Content type: Essay
Credits: Nicole de Groot (MA student in Media Technology, Leiden University, 2018-2020)
Year: 2019

Introduction: In this essay, Nicole de Groot questions the usefulness of the term ‘digital detritus’. She calls for a more agile lexicographical approach to our online waste to better reflect its physical realities and shifting forms.

Digital detritus is far from being weightless. Being digital does not make it zero-weight or zero-waste...
Nicole de Groot

Trash. Garbage. Detritus. Rubbish. Litter. Spoil. Scrap. There are bounteous terms for waste. Googling the term ‘waste’ will garner results such as ‘waste management’ and ‘waste recycling’ and articles on the impact of human waste on the environment. These results point to a normative notion of waste that is physical and therefore tangible, graspable and imaginable. One would only have to see a floating plastic cup in a nearby canal to understand that this physical form of plastic is a problem. Today, however, the regular understanding of waste may no longer suffice. What about the waste that’s invisible, intangible — digital?

The term ‘digital detritus’ was first coined in 2011. Software engineer and writer Jillian Burrow’s description of a trail of digital litter created by the consumption of digital goods/apps, akin to a candy wrapper left behind after the candy's consumption, has since become a common term for describing a category that includes all of our collectively abandoned websites, duplicate files, forgotten downloads. This essay suggests that even though digital detritus is not in common parlance, the term may already need updating inline with the scale and urgency of the issue.

E-waste, commonly understood as discarded electronic hardware, is one of the largest growing waste groups in the municipal solid waste stream. In 2016, 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste was generated worldwide and only 16% of this was recycled. From around the 1990s, when computers and the internet started to become more available, e-waste has been part of the sustainability agenda. Despite being so closely related, digital detritus is not yet part of that agenda and, probably because of its intangible nature, is still not widely understood.

It is estimated that there are around 1.6 to 1.9 billion websites in existence. Only 14% of them are active which means that around 85% of the internet could be seen as digital detritus: drifting in the online Desert of the Real.

Why is this such a problem then? You could argue that the digital detritus on the web does not harm anybody. The term itself seems to be an oxymoron. The ‘digital’ is always assumed to have little to no mass. The only real physicalness of the digital is embodied in its casing and its hardware: metal, plastics, and liquids. What happens within the digital, however, is assumed to be weightless. Data is an abstract term that is realised in zeroes and ones. Numbers and calculations have no mass, no embodiment, no touchable form except for their representation on the screen.

We soften the blow of impact by giving small, cute names to something so significant, while in fact we should embrace its immensity and materialize the seemingly weightlessness of digital detritus.

The fact is, however, that digital detritus is far from being weightless. Being digital does not make it zero-weight or zero-waste. All these abandoned websites are still stored on servers in building that take up physical space. These server farms need a massive amount of energy to stay active, a feat that mostly goes unnoticed due to the semantics for this process which prioritize natural and vaporous terms like the ‘cloud’. Already data centres use an estimated 200 terawatt-hours (TWh) each year (which is twice the yearly energy consumption of the whole of the Netherlands) and these numbers are only expected to go up.

We must acknowledge that waste need not be directly physical to have an impact on the environment and that we need new ways to imagine and understand these types of waste in relation to ourselves and our society. The ‘measurableness’ of the metaphor of physical waste is one that is easier to grasp than an abstract one like data in the cloud, the internet of things and software. Yet, it is the very immeasurableness of digital detritus that makes it such an urgent issue. We soften the blow of impact by giving small, cute names to something so significant, while in fact we should embrace its immensity and materialize the seemingly weightlessness of digital detritus.

A new discourse is emerging from the rubble of our connected world that attempts to classify and understand contemporary forms of waste. Perhaps we would do better to remove the descriptor ‘digital’ from the term digital detritus. Taking a dictionary definition of detritus as ‘waste material or rubbish, especially left after a particular event’, it becomes clear that we have a lot of waste to clear up after the ‘event’ of the internet.