On the Cost of Digitization

(Response to “The Digitization of Just About Everything” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee)

One of the main points in Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s chapter is the acknowledgment of the “unique economic properties of digital information: such information is non-rival, and it has close to zero marginal cost of reproduction.”

The chapter proceeds to accurately explain how digitization reduces the cost of information. However, it is easy to forget, even ignore, that the processes behind digitization (and the management and storage of digital information) has its own set of unique costs.  As the authors put it, “… digitization yields truly big data”… and big data can’t be handled cost-free.

Last semester, I read an article titled “The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge,” which intends to describe the often-irresponsible energy consumption of massive data centers. The article indicates, for instance, that “in its 2013 sustainability report, Facebook stated its data centers used 986 million kilowatt-hours of electricity—around the same amount consumed by Burkina Faso in 2012.”

Brynjolfsson and McAfee also wrote that “digitization can also help us better understand the past. As of March 2012 Google had scanned more than twenty million books published over several centuries.” Again, I’ve read an article that denounces the cost of digitizing books at a massive scale, represented by the human labour behind the task (their working contracts, conditions, and lack of recognition – the case of the mechanical turkers). The article (“The Ladies Vanish”) says:

Of course books don’t digitize themselves. Human hands have to individually scan the books, to open the covers and flip the pages. But when Google promotes its project—a database of “millions of books from libraries and publishers worldwide”—they put the technology, the search function and the expansive virtual library in the forefront. The laborers are erased from the narrative, even as we experience their work firsthand when we look at Google Books.

Though I agree with the arguments that this chapter presents, I believe there is a lot about digital information that we, as users, are not aware of and should be. As users (and now, in this class, as makers), we share the responsibility of what happens “behind the screen” (in the back-end, if you will), far away in data centers and digitization facilities. Thus, it’s incorrect to believe that digitization, and digital environments themselves, have no costs at all.