Words by Eve Upton-Clark
Holding onto thousands of photos, films, and other files may not seem like a pressing problem. But the cloud of the digital realm is also material, with switches, lights, HVAC—and a growing carbon footprint.
Mel Chapo was going through a turbulent time in her life. Experiencing complex post-traumatic stress disorder and a survivor of domestic abuse, Mel was raising her young daughter born in the first months of the pandemic as well as fighting a court case against her abuser.
Due to the investigation, which began in 2020, Mel had to keep every single interaction with her abuser on her phone, including conversations, pictures and emails. “My phone was like a ticking bomb when it comes to my nervous system,” she told Atmos.
When the court case concluded in February 2023 Mel went to clear out the files that had accumulated. But she soon found herself struggling to delete even the most mundane things; pictures of her daughter, TikToks she had saved or recipes she had screenshotted for later. “It could be hundreds of pictures of the same day and I would feel like I couldn’t delete it,” said Mel. “I realized I became even more sentimental because my daughter and I missed out on a lot.”
Whether it’s undeleted emails, photos that date back to the early 2010s or conversations with people you are no longer in touch with, the availability and affordability of modern technology, social media and the digitization of business and personal interactions has increased the propensity to accumulate substantial amounts of digital content. All the while we count on the nebulous “cloud” to save our precious moments and important documents.
When was the last time you went to the effort of deleting that extra copy of the draft you created or the pointless screenshots in your camera roll? That used to be a common occurrence back when digital space was limited. Now it is inexhaustible and has forever changed how we relate to our digital clutter. With cloud storage plans costing near zero, this may not seem like a pressing problem. But the reality is that our digital clutter may be doing more harm than we think—and the scale and scope of the issue is snowballing.
A 2022 paper published in the journal Information & Management, investigated a rising phenomenon called “digital hoarding”—the need to acquire and hold onto digital content without an intended purpose. In the research sample, some people had gathered more than 40 terabytes (TB) of digital content over time. Mel had also accumulated 48,119 photos and 10,809 videos in the period between 2017 and 2023. In the digital age, we get the urge to hold onto things just in case. Without space, or often even expense limitations, digital hoarding can quickly spiral out of control.
The term was first used back in 2015 to describe a 47-year-old man who took several thousand digital photos each day, according to the report. “He never used or looked at the pictures he had saved, but was convinced that they would be of use in the future,” wrote the authors, Dr. Sachithra Lokuge and Professor Darshana Sedera.
Digital hoarding, as opposed to everyday digital collecting, is based on three criteria: constant acquisition of digital contents, discarding difficulty, and a propensity for digital content clutter. The survey found that for the 846 respondents, statistically, 37% of one’s total level of anxiety, measured using an established depression, anxiety, and stress scale, was explained by digital hoarding. “The psychological effects vary from minor incidents like, inability to find an important document in a pile of documents to fear and anxiety arising due to loss of data, inability to focus and complete a task,” said Dr. Lokuge and Professor Sedera. “While how each individual manages such stress and anxiety may vary, in general, there is a huge toll on mental well-being due to digital clutter.” When it comes to deleting digital clutter we are struck with decision paralysis and our solution is not to throw anything into our virtual bins.
“Without space, or often even expense limitations, digital hoarding can quickly spiral out of control.”
Mel is very minimal and hates clutter in her home, however her phone is another story. “I’m holding onto a lot of stagnant energy and I’m wondering why I’m depressed and feel heavy,” said Mel. “I was shocked when I realized it was coming from a deeper place and I was trying to find comfort in holding onto memories.” She went on to describe how she wasn’t actually present in these memories, but was simply taking the pictures and hoarding them on her phone.
“Difficulty discarding digital items arises from the attachment to the content,” explain Lokuge and Dedera. “Even though we think that deleting a document or an image is a minor thing, what happens is that people attach value to this digital content. It may be due to personal reasons, professional reasons or simply considering the aesthetic value of the digital content.”
Yet the full extent of our digital clutter has farther reaching implications than just our inboxes or camera rolls. It may come as a surprise to some that the cloud isn’t an infinite storage center in the sky, but anthropologist Steven Gonzalez Monserrate has seen up close the material infrastructure that makes our digital economy and lives possible. Massive buildings filled with hard drives that have to be running at all times to allow users 24/7 access to their data. The cloud of the digital realm is also material, with switches, lights, HVAC, and other special equipment and emergency power banks—as well as a growing environmental footprint.
“Not only is it about the electricity that they consume, which is immense, but also the carbon footprint that follows that,” Gonzalez explained. To put that into perspective, data centers, which are accountable for 2.5% of all human-induced carbon dioxide, have a larger carbon footprint than the aviation industry, which only accounts for 2.1%. A single data center can consume the equivalent electricity of 50,000 homes. At 200 terawatt hours (TWh) annually, data centers collectively use more energy than some nation-states. And the cost of those duplicate pictures cluttering up your camera roll? 355,000 tonnes of CO2 every year according to The Institution of Engineering and Technology.
However, Gonzalez notes that not everything we do digitally has the same metabolic weight. “Things like artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency mining—those activities are computationally very intensive so they use something like quadruple the amount of electricity than normal kinds of computing or basic storage” he said.
Gonzalez also encourages a holistic approach to the growing issue of data storage. “There are additional ecological factors and that is water-based cooling for these IT systems,” he said, adding that data centers use billions of gallons of water a day to keep cool. The use of these water resources is in direct competition with local farmers.
Then there is the issue of electronic waste. “These data centers have finite life spans of about two to three years,” said Gonzalez. “You’re also cycling through a lot of computing equipment which is made out of rare metals like cobalt, vanadium, and lithium—and the mining conditions in which they’re produced are absolutely horrific from a human rights standpoint.”
With that in mind, will clearing out your digital clutter make a difference? Gonzalez maintained that the larger issues of data storage are structural and regulatory. “I think most of the onus is on them because it is possible to have a cloud that is more metabolically sustainable for our planet. I just think there hasn’t been that huge concerted regulatory push at the UN level and at the level of governments, to enforce these kinds of climate standards,” he said.
“It’s so easy to think of the cloud as this global singular thing,” Gonzalez added. “And it is this kind of diffuse thing that makes it hard to pinpoint where it starts and where it ends. But it’s also very local. There is a data center somewhere where you live probably, you might just not know it’s there.”
For Mel, starting again with a new phone free from the digital clutter made her feel “like a new person.” Recognizing her digital hoarding has also allowed Mel to connect and empathize with her father who has hoarded throughout his life. “A lot of people will think that [physical] hoarding is crazy,” she said. “And then they sit down on their phones and realise Oh, wow, I’m a hoarder as well.”