EMC and IDC got a lot of publicity a couple of weeks ago when they released research suggesting that the digital universe was 10 per cent bigger last year than originally estimated at 281 billion gigabytes (281 exabytes) and growing by nearly 60 per cent a year. They estimated that it could reach 1.8 zettabytes (1,800 exabytes) by 2011.
My first reaction was to ask why we can’t do something to reduce data creation. Just because more data is being created, that doesn’t mean it’s worth keeping. In much the same way as our society has moved from one where milk bottles were recycled every day by the milkman to a world where drinks are sold in plastic bottles or cartons, generating much more waste and pollution along the way, so data generation has, it appears, got completely out of control.
We have begun to recognise the dangers posed by environmental waste and taken steps to counter it by recycling and reducing packaging (albeit in a limited way) but our approach towards data seems to be much more casual. Why? The things we use to create data and the devices that are required to store it use power and resources. Surely it makes environmental sense (and common sense) to try and reduce data generation by erasing all trivial or unimportant information before it is stored?
According to IDC/EMC, we have now reached a point where more data is generated about a person than by that person. Our digital shadows are now bigger than we are. Apparently, this is a good thing. I can’t think why. How can it be acceptable for there to be more information about me than I can generate myself? What sort of information is it? How much of it is unnecessarily duplicated? How much is valueless? How much could be damaging if it is misused?
Labelling the data generated about us a ‘digital shadow’ serves two purposes: it makes it sound harmless in the same way as the shadow we throw on the ground when we stand in the sun and it also gives it a feeling of natural inevitability – you throw a shadow when you’re in the sun and you throw a digital shadow in a digital universe. The message seems to be ‘don’t worry, it’s natural’.
But is it? The way I see it, there’s a big difference between my natural shadow and my digital shadow. My real shadow may follow me around but people don’t make judgements on me based upon it; they do when it comes to my digital shadow. I can manoeuvre my natural shadow by the way I stand in the sun or the light but my digital shadow is created and controlled by others. My natural shadow may get bigger at times, but it also shrinks. My digital shadow increases all the time. Who are the people making my digital shadow? What information are they putting into it?
Personally, I’d be much happier if some kind of discipline was applied to the digital universe and my shadow. From a technology point of view, that means working to limit data emissions about individuals and the amount of data stored about them. Instead of a system where more and more data is spewed out and stored without any real attempt to assign value to it and erase or discard useless information at the point of input, we should be focusing on ways to reduce data pollution. I don’t want to live in a world of shadows, do you?
This was first published in April 2008