balled up paper in the waste basket
PHOTO: Steve Johnson

Digital is fragile, impermanent, flexible, malleable. This creates a strong impulse to create things with digital that are fragile, impermanent, malleable. How many developers and designers set out to create a website or app with the idea that it should last? Very few. When creating websites or apps the very idea is that they will change, and thus very little thought is given to longevity, to lasting value. We design for impermanence because we design for the now.

In digital, planning, thinking ahead, doing deep analysis and being careful and slow in constructing something that will be solid and stable — these are all seen as archaic and unnecessary activities. It seems that everything that digital touches becomes fluid and, in a sense, throwaway.

We design websites and apps like we think of and use plastic. They will get some use and then be thrown away and replaced by something newer, something better. This mindset leads to a wanton culture of waste. It is the philosophy of digital, it is the culture of digital, it is the practice and hubris of digital that drive and accelerate the climate crisis. It is a philosophy of limitless, costless production, creation, consumption. It is a philosophy where nothing is to be maintained, where everything will be thrown away after the shortest period of time.

In digital, the dominant philosophy and culture is speed, agility, youth. We develop software in sprints. Imagine that? How many people can physically sprint well? Ah, but some say, it’s not about sprinting, it’s about running a marathon. When was the last time you tried to run a marathon? How about walking? What’s wrong with designing things at a walk?

Why do we always have to be in a rush? Is rushing around better? Not in my experience. The state of most websites is not very good. Full of poor-quality content and poor-quality, bloated code. I recently interacted with an organization where 5% of its content was getting more than 80% of visits. Tens of thousands of pages on the site had not been reviewed in 10–15 years. Nobody was looking at them, neither visitors nor the authors.

There are some 1.8 billion websites out there. Think of all the waste content that nobody cares about. Every single page is creating CO2 because it needs to be stored, it needs to be kept ready just in case. This is the classic thought process in digital. “We need to publish this just in case. We need to keep this just in case.” Anything to avoid deep thinking and hard decisions. Anything to avoid maintenance.

Properly designed, information architecture is a very permanent thing. Twenty years ago, when I was dealing with council / municipality websites, we were discussing classes such as rubbish collection, roads, libraries, schools. It’s the same today. Twenty years ago if you were having an operation in a hospital, you were concerned with what happened Before, During and After the operation. Forty years ago, if you were going on vacation you needed accommodation, things to do and see, special offers, getting there, and around. You still need the same stuff today.

Part of the solution to addressing the climate crisis involves addressing the disposability and planned obsolescence of digital products, content and code. If we want life to last on this planet we must design and maintain the things we use so that they will last for the longest time possible.