(This post is a living document – a continuous work-in-progress draft of a short online course and workshop I’ve proposed to deliver at IAM Weekend 2020 – if you like it you can vote for it here! Readings, lessons, and other course materials and activities will appear as links below. You can read my original proposal, and if you’d like to be updated when I add anything, subscribe to the newsletter!)

Digital technologies have a real and considerable environmental impact, but often these negative externalities are hidden from us by the metaphors we use to talk about these technologies, and the interfaces we use to interact with them.

Photo © isado, CC BY-ND, via Flickr.

By contrast, the tangible qualities of real material waste makes their environmental effects much more visible, and this visibility seems to be a major factor in allowing people to understand the environmental consequences of their choices and actions, and to make constructive choices to ameliorate them.

So, can we draw on the lessons of physical waste in order to find ways of making the environmental effects of our use of digital services more visible, and therefore controllable? Clearly, we can’t ‘make physical’ the environmental effects of these services (at least not without creating yet more waste, and yet more emissions, which would be counter-productive). However, waste, our attitudes towards it, and our habits in dealing with it, are as much to do with its social role as with its physical form. Therefore, perhaps we can draw inspiration from these social practices in order to find ways of foregrounding the environmental impact of digital services in the language and metaphors we use to describe them, and the interfaces we design to interact with them.

We’ll explore the multitude of ways we live with waste, our rituals and practices for disposing of it (or re-using it), the feelings it evokes (from disgust to joy), the infrastructures we’ve built to deal with it (and the social practices which, in turn, emerge around them), the way waste is already deployed as a metaphor in computing, as well as examining the types of waste produced by digital services. Finally, we’ll use what we’ve learned to design new ways of designing digital services to foreground the waste they produce and promote more intentional, informed choices around our use of them.