On digital littering

2020-02-09 @Technology

I tend to become as anxious about the digital content overflow as the physical. Email accounts, cloud storage, photos, backups, multimedia, social activity, playlists, subscriptions, notes, bookmarks, all this data saturates the digital space.

Much of it we no longer need, but harvest anyway. Magnetic disks, flash cards, SSD drives, and the cloud overflow with garbage.

The cloud, of course, is yet another abstraction for data centers besieged by secondary storage media, much of it made accessible online for ‘free’. The freedom, however, is of the shallow kind.

The cloud infrastructure expends massive amounts of energy: the computation, the memory, the secondary storage, the redundancy, the synchronization, the failed equipment swapping.

I’m not here to quantify or contrast that energy use on a worldwide scale. I merely recognize that all this digital littering results in energy waste. And although it may lack a physical aspect, we also devote head space to the management of all that data to varying degrees.

I’m actually as concerned for the latter factor as the former. Cognitive resources are limited. I’ll never cease to emphasize the point.

Now the mentality amidst all this digital harvesting much overlaps the mentality respecting physical possession: we overemphasize the past and the effort in having produced all this content, be it time investment or financial. Yet the only factor of relevance should be what benefit the content renders, presently and in the foreseeable future.

We consider it invisible, something that occupies no tangible space. We also fall victim to the ‘just-in-case’ paradigm, as with the physical objects. What if the future presents a need for it?

Most of it, of course, we never really need. And arise such a need, it’s quiet often of the non-urgent kind or even the superficial.

We ultimately subject ourselves to severe taxation (in all the mentioned forms of energy expenditure) to insure nearly 100% coverage and security with regard to our accumulated content.

As for me, I don’t need 100% coverage. I’m content with even 90. As with any insurance policy, as you climb into the upper registers, the premiums disproportionally skyrocket.

We could also project it as an application of the Pareto Principle: the upper percentile of guarantee and comfort (the upper 20%, let’s say) exhausts 80% of the resources.

Now in practice, these percentages usually don’t sum to 100, but surpass the mark. With great assurance, I would argue the upper 10% drains far greater than 90% of resources.

Here I offer some tips to mitigate much of this waste.


The pre-deletion hack

I drew inspiration for this one from in the book Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans.

The original idea concerns the application of expiration dates to physical paperwork. Affix a date (or simply a year) to something you suspect will be of no use after. Once the time frame arrives, provided you haven’t derived increased utility from the object (and consequently altered the date), it gets eliminated, no second thoughts.

I’ve applied the same tactic to digital files on my Unix system, transitioning any content I deem increasingly ephemeral to a predelete subfolder that I maintain within varying directories or repositories of much ever-changing content.

I may or may not even suffix the folder with a date, for it already renders the partial effect of alleviating my attention from the data concerned.

I hardly ever revise or even glance into the pre-delete territory. Much goes in, little comes out. Eventually I eliminate the content and any related trace.

Wipe the older source-control history

Identify a date beyond which you don’t care for source-control history. Massive space can be freed up this way, both on the local and remote endpoints.

For a Git repository, the procedure is commonly referred to as a ‘squashing’ of the history. One possible method involves the creation of a parallel branch of limited history, a rebase onto the original, the pruning of superfluous metadata, and a forced update of the parent repository.

At the time of writing, the Git squash procedure does involve these individual, non-atomic operations, though more recent Git versions might have introduced a more compact procedure to the respect. I won’t elaborate into specific commands, but you can locate more detailed instructions via a quick search.

Avoid source control for the more ephemeral content

All that revision history and metadata consumes unnecessary resources.

You probably know by intuition the sort of data you merely wish backed up or synchronized, yet don’t care for the modification history.

In my case, I virtually never see the need for source control across anything that’s not a publicly shared project or code.

Be cognisant of data importance

Mostly everything is less than critical.

Mostly everything is less than critical. Yet much of it we back up not only offline, but in the cloud.

And though my philosophical musings concerning cloud storage fluctuate, especially depending on travel situation, I do recognize much needless cloud storage and henceforth energy waste.

Again, I’m not here to contrast this waste with others, nor am I the one to willingly disregard the so-called ‘small’ waste in light of something disproportionally grander such as motorized transport or large-scale manufacturing. Consider it a matter of principle.

If cloud storage it need be, I propose the following sort of backup heuristic:

This notion of redundancy might sound puzzling to some. It applies to many of the IaaS or VPS backup infrastructures. These enable you to select the redundancy level, and consequently vary the cost of the infrastructure usage.

Informally, I would consider less redundant any storage that doesn’t explicitly presuppose data longevity: a single copy on your web host, VPS server, an email attachment, or any mechanism that otherwise enables additional backup measures.

Don’t encrypt non-sensitive data

Cloud-based security is important, but over-emphasized. The majority of your content (in storage capacity) doesn’t warrant any encryption or security measures beyond the already built-in, whatever be the storage medium. It likely constitutes multimedia or documents that you could care less if accidentally exposed to an unwelcome eye (or the world).

I can make this claim for at least 95% of my cloud consumed storage space.

Avoid over excessive photography

Most digital cameras bombard the cloud with mindless photography. I couldn’t even begin to fathom the incredible amounts of additional storage consumed daily, monthly, yearly.

They do so in high definition, irrespective of the subject, surmounting colossal amounts of gigabytes, not to mention the bandwidth involved in the cloud transfer. Many of these photographs even become email attachments, replicated across myriads of servers.

Alas, a vast majority of this photography you will not care for. It’s existence simply consumes immense resources.

Philosophically considered, all that photography also deviates attention from the present moment. It hinders self-awareness.

… I recently perused the communications museum of Rio de Janeiro, spending nearly two hours in the retroactive technology section, marvelling over the older telephonic technologies, type writers, recording devices, gramophones, transistor radios, diskmen, Commodore computers, film cameras, among other ancient artifacts.

Meanwhile, a series of visitors paraded by, briefly snapping cell-phone photographs in the style of a photojournalist.

Don’t keep cloud copies of unnecessary email

Back up the older, and clear much of that mailbox. While this might not produce a net savings in cloud resources (all depending on your backup strategy), it will alleviate some mailbox tension.

Cash vs card purchases

For many, especially the small purchases, I generally pay with cash rather than plastic. Why flood the online databases with micro-financial transactions?

As a bonus, you might just improve your overall long-term financial state. Don’t think of what points or airline miles you might sacrifice. Think of the net impact on your net worth throughout years of fostering a cash-oriented mentality.

And here I completely agree with many ‘success experts’ and financial gurus. We become more sensitive to frivolous spending once asserted the physical exchange of currency, in contrast to the act of impersonal card swiping.

Offline music

Less streaming in general. If you don’t need the internet, simplify your life, keep the activity offline, and reduce the ultimate energy waste.

Operate within smaller constraints

Older technology, less storage, less memory, less internet access. Keep it analog even. Or at least ‘simple’ digital.

See some of my other posts:

Less time on the mobile phone

Seek greater connection to your physical surroundings, and assert much energy savings by the mere decrease of technology interaction.

You don’t need to mimic the behavior of everyone around you. If a digitally disconnected lifestyle is something that appeals to you (it must if you’ve read this far), be firm; maintain stern principle in that regard.

Questions, comments? Connect.