broken cellphone
PHOTO: Alexander Andrews

Humans are not used to abundance. For millions of years, we wanted. A steady supply of food was rarely guaranteed. It is only in the last 100 years that food has become more abundant. We can’t cope. It’s estimated that one-third of food that is bought is wasted. Even much of the food we eat is wasted because we don’t use it productively, and if it’s not used, food turns into fat, and that’s why we have a global obesity epidemic.

Modern technology is the central driver of abundance, and is the core accelerator of waste. Technology has created a type of waste that never before existed on this earth. A toxic and destructive waste that poisons us and our environment, whether it is processed foods, fake news or e-waste. We must address waste.

I grew up on a small farm. Practically nothing went to waste. The cow dung mixed with the straw that we used to keep the cows clean and warm and each day it was cleaned out and added to a growing pile that was in the spring spread on the fields to help grow the grass that the cows would eat. A circular economy.

So much of what we make in digital never has a second life. The websites we build, the content and code we write, the smartphones and computers, all those gadgets, they die and sit there somewhere. The content, code and websites will never rot and be spread on fields to make something new and fresh. No, they just sit there, taking up space, eating a little bit of energy every day. Almost invisible.

Modern technology has truly wonderful potential but it is overloading us with abundance. The way we are designing it is so incredibly destructive, both to our own long-term health and happiness and to the viability and sustainability of life on earth. We must change the truly toxic model of planned obsolescence, of a deep design culture that obsesses about speed, coolness, jazziness, production, innovation for the sake of innovation, change for the sake of change, the cult of volume, and the quick buck.

Our organizations have such a myopic short-term focus. We can only think and act based on the low-hanging fruit. The idea of getting a ladder to reach the other fruit requires just too much long-term planning.

Waste that feeds life in a circular economy is good and vital. But so much of the waste we create today feeds death and destruction. The one-third of food waste often ends wrapped tightly in thousand-year plastic. Much of the rest of the food feeds the obesity epidemic, while the marketers tell us we should never feel hungry, that we must snack ourselves to death with processed junk food.

The digital industry I have made my career in is so enormously, wantonly wasteful, and the waste is nearly always toxic, dead waste; waste that has no use, has no function or ability to feed new life. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change. We must change.

Step one is to recognize we have a problem. We are addicted to the easy and cheap abundance that technology offers. Just like technology has made us over-eat, we over-write, over-code, over-publish. Our websites are obese, our code is obese, our content is obese. We’ve gone wild on images, videos. We salivate when they promise 5G. “Wow, 5G!!! Do you know how much faster that is!? I don’t know why I need that speed, but I WANT that speed.”

Web, we have a problem.