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 are littered with garbage.

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

The cloud infrastructure expands 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.

Digital content also exhausts mental resources. It may lack a physical aspect, but we 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; the effort in producing 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’ mentality, as with the physical objects. What if the future presents a need for it?

Most of it, of course, we never really need. And if such a need arises, 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.

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

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

  1. The pre-deletion hack, which I drew inspiration from in the book Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans. The idea in the book revolves around expiration date application to physical paperwork.

    Label something you suspect you won’t need with an expiration date (or simply a year). Once it arrives, provided you haven’t derived increased utility from the object (and consequently modified the date), it gets eliminated, no second consideration.

    I’ve been applying the same tactic to digital files on my Linux system. Throughout various system folders, including repositories, I created pre-delete sub-folders. Sometimes I don’t even suffix a date. I merely move anything I deem increasingly ephemeral to the given sub-folder.

    It already accomplishes a partial effect of alleviating my attention from that data. 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 trace.

  2. Wipe the older source-control history (ie Git repository) beyond the date you sense you don’t care for. Massive space can be freed up this way, both locally and remotely.

    I won’t go into detail on how this is to be done, but you can locate instructions via a quick search.

  3. Don’t use source control for the more ephemeral data. 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 find the need for revision history in anything other than code.

  4. Be cognisant of data importance. Mostly everything is less than critical.

    Apply the respective backup strategy:

    • Cloud-based, highly redundant backups for critical data.
    • Cloud-based, low redundancy backups for less-than critical (multimedia, ebooks, photographs, mostly everything I would argue).
    • Offline, possibly single (ie flash) backup source for anything even less sensitive. No redundancy.
    • Forget backups for the strictly ephemeral.

    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, as an email attachment, or any mechanism that otherwise enables additional backup measures.

  5. Don’t encrypt non-sensitive data. Cloud-based security is important, but much over-emphasized.

    The majority of your content (in storage capacity) doesn’t warrant any encryption or security measures beyond the already built-in, wherever you store it.

    It likely constitutes multimedia or documents that you could care less if accidentally exposed to an unwelcome eye (or the world).

    As far as storage space is concerned, I can make this claim for at least 95% of the storage capacity I consume in the cloud.

  6. Avoid taking thousands of photographs (especially in high-def). A vast majority you won’t care for. Their existence simply wastes resources across the board.

    Also, if you know me, you can predict what follows…

    All that photography distracts from the present moment. It hinders self-awareness.

    I recently perused the communications museum and spent nearly two hours in the retroactive technology room, 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 along, briefly snapping cell-phone photographs in the style of a photojournalist.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. Offline music. Less streaming in general. If you don’t need the internet, simplify your life and keep the activity offline.

  10. Operate within smaller constraints. Older tech, less storage, less memory, less internet access. Keep it analog even. Or at least ‘simple’ digital.

    See my other posts such as work abstraction layers, analog technologies, simple solutions, and the tools I use.

  11. Less time in the mobile phone, greater presence in real life. Much energy savings attained by the mere decrease of technology interaction.

    You don’t need to mimic the behavior of everyone around you. Be a solid individual of stern principle.

Questions, comments? Connect.