth as we know it.

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