Digital pollution: ‘We have a pandemic of data and 90% of it is crap’

Net Results: Web pioneer Gerry McGovern warns about digital’s burden on the planet

McGovern first turned his mind to larger environmental issues when activists in Ireland organised to oppose some data centres here. Photograph: iStock

McGovern first turned his mind to larger environmental issues when activists in Ireland organised to oppose some data centres here. Photograph: iStock

 

In the late 1990s I got a job with what was then one of Ireland’s best-known digital companies, Nua. I recall being interviewed by founder Gerry McGovern, who set up the company in 1995. I was put to work evaluating websites for a Yahoo-style Irish website directory.

Those were incredibly exciting days. Just to work in a room full of huge desktop computers of a type I couldn’t possibly afford, on an extremely fast internet connection, was to be on the cutting edge of a new virtual world. McGovern was a what-if thinker, his entire team had big ideas, and everything seemed fresh and possible. I loved sitting in Nua’s converted city-centre industrial building (so digital! In Dublin!), surfing the web and, best of all, being paid for it.

McGovern was then easily the best-known Irish figure in the digital space. He had written a groundbreaking report for the government, imagining how Ireland might harness the web. He was a pioneer in email newsletters, writing his thoughts on various digital subjects for a large global audience. He regularly spoke at events.

Then came the dotcom crash, and like so many other companies of that era, Nua succumbed to the financial collapse in the entire tech sector, despite huge ambitions to go public, and a partial stake taken by Eircom.

Since then McGovern has built a new personal business around one of his key interests from the Nua days: content management and structure – on websites, yes, but also within businesses. And, still a restless thinker and writer, he’s converted those ideas into a number of books.

His main business calling card is a system he’s developed called Top Tasks, which companies can use to pare down their information overload and digital debris and shape the winnowed result. A huge recent project has been to utilise those techniques for the WHO Covid information website. He calls it “an open-sourced architecture for a pandemic”, based on feedback from real people.

Easy does it

The main takeaway – one Steve Jobs would recognise – is that people consistently find intuitive ways to organise information, yet organisations tend to present information in non-intuitive info-dumps of “more is better”. He wants to make it simpler, easier, more intuitive.

“I’ve spent my whole life making things simple,” he tells me on a call. It’s the first time I’ve spoken to him in years. I’m interested in his newest book, on the effect of technology on the environment, titled World Wide Waste. His pitch for the book: “Digital is physical. Digital is not green. Digital costs the Earth.” Literally.

I’ve been following his tweets on the many ways in which digital is destructive. They express a disillusionment and frustration that I find increasingly common among many of the net’s first-generation users, thinkers and creators.

“I’m disillusioned, but not despairing,” he insists. He wants people to understand how not just the big companies, but every one of us, creates a more polluted, energy-consuming, environmentally harmful world. The book tackles specific issues and is loaded with surprising, often disturbing facts and statistics. It is accessible and provocative and gives concrete suggestions on what an improved society could look like, what we should demand from companies, and – as challenging – ourselves.

Data dump

Data is a big part of the problem. He first turned his mind to larger environmental issues when activists in Ireland organised to oppose some data centres here. At first he couldn’t understand why. A few years on he’s a different person, he says. Strongly influenced by Greta Thunberg’s environmental campaign, he started thinking about the world he was bequeathing to his grandchildren, and began extensive research on the environmental impact of tech.

Often, it came back to data. Unfortunately, we all love to create data.

“We have a pandemic of data and 90 per cent of it is crap,” he says. Data has an environmental footprint in its creation, storage and transmission, and the devices needed to view it. Storing the “crap” in the cloud is 200 times more energy intensive than storing it on a hard drive, he says.

Or take another area. We wouldn’t have the waste, energy usage, transport miles and worker exploitation that accompanies fast fashion if we didn’t have digital driving it, on social media and websites – just one example of of an area we don’t think of as digital which nonetheless, is digital-dependent.

Lockdowns have given us all a sense of how things could be different. “Now is the time to decide things, before all the noise and the cars come back,” he says. “We don’t have to be driven by tech.”

He’s not totally tech- or internet-negative, though. “With the internet, we have the capacity to make ourselves heard. We have the choice to be the mob, or the wise crowd. Now is the time to be heard.”

World Wide Waste is available from gerrymcgovern.com/books/world-wide-waste

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