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World Wide Waste: An interview with Gerry McGovern

World Wide Waste: An interview with Gerry McGovern

If you’re in the business of digital design you’ll know all too well the importance of being able to parse through assumptions in order to make informed decisions. Some of the biggest assumptions we’ve been making since the advent of the web are difficult to argue against:

“Going paperless will greatly reduce our carbon footprint.”

“Digital cuts out the middle man, ensuring growers and workers get a fairer deal.”

“The more data we have, the faster and more efficiently we’ll operate.”

But what if you found out that every unit of data you’ve ever created has a tangible impact on the environment? That each action you take in the digital world can be measured in carbon emissions and the exploitation of vulnerable workers?

Gerry McGovern’s new book World Wide Waste tackles some of the digital industry’s greatest claims by presenting an arsenal of intricate and alarming calculations, highly relatable anecdotes and refreshingly honest perspectives on the current world order of corporate data addiction.

We recently sat down with Gerry to find out what it’s all about.

Gerry McGovern

Gerry McGovern speaking at event

McGovern, G. (image owner). Gerry on stage speaking at event. Retrieved from Gerry McGovern’s website.

Gerry got involved in the web quite early on, in 1994. At that stage, he was a freelance journalist, mainly reporting on the Irish music scene but mixing that with some technology excerpts, which was a pet interest of his.

“I was never tremendously competent at technology, or programming or anything like that,” Gerry admits. “But I had an interest in the web. For the first time I thought ‘this is going to change the world’, you know, ‘this is the thing you’ve been looking for, to be a part of some sort of a movement.’”

That initial spark of interest grew into a sparkling career in digital. Gerry burst onto the Irish tech scene in the mid 1990s as an early thought leader when he published a report for the Irish government on the future impact of the Internet. He set up the successful digital company Nua, developed the Top Tasks framework and methodology used by the likes of the World Health Organisation and IBM, and has written over half a dozen well–loved books on the web.

World Wide Waste

Q1. Tell us about the series of events that led you to write World Wide Waste.

A1. “My wife has played a big role. She’s very conscious of organic food and she washes the plastic bags and she doesn’t just throw stuff away, that sort of stuff. And seeing the younger generation with Greta Thunberg, and all those thousands and millions of young people marching under school strikes, I was thinking, ‘you know, that’s great.’ I always thought, because I’m involved in the digital industry, we’re all green and everything’s fine. And then it just kept striking me going into companies like Cisco, and Microsoft, and IBM and Nike, the amount of horrible internal systems, the redundancy, the amount of awful data dumps that most intranets are. I got this sense of ‘wow, there’s an extraordinary amount of waste happening in digital’, and that the data centres are beginning to mushroom all over the place. E–waste is beginning to explode, and the more I dug into it, the more uncomfortable I became about where it is and what it’s facilitating.”

Q2. In the book there were a lot of big, shocking facts and figures about the carbon footprint associated with digital activity. When you were doing the research for the book, were there any findings in particular that really stopped you in your tracks?

A2. “Well, I discovered that global e–waste makes up about 40 million metric tonnes of CO2 a year. I actually saw a report yesterday that says it’s now at 53 million, and in about 10 years it will be 120 million. But what is 40 million metric tonnes? That’s the equivalent of all the weight of all the commercial aircraft ever built. It would cover the size of Manhattan every year, and less than 20% of it is actually recycled.

“And then I read that most of the waste is created in the manufacturing stage of a digital device. So if you have a device that takes a lot of energy to create, and that device creates waste when it’s used, and then you change that device every two or three years, you get a perfect storm of waste culture. There are 10 billion smartphones in the world and counting ­– 10 billion!”

Q3. When you mention e–waste, maybe you could break that down a little bit and just describe what that means? What are some examples?

A3. “Well, our phones, our computers, our screens, our cables, anything that’s a kind of electronic device – even cars and solar panels that are supposed to be eco–friendly – those things have to be manufactured, which consumes natural resources and produces CO2. And many of them can’t be properly recycled, so what happens to them when we replace them? Then think of all of the billions of devices that are coming in Internet of Things. They’re flimsy little things that are going to last two, three, four years.”

e-waste being gathered up by children

BRS MEAS (image owner). Children gathering up e–waste. Retrieved from Flickr / Cropped from original. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

But that’s not all. In the book, Gerry goes into extraordinary detail about the e–waste produced when we create and transfer data. Every kb that we upload and download has a carbon footprint because of the energy that gets expelled by servers and data centres (among many other factors – I’ll not spoil the book!). To give you an idea of what we’re dealing with, here are a few statistics that blew my mind:

  • 1.6 billion trees would have to be planted to offset the pollution caused by email spam.
  • 1.5 billion trees would need to be planted to deal with annual ecommerce returns in the US alone.
  • 16 million trees would need to be planted to offset the pollution caused by the estimated 1.9 trillion yearly searches on Google.

Q4. Something I love about the book is that it doesn’t just focus on the waste produced by digital technology. But it examines the human condition and how we are the ones that create demand for those services in the first place. How much of the waste problem is down to human nature, rather than the technology itself?

A4. “Consumption has been steadily rising since the Second World War, but it’s exploded since the 1970s. I was looking at a chart of the rise of the computer industry where it really begins to massively expand in the 1970s. And then I looked at a chart of raw material consumption and again it massively expanded the 1970s. I wondered, are these connected?

“I began to reailse that they were, and that the biggest waste in digital is not digital itself, but it is the way it facilitates us to be wasteful. It’s like fashion, which I deal with in the in the book as well. We could not have fast fashion if we did not have technology. For hundreds of years, we had two seasons – Spring/Summer collection, and Autumn/Winter. But technology has allowed companies like Zara to have up to 24 collections a year, where essentially there’s just a constant stream of new stuff coming out. We wear clothes for half as long as we did 10 years ago, and we buy three times as much, because it’s cheap. And then there’s the amount that we’re dumping. So I think there’s a direct link between these incredibly polluting industries and technology, but it’s being driven by consumer demand.”

Q5. It seems that this issue of consumption culture has bled into our working lives too. As you pointed out in the book, we’re constantly sending unnecessary emails and Slack messages, and if we’re not doing that we’re creating 10 versions of the same file, and all this has to be stored and processed by data centres. Is digital waste a big problem in the corporate world?

A5. “I grew up in a small farm in Longford. Your measure was the amount of cows you had, the money you had, and how much land you had. That was how things were for thousands of years, or maybe millions of years. But nowadays we have a different reward system. To be a manager who comes in and says ‘let’s build on what is already here’ – that’s not how you move your career forward. In 99 out of 100 organisations, you move your career forward by launching something – even if it doesn’t work, you’ve launched it, you put your name to it and you got a budget for it. You don’t move your career forward by maintaining something that you didn’t create or by sharing; we reward bad behaviour. Most organisations are set up to reward mean, selfish individuals’ behaviour, because that’s how most of the top senior managers got into the position that they are in. We have a leadership culture which is based on selfishness and whoever can trample on the next person better. Whether it’s in government, or whether it’s commercial, that’s the world we live in.

“An organisation that I’ve seen that is trying to at least do something about that is Microsoft. I’ve been dealing with Microsoft for a long time, since maybe 2001 or so. I remember once a technical writer there told me ‘we’ve got 15 million pages on and 4 million of them have never been accessed.’ So essentially the population of Ireland practically have pages that nobody’s ever looked at. So why do they exist? Because of how we reward people. You’re only rewarded for what you create. Now, Microsoft in the last couple of years have implemented a new reward system, which is broken up into three components. The first part of your individual evaluation is what did you create? Which is the natural, traditional one. The second part is how easy is it to share? So of what you created, how much of it was reused? If you created something that was shared, that’s a real bonus. And the final part of your reward is what did you reuse? So what did you use that other people created?”

Q6. Something you speak about a lot in the book that resonates with us at Fathom is the need to design digital products and services in a way that’s as simple, usable and findable as possible. By working more efficiently, we reduce the amount of waste we produce. In what ways can designing for a better user experience lead to a better ‘Earth experience’?

A6. “If there’s one thing people love, it’s fast–downloading pages. The average webpage weight has gone from about half a megabyte 15 years ago to between three and four megabytes today. The impact is that if you have a four–megabyte page, downloading that page 600,000 times is the equivalent of having to plant one tree, because about 600,000 downloads of four megabytes creates about 10 kg of pollution, and an average tree can digest about 10 kg of CO2 in a year. So how can we bring that file size down?”

“Every character, every space, every line break has got to be download. Do we need those custom fonts? Most people can’t see the difference, but these custom fonts are significantly heavier than the inbuilt fonts in the browser. Another 30 seconds of tweaking could significantly reduce an HTML file. JavaScript triggers much more energy than HTML – could some of this be done in HTML instead? This sort of behaviour is not like saving the world or saving the whales, which is, of course, a great thing to do, but it actually helps your business – this is a win–win. If we could only get over our big, bloated egos and our big, bloated hero shots. A lot of the time they actually don’t do anything useful at all.”

Q7. One of the innovations that people know you for is Top Tasks, which you’ve created and used with organisations across the world. Could tell us a bit about that and how it works?

A7. “It’s something I discovered by accident! I used to do a lot of card sorting and information architecture workshops. I would go around with box of 15 sets of 150 cards and tell people to put them into groups. Each card would have a task that corresponded to a master list on a sheet of paper. In the final part of the workshop they had to vote on the top 10 tasks based on their card sorts. But I noticed that people were cheating – they weren’t sorting the cards properly, but picking features straight from the master list. I was really annoyed, because I’d spent weeks making these cards and putting them in plastic bands! But more and more people started cheating. So eventually I did an experiment. I just brought in the sheets and let people look at all 150 tasks to see if they could make sense of it. And they did! I got the exact same results that I was getting from going through the much longer process of card sorting. And it evolved from there.

Digital workshop

Szczepanksa, Jo. (Photographer). Digital workshop. Retrieved from Unsplash / Cropped from original.

“Over the years, as we got better, we found that in any environment, whether it’s Taiwan or COVID–19, there’s about 50 to 100 tasks that define the environment. So for COVID–19 we have things like ‘define a vaccine’, ‘explain how a virus is transmitted’, ‘state virus survival rates’ and so on. We have a big process of discussion and collaboration among different experts, doctors, nurses and web experts to get this list of all the things that could matter. And then literally, we go out to people and asked them to quickly choose from this huge, big list no more than five of the most important tasks. And the interesting thing is that every time we do it, we see patterns; across the 140 countries supported by the WHO, they’re practically the same results.

“When a tiny task goes to sleep at night, it dreams of being a top task. Most environments are destroyed by the tiny tasks, because the tiny tasks are not important. And they feel that if they produce more content, or they produce more code, or they produce more apps, they will somehow create an importance. And all that ultimately does is create confusion and create waste. So the tiny tasks, the low level stuff, has really exploded on the web because the ability to create crap has never been distributed as broadly and as widely and as democratically as it is now.”

Q8. Have you seen any examples of companies that have implemented user–centred design to improve performance and increase efficiency?

A8. There’s a wonderful organisation in Holland called Buurtzorg who do health care in the community. They started with four nurses in 2008 and now they’ve got about 14,000. But there are no managers and practically no central management. Historically, in home health care there has been a massive management model of managing people and everything they’re doing. I saw a documentary of a nurse 15 or 20 years ago who was going in to visit an elderly person. The patient had their shoelaces undone, and the nurse was saying ‘Now I’m delivering product X‘ and recording the time taken to do that. Everything was absolutely measured to the nth degree. And every second note says something like, ‘No, I can’t change that bandage. That bandage is going to be changed by such and such.’ Technology has enabled this to happen in healthcare. But let’s say the shoelace had been untied two or three times in the last two or three weeks, all the nurse had time to do was tie the shoelace – she didn’t have time to say, ‘why is the shoelace undone? Are you getting stiffer?’ Because she had to get in and out of there in 27 minutes, 33 seconds, because that’s what technology does to you.

“So Buurtzorg came along with a totally different model. They said, we’re not measuring you [the nurse] anymore. We don’t care how long you take, you take as long as you need to take, the only metric we care about is independent living.’ Because that’s what matters to people, right? People don’t want to be in a nursing home. They want to be in their own home, and they want to live independently, as long as they can. So, when a Buurtzorg nurse comes out to a new patient, the first thing they do is try and create a social network around that person with family, neighbours and healthcare providers. If their shoelace is untied, they’ll bend down and tie it, but also talk to them and their network to find out if it’s a regular occurrence and if so, why?”

In World Wide Waste Gerry goes into all the great outcomes that Buurtzorg has achieved. They charge more per hour for their nurses than competitors but they have the lowest overall cost for care in the Netherlands. They have the best customer satisfaction in the industry and the best employee satisfaction of any company in the Netherlands. By investing more time in understanding the service user’s needs and building up a support network, they are creating a better environment for all: less wasteful, more productive, more satisfying.

Q9. What are some practical things we can all do to reduce the amount of e–waste we produce?

A9. “Firstly, a very simple thing I do is I never click on an ad. Let’s take 100 KB as the average file size of an ad. If a typical banner needs to be seen one million times in order to achieve a purchase, then that’s 100,000,000 KB, which is 100 GB. Transmitting one GB consumes about 0.015 kWh of electricity. For 100 GB that gives us 1.5 kWh which creates about 0.42 kg of CO2 for each banner ad over its lifetime. Every time you click on an ad you’re telling the company that they should invest in more ads.

“Another useful exercise is digital fasting. As humans, for 99% of our existence we never had a stable food supply. We were always in a bit of a fast; even with agriculture, we constantly experienced famine across Europe. So as a species we have actually adapted to fasting and semi–starvation. But marketing tells us ‘never be hungry’. It encourages us not to develop a sense of discipline – ‘you should have what you want, when you want it’. One of the reasons why people don’t do information architecture and organisation and classifying and storing is because that requires discipline, it requires thought. Taking a break from digital devices helps us to become less dependent on them, and to become more disciplined when we do use them.”

How to download World Wide Waste World Wide Waste e-book cover

Fathom (image owner). World Wide Waste. Cover image retrieved from Gerry McGovern’s website.

World Wide Waste comes in a streamlined e–book format, complete with non–custom font. You won’t find any wasteful images, graphs, colour or indulgence in the 151–page PDF. The research compiled in the book is far from lean though – I guarantee it’ll have you rhyming off all sorts of statistics down the pub. You will also, I’m afraid, begin to feel guilty about all of your unbelievably e–wasteful behaviour; was that virtue–signalling Tweet really worth the 0.02 grams of CO2 it just emitted? (OK I haven’t got that bad yet, but I do think twice now before sending that email to thank that person for sending that other email… multiplied by x10 unnecessary cc’d inboxes).

Visit now to download the superb and timely World Wide Waste >>

By Andy Robinson

Andy was a UX Researcher with Fathom until July 2021, when he moved on to take up a role at Rapid7.

View more insights by Andy

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