February 2023

A little while ago, I had a theory that the number of ‘energy efficient’ lightbulbs in use today must exceed the energy used by the total number of live incandescent bulbs of 10 or 20 years ago. I had nothing really to prove this theory, and I left the thought alone for a while.

And then reading something (I wish I could remember what) it turned out to be a thing, and it is called the Jevons Paradox.

I now have another - related - theory, which is that soon we will all know about ‘digital trash’. This is, the idea that storage space is not virtual - it is very much physical. Everything that we store digitally (everything) takes up physical space. Today, the space required for a gigabyte is small but no smaller than you might find inside your laptop. All of the major cloud storage providers (ie Google, Apple, sort of Amazon) have what is called redundancy which is the way of describing replication of that information many times, to try to ensure the chance of total loss of your data is as low as possible by having several copies. Every replication is more storage, which is more physical space on the planet.

So where are the limits with this, and what is the tipping point for more physical space being used as a result of cloud storage than say printed photo collections per person, or even a sensible amount of digital personal storage? This is where the Jevons Paradox comes in. Would we take as many photos if we had to physically store every single photo in our place of living? This could be ‘physically’ as a printed photo in an extreme case, or on a local digital storage device such as a memory card. The costs of storing terabytes on memory cards is much higher than a normal harddrive so it is assumed most consumers would still opt for a harddrive in this case.

Today we have the slightly crazy situation where a given photo is probably replicated about 10 times across different accounts and services before redundancy. If you share a photo, say, in a whatsapp group - the chances are most participants download it to their device (automatically or manually), and most participants who have not opted out of defaults will then have that image backed up in the cloud. So 10 participants, 10 local copies, 9 cloud copies (let’s say a 90% default rate for cloud backup) - and then redundancy to three locations. And because of privacy, there is no way Google can fingerprint the image and store one copy for nine users. It is 9 x 3 (in a good case) - so 27 copies of one cat meme that was shared on that community group. Hopefully it is clear this is a) the Jevons Paradox in action, and b) not sustainable given the physical space, energy and cooling (more energy or natural destruction in a cold place) required to keep going on this path. Just charging a bit more or having ‘slightly not unlimited’ (Google Photos) is not the answer here.

I have focussed mainly on the type of data that is likely the most frequent combination of the largest data volume per file and frequency, that the average consumer / human produces every day (a digital image file aka the photo), however we did not scratch the surface with business data, chat histories, etc.

Digital trash will be upon us in the next decade, and we will all need to spend time clearing it out.

it is 2024