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Filling the digital landfills of our lives

In the modern world it's super easy to create, but harder to throw things away, which may be setting up big costs for us down the line.

Clay Shirky believes we're biased both to share and to like sharing digital information. Given the rate at which we create, share, and then discard digital goods, he may be right. The problem is that we're now wading through digital debris, and there may be hard costs associated with our wastefulness.

No, I'm not talking about Nick Carr's "Google makes us stupid" argument, though I think he raises a host of valid points.

Rather, I'm talking about the hard and soft costs associated with massive "landfills" of digital information which never get used, but take up space, all the same.

There was a time when storing information was an arduous task, which is one reason the Dead Sea Scrolls remain with us while the shopping lists of the Essenes have long been forgotten. Few knew how to write, and those who did found the job hard enough that they chose to only record the essentials of life (and religion).

We don't live in that time. For us, creating a blog takes seconds, which is just a few seconds short of how long the typical blog (or Facebook page, Twitter account, etc.) endures. Starting an open-source project should be more time consuming and, hence, enduring, but of the hundreds of thousands of projects on, Google Code, and other repositories, most are abandoned.

Call it the detritus of our digital lives. Easy to create. Easy to forget.

Unfortunately, the Web doesn't forget all the digital debris. In fact, it's hard-wired to do the exact opposite: to remember and to accumulate. This isn't without cost, even if the 1s and 0s themselves are free.

After all, Google has to wade through it when indexing and searching the Web. Spam (arguably a symptom of our digital abundance) may be trash, but it's 90 percent of the e-mail sent, which adds up to bandwidth, storage, and personal productivity costs.

But storage is cheap, goes the popular refrain. Well, yes. Sort of. The cost of the hardware is going down, but the cost of managing it all is not. If anything, it's going up.

There's also the concern that the more code lying dormant on the Web, the more we strew pieces of our lives across the wasteland that is the Web, the less secure we become. Gartner projects that 60 percent of virtual servers will be less secure than the physical servers they replace, at least through 2012, but of greater concern is all of the information about ourselves we're casting into the digital dustbin...possibly to be retrieved and used against us at a later date.

I'm not trying to be alarmist. I'm not suggesting that all of this waste necessarily will lead to increased personal and business costs.

But it does feel that all this waste will come back to bite us at some point, just as it has in the physical world, when we've discovered that oil, timber, and other natural resources have a finite limit. Perhaps digital goods do, too, though not in our ability to create them, but rather in our ability to consume them.