• Grace Taylor Rae

Digital Decluttering in the 21st Century

Updated: Mar 4, 2019

If there is an equation for a curve like digital currency, there must be one for decentralized exchange — if a decentralized exchange, why not cooperative ownership?

Alas, the noise.

Not too long ago I insisted that the digital dimension was key to unlocking a symphony of infinite liberation, a foundational connective tissue of global unity, if we played the right note. Now I believe that digital decluttering will be one of the most important ways we embrace “tidying up” — from the inner space of our mental landscapes to our relationships within Earth’s ecology.

The communications industry is expected to use 20% of the world’s electricity by 2025, with internet-connected devices producing 14% of global emissions by 2040. We spend more and more of our lives searching, scrolling or sifting through what others are streaming, or scrambling to add our own to the growing pile. The more we sign on, the more we pour our energy into endless nooks and crannies that require checking, remembering, organizing and populating with consistent-yet-diverse content.

Are we content?

For the past two years, I sought freedom through flexible work across multiple projects in front of my computer, believing that I would be well positioned to write, blog, photograph and design art of my own. Instead, I hit a firewall — By the time I completed screen tasks I was dizzy; my attention evaporated. I needed to look away for the rest of the day. The more I multitasked, the more my productivity lagged — like a laptop laden with too much software or a pickup pulling too much weight.

What did I come here to do?

To create. Not to keep tabs open on infinite potentials, but to invite the embodied actions that feel most true, and carry them forth on my path in the world. I sought convenience through digitally-enabled location independence. Now, I am learning to locate myself — in my heart and in my community.

For me, that looks like shifting my career toward working with my hands as a postpartum doula and home organizing design consultant. I am grounding deeper intentionality around when and how I look at a screen, reserving computer time for research, communicating and sharing what inspires me. On my phone and computer, grayscale makes the world brighter again.

The digital dimension is sustained by light — energy, consciousness, memory. That is literally how each open tab, program or app functions. Digital devices — especially the colors of smartphones — are designed for addiction. As we anticipate and seek rewards, human learning occurs and habits form. When we check social media or communications apps for updates and are rewarded with new stimuli, dopamine is released in our brains and the behavior pattern is etched more deeply into our neural network. Our brains learn the optimal timing in which to check for new likes, comments or messages; when we shift our focus from a relevant task to scan notifications, we engage in machine-conditioned behaviors. Our bodies are bio-batteries. The energy of our awareness is powerful and transformational when we focus, instead of lend attention to the seduction of novelty.

What we search, watch, post and buy; where we live, eat, work and travel; and the nature of our relationships with family and friends constitute profitable data shared among technology corporations interested in herding humanity to produce more profit.

Profit produces more content, which produces more data. Surveillance capitalism has consolidated wealth among merging tech companies, commodified predictive data and leveraged these frequency patterns with digital algorithms and real-time ads, notifications, offers and messages to modify human behavior.

What the extractive, speculative market has done with public goods like land, housing, healthcare, and education, it is aiming to do with digital property — media, subscriptions, domains, data and the content of daily life.

As we navigate practical uses of our digital landscape, tech companies must respect the digital commons. As we produce more digitized storage and communication, clean energy industries must prioritize local human needs over global data storage. Communities and governments must uphold our ecosystem, food and water over real estate for server farms.

The difference between the 3D printer that builds affordable housing with mud, and an internet connected device, is that the printer is designed to do one job aligned with organic supply and demand. If need, then print. Need is tied to population and land. But a “smart” device can produce, share and store data ad infinitum, given enough server space.

The growth of digital material is far more exponential than that of any other artificial material on Earth. (Following are money and plastic.) What we are producing, storing, sending and receiving through the internet is deceptively immaterial: It takes up no space, but its shadow does. With a quiet footprint, the second dimension dents upon the third.

Digital proliferation brings to light the underpinning (dis)function of an extractive capitalist economy — We know not from whence our goods come, nor where our waste goes. Only when the result of extraction and pollution laps at the shore of our individuated experiences do we witness the scale of energy — human time, labor, health, sacrifice, exploitation — upon which we have built our material lives.

Finance increasingly has depended upon the growth of debt to create images — reflections, illusions, projections. A lender creates an image of what a sum of money could be in exponential abstraction. When debt itself is called profit, all bets are off. Value becomes an abstraction. Like industrial capitalism, the digital dimension multiplies the “stuff” that we access through machine technology. Manufacture is more rapid and immense. The clutter is dense.

Eventually, you would need a computer the size of the universe.

Decluttering means reclaiming our data points as qualitative human experience, starting with mindfulness about our use of internet-connected devices. It means releasing the compulsion to produce infinite iterations. As internet use and online platforms proliferate globally, so too does the amount of time an individual spends online per day, week or month. Like the ecological footprint of digital traffic, its time consumption is also unsustainable. An email may arrive in a second, but take half an hour to compose. As more time and material resources are used to support the digital dimension, downsizing is eventually guaranteed.

Our human evolution lies in letting go of thinking, I can, so I must.

Our human imperatives will not be discovered with an online search.

Technology companies especially — and all corporations broadly — are to quickly realize that they must use their abstract fortunes to support clean energy and meet human needs above storing and proliferating data.

We can limit our digital engagements to what feels essential, and what sparks joy. We can be brave in organizing ourselves according to how we truly feel. With the exponential pace of material and digital accumulation in several decades, now we must sort what we hold, and do so with compassion.

Now I believe it is my purpose to encourage people throughout this process. Decluttering includes leaps of faith — we scoop our sentiment from the beloved objects or activities we have imbued with our memories and meanings. We trust that we will go on. If we donate that dress or delete that profile, we still exist — perhaps even more deeply.

I am inspired to consult with people in designing peaceful living spaces and to work with my hands. This is embodied philosophy. I am blessed to apply my liberal arts education through joyful gifts of service and love. There was a time when I equated career success with how productive I was using a computer. I am happy I was wrong.

We are unlocking liberation and harmonizing healing, though by no means through technology exclusively. We have roots of unity. Yes, we will play that symphony. First, we will look up, know that mirrors surround us, and embrace our place in an orchestra of One.