(Critical) Data Autonomy: digital archiving for an uncertain future
|20 December 2023
Google just announced its plans to invest 600 million to build a new datacenter in Winschoten that serves as a back-up for the hyperscale datacenter at the Eemshaven. By introducing the Cloud as the ultimate solution to future proof our data storage, Google and other Big Tech corporations ensured that our digital infrastructures now depend on these large investments. Which are hard to refuse when you are a local municipality in a region that is historically underserved. Especially when they come with the promise of jobs and support for local education, offering coding training programs for primary school teachers for cities near Google’s data centers.
Capitalist save-by-default logic
A part of what we store in the Cloud, is our digital past. This digitized, and born-digital heritage such as photos, video’s, text messages, documents, and social media content requires large amounts of server capacity and datacenter storage. The concrete structures housing our digital memories are under constant threat of climate disasters, but paradoxically, these buildings are part of the networked infrastructures exhausting natural resources and contribute to pollution that is causing said disasters. The capitalist save-by-default logic backgrounds the need for long-term sustainable approaches. Critical data studies acknowledge the importance of data autonomy in putting digital sustainability on the agenda.
A bleaker painted picture
Our dependence on digital technologies is growing, but its structural ecological impact is only just starting to be discussed. We tend to think about digital technologies as part of the solution, not as part of the problem when it comes to global warming. But our world is reaching its environmental limits, caused by anthropogenic climate change. With the advent of AI, mostly the carbon footprint has gained attention, though attempts to quantitatively measure its impact produce contradictory results. Some argue that the social benefits outweigh the ecological cost, while others have a gloomier outlook and predict that the impact of the ICT sector will significantly worsen the coming years, with 7-10% of the total carbon footprint, outgrowing the aviation sector. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, but when we also consider other environmental impacts like noise pollution and water use, the painted picture gets a bit bleaker. According to Google’s latest environmental report, 5.2 of the 5.6 billion gallons of their total water use is connected to their data centers, increased close to 20% compared with the previous report. To give an example of this, a recent study calculated that ChatGPT needs to hydrate with a 500ml water bottle after simple conversation of approximately 20-50 questions. Again, even though these numbers are important and do well to illustrate the issue, data needs context when we consider the environmental politics of digital infrastructures.
Our digital memory is at risk
It is relevant to acknowledge that our digital past is embedded in digital infrastructures that are shaped by specific requirements and expectations about what is to be saved, how, and for whom The digital infrastructures we rely on for the preservation of our digital past operate through a capitalist logic that not always put the digital rights of individuals at the center. Crucial decisions about the future of our digital past are made behind closed doors by commercial actors and driven by for-profit motives. The power of Big Tech means that our digital memory is at risk: their questionable policies regarding content moderation and censorship actively interfere in the preservation of important historical events. But also closer to home, there are examples of Google deleting entire family photo albums because they contained children’s nudity and were unjustly categorized as child pornography.
How to practice self-governance in data autonomy?
This is where we need to start thinking about data autonomy because it allows individuals to engage with values that are important to us. Right now, Big Tech is instituting their corporate values over the values of individuals. Do we really want to save everything on the Cloud? Is it really in the best interest of the user, to give agency to Google to govern their precious digital memories? Self-governance plays a big role in data autonomy, but how to practice it when it comes to the ecological cost of digital archiving when Big Tech platforms oversee creating, capturing, and storing your digital past?
Shift our focus from save to delete
Critical data studies try to bring politics into the quantified discussion on the impact of digital technologies on our environment and acknowledges the power relations inherent to the preservation of our digital past. With this perspective, aiming to increase self-governance in digital sustainable practices, it makes sense to move away from Big-Tech governed platforms and instead partner with public institutions to make sure our digital past is safe long-term, foregrounding digital sustainability. Professionals in cultural heritage institutions possess the knowledge and the access to digital infrastructures that do not just rely on Big Tech to take on this task, or at least part of it. This also means that we must shift our focus from save to delete, because storage has limits, just like our earth.