Fighting Digital Pollution

February 22, 2013

By Felix Hürlimann

Pollution is “the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance or thing that has harmful or poisonous effects”, as Google defines it. There exists different forms of pollutions, e.g. air, water, soil, light or even visual pollution.

In this post I would like to focus on a different type of pollution that only emerged in the latest years: the digital pollution. The substance that builds up the containment for this particular pollution is unwanted or uninformative digital content. The best-known representative is email spam. According to Securelist “The percentage of spam in email traffic was up 3.1 percentage points from November and averaged 66%.” But email spam is only one possible substance, nowadays the pollution find new ways to spread, e.g. via social networks or as push messages to your smartphone. And in near future it potentially will also reach your fridge, your watch or even your clothes.

Such a pollution may not be poisonous but can still be harmful, e.g. to the health of an economy. Just imaging the cost saving in network and storage infrastructure if no spam was around. Or the efficiency gained if you would only look at the pictures on Facebook that you actually need for your work. And it may also harm individuals by increasing the stress caused through distraction.

Global distribution of light pollution versus digital “pollution” from Twitter

The traditional approach to fighting pollution is to try to lower the emission of the substances that causes it. One way to achieve this is by applying the polluter-pays principle. For digital pollution such an approach would be nice too, as it would have all sorts of additional benefits and would save a lot of resources. Obviously this will not work for a few reasons: for one the pollution always happens within a certain context. e.g. no-one is harmed or should even care if you build up your own little Exxon Valdez disaster on your hard-drive with thousands of blurred pictures of your cat.

It becomes different once you start posting them to your favorite social network or image sharing site. So we could argue to stop or take control over the spill on a network infrastructure level. But this also leads to difficulties: we would need to differentiate between an upload for the public versus e.g. a private backup into the cloud. A solution might be to extend the network protocols to take such differentiations into account and label the individual data packages, similar to an energy label. However, we are pretty far from such a solution.

The next level would be to take the content enablers or information entry gates into charge. E.g. have Facebook or Google clean out the dirt. To a certain degree, you could argue, they are already trying to do this, but is it really a good idea to leave the control and power that comes with that task to a company where you basically have no control over? I don’t think so.

We also have the possibility to stop digital pollution on an individual level right before being exposed to it. This is different from all other types of pollution. e.g. it is far more difficult for a dolphin that happens to be swimming behind a sinking oil tanker to protect itself, than it is for me to setup my work environment to avoid getting distracted by every little news immediately.

The difficulties here are that once the dirt has been produced and as it can be spread easily through many channels as many times as wished, it need to be stopped on all receiving ends. And without leaving me back in fear of missing out on something.

We at Squirro work hard to at least partially solve this problem for you. Squirro is like a big advanced vacuum cleaner, that sucks in all the digital substances from a broad range of sources and spits out the ones you’re likely interested in reading.

With our noise level slider you are in control of how much of the ‘dirt’ ends up in that bag. You have enough time and look through all of it? No problem, just open up the filter and you will get it all. Too busy to dig through all the dust? Just lower the noise level filter to your needs and we will separate out the nuggets from the sand an gravels for you.

With one of the next upcoming releases we will bring this technology one big step forward by taking your very personalized view for each configured topic into account.

Exciting days ahead, stay with us!