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All-You-Can-Consume Media, One Byte At A Time

While checking my morning emails and going about my usual business a few days ago, I received a frightening alert: my Gmail account was reaching near capacity.
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While checking my morning emails and going about my usual business a few days ago, I received a frightening alert: my Gmail account was reaching near capacity. With 6974 MB of messages, attachments, and auto-saved chats, I was apparently at 95% of Gmail's supposedly "unlimited and growing" storage limit. The alert triggered a multitude of emotions: panic (Does this mean my account is going to crash?), confusion (I thought Gmail had unlimited storage space?) and anger (I hate you Gmail, and I hate that I am so dependent on you).

I sighed, then had a macchiato and proceeded to empty out some unnecessary messages. After a valiant, ten-minute-or-so attempt, I realized how difficult it would be to winnow down my behemoth accumulation of e-junk. Like a barnacle on the side of a beached whale, Gmail had infiltrated almost every aspect of my life: recreational, professional, social--and now the prospect of it all coming to an end (or spilling over to a second, new account) made me a little nauseous. I then sighed again, out of the melodrama I was creating, if we are to be completely reductive and real here, between myself and an invisible information system floating around the nebulous dust and space of the World Wide Web.

With Gmail serving over 100 million users, I'm unsure whether I should find solace or concern by the fact that my momentary meltdown is likely very common. A veritable all-you-can-eat buffet, Gmail's generous storage allowance encourages an unfettered consumption of media. And everyone loves a free meal. In the click of a button, we can share links to our favorite stories, send a chat message to a friend, embed a video, start a video conference, and send attachments as large as 25 MB. But in the never ending gorge of new media consumption, where does all of our invisible, digital "green" media go?

In the New York Times Magazine's recent "Infrastructure"-themed issue, Tom Vanderbilt goes on a Wizard-of-Oz-like journey to visit the hidden world of data centers "behind the silicon curtain," and puts the myth of the invisible Web to rest. Tucked away in massive industrial buildings in remote cities, computer servers stacked seemingly infinitely house our digital worlds in their own cities of processors and microchips--some, like Microsoft's, measure up to as large as 500,000 square feet. Vanderbilt writes that the amount of electricity consumed, collectively, to keep these servers cooled and operating around the clock, exceeds that of the entire country of Sweden.

With sustainability becoming an ever-present and ever-necessary concern in all of our consumption habits, moderation should be replacing excess, and efficiency replacing frivolity. While I don't deny the green benefits of going digital, I find the type of indulgent behavior promoted (and indeed relied on) for success by Gmail and many other programs, such as Twitter and Facebook, counterproductive to these means. I wonder how much server space in the world is wasted, for example, by all of the half-decade old emails I (and probably many others) never bothered to file away and delete, expressly because I assumed Gmail's "Infinity +1" system would cover it, or what percentage of the world's data centers are occupied by the numerous, frivolous Twitter updates about what so-and-so ate for lunch. Or how the short life-span of electronics--not to mention the short attention-span of consumers--contributes to the City of Dead Computers in some other unseen region of the world.

We may be communicating more, and we may be physically consuming less while doing it, but are we communicating more efficiently? If technology and design are going to be used to promote a more green present and future, we should more heavily consider the behavioral effects of the information systems we create and use, and question not just how we shape the machines we invent, but how they end up shaping us.