The environmental effects of the digital realm are considerable, with data services projected to make up 21% of the world’s electricity demand by 2030, yet these effects are hidden from us through the metaphors and language we use to talk about them.

The cloud metaphor – disembodied and ephemeral – in particular does not adequately capture these material, corporeal properties of our digital infrastructure.

In order to capture the idea of digital services as real material things in the world, new metaphors are needed, and I’d like to propose that one useful new metaphor to deploy in capturing these effects is Waste.

Photo © Adam Cohn, CC BY-NC-ND, via Flickr.

In the physical world, the material, tangible properties of plastic waste, for instance, have led to an increased understanding by the population of its harmful effects on the environment, and subsequent opportunities to reimagine our relationship with plastic in a way that mitigates these – and this provides an opportunity to learn about how our use of digital technologies might undergo a similar transformation.

I’d like to propose a 90 minute practical prototyping and speculative design workshop, for between 6 and 12 participants (working in groups of 3 or 4), on how we might learn from our experience of waste in the physical world to make the environmental impact of digital services more visible and tangible.

We will ask – can we use the analogy of material waste to devise new metaphors and affordances for digital services which might admit a more conscious understanding of their harmful environmental consequences, as well as opportunities to mitigate them?

In order to investigate this, I propose to take an approach grounded in the social role of waste in our lives, and its phenomenology. Drawing on existing work, we will learn about the social history of waste, how social attitudes to waste have shaped and been shaped by ecological concerns, and how metaphors of waste have been deployed in computing.

From this, we will identify some useful affordances of waste
management, and, through a practical process of speculative design and prototyping, will explore how these can be deployed in the interfaces to existing digital services (for example, social networks, cloud computing, machine learning, cryptocurrency mining) in order to make their environmental effects tangible to their users.

In order to provide some context to the collaborative, practical work of the workshop itself, I’m planning to set up a weekly mailing list in the month before the conference where I will share material for reading, discussion, and inspiration in the form of articles (with commentary), videos, photo essays, and short prompts for reflection or activity for participants.