One phenomenon of the digital world that I think we must increasingly come to terms with is the changed and changing nature of accumulation and loss. In a sense, this new digital world is marked very strongly as “lossless”, as compared to previous forms of media/medium. Especially now that everything we create is backed up automatically in the “Cloud”, it becomes increasingly difficult to lose even the most mundane emails, photos, receipts for tickets, etc.
Unnecessary accumulation is one of the defining features of the (modern? post-post modern?) world we live in. Accumulation of data, of ikea furniture and other cheap and easily accessible consumer items, accumulation of massive amounts of waste and the pollutants that follow, accumulation of all the various ideas and products and thoughts of the entire history of humanity. To address this era of accumulation, we will need to learn the art of curating, of throwing away, of recycling- and even of preventing additional creation altogether.
Snapchat is just one prominent and still somewhat mysterious case where the standards of accumulation are being rethought. Instead of making accumulation and infinite storage of a sent photo the default, the app is entirely based on the premise of a default of loss. While storage is possible via the screenshot, this involves an explicit and intentional action on the receiver’s part, as well as potentially interesting social implications by notifying the sender that the image has been saved. It is interesting to think about other ways that the paradigm of easy and automatic accumulation could be changed, whether for entertainment purposes as in the case of Snapchat, for environmental purposes, or as a way of ensuring that our digital world does not become quickly overrun with the detritus of everyday life and becomes a more curated, meaningful storage of our experiences.
A few examples of technologies of accumulation come to mind. An interesting one for me personally is Amazon, and online shopping in general. Especially as a Prime user, all it takes is a fleeting thought and a few clicks for me to add something to my growing collection of worldly possessions. This encourages an accumulation of things like never before. I do not have to hand anyone money, leave my house, or even really have a second thought about an item before I buy it. This obviously shifts the paradigm strongly toward accumulation. In contrast, there is no easy way to discard or recycle or pass on the objects I no longer really want or need. Whats more, I’m sure there are many smart minds in the industry figuring out how to make every THING in the world as easily or more easily acquired. (See: Seamless making your food desire only a few iPhone taps away, Amazon’s new drones bringing those items to you in less than 24 hours,…and who knows what the future of 3D printing may bring us). How can we combat this basic compulsion towards accumulation? We need to begin developing technologies of curation, organization- designing behaviors of divestment and restraint.
These technological changes need not always be radical. I currently have about 10 gigabytes of old emails filling various accounts. What if, instead of marking something as “delete”, it was automatically deleted after a set period of time (30 days? 6 months). If you wanted to save something, you would have to intentionally, thoughtfully choose to save it. In the world of material things, the default is typically that things stick around unless you decide to get rid of them. In the world of the digital, things can disappear without a trace. To force us to think about accumulation and loss, to change the dominant paradigm from passive accumulation to active conservation may help us begin to address some of the larger issues that will only become more and more pressing over time.
This kind of studied reflection on digital storage and loss may even me life-savingly important. In the wake of the disappearance of Malaysia Airline Flight 370, myself and many others are wondering- in an era where my smartphone tracks my trip to costco and back, how is it possible that we do not have the data to track an airplane carrying hundreds of passengers across the ocean? The answer seems to be cost: “Although it would be possible to stream data from an aircraft in real time via satellite, implementing such a system across the industry would cost billions of dollars”. (Wired, “How It’s Possible to Lose an Airplane in 2014“). Although undoubtedly still expensive, what if flight 370 had been able to simply send a live stream of GPS data via satellite, if not the full data a black box records? One has to imagine that there are innovative and cost saving measures that could be taken to preserve this valuable data. Although this is a somewhat dramatic example, I am sure there are many many cases where a simple questioning of our existing paradigms of digital accumulation would radically transform our quality of life.