The last decades have seen a humongous push towards digitalization. A central driver has been the internet, grown from its military, academic and hobbyist roots to an essential component encompassing all domains of modern life. Despite digitalization having the potential to lower our environmental impact across many industries, the footprint from digitalization in itself must be considered.
Today, the internet is estimated to account for about 3.7% of global carbon emissions1, surpassing the aviation industry, and consumes an amount of electricity equal to France2. While the internet feels intangible and detached from our material world, the infrastructure that it depends on is very much a physical one. But unlike planes, boats, and factories, much of the infrastructure of the net is not as visible and easy to recognize. If the internet was viewed as a country, it would be the 6th most polluting one2. As Tom Greenwood puts it in his book Sustainable Web Design3, “the internet is the largest coal-powered machine ever created”.
While moving away from carbon emitting energy sources means moving closer to a carbon neutral net, it will also be important to limit its energy footprint. This is where design will have the largest impact, as how we design things define the impact it will have on the net.
A lot of the critical attention has been devoted to data centers in particular. This intuitively makes sense – as gray, colossal, monolithic structures standing in deserts and rural areas are hard to overlook. How the intangible aspects of the internet relate to carbon emission has, however, eluded much public scrutiny. At the intangible level the challenges become more complex and seeing how different aspects are interdependent requires a far bigger technical understanding.
The last decades have shown an explosive growth of information availability made possible through the net. This has caused alarm, as future projections estimate that information growth could quickly take up large portions of the global power production. This explosive growth has been largely sustained, partly because much of the internet has been gobbled up by so called hyperscale data centers. These centers can by their sheer size “embrace economies of scale to deliver lower costs, more advanced services, and higher levels of energy efficiency”1, compared to conventional server infrastructure. But as the internet keeps expanding, this is not sustainable.
- Sustainable Web Design (page 76)
Many large actors (with notable exceptions such as Amazon) are taking big steps in order to lower the emission and waste of these centers1. But by focusing on data centers alone, it may be easy to miss the bigger picture, as the footprint of the net depends on much more. Focusing on data centers is to some extent mixing the symptom with the cause. In order to build a more sustainable net, we need to take into consideration the whole network to meaningfully assess what issues need to be addressed2. One of those things is what we put online.
Websites have continued to steadily increase in size over the last decades1. As websites get bigger, so does the cost of storing, transmitting and displaying them. As a result, large sizes have a direct impact on every level of the network, from the electricity required for storage, to the amount that needs transmission across the network, to requiring more processing power for rendering, displaying, and running the website on our devices.
While how we use the net has changed a lot since its early days, the increase in size does not always account for meaningful content. In the industry, the term for this is bloat: Bloat is not only found online, but across the IT industry. As devices have dramatically increased in storage capacity and processing power, the need to create software that is efficient and compact has become less of a necessity. The common adage that programmer time is more expensive than computer time, reflects on the realities of software development, that it is often cheaper and less time consuming to build more on top of a shaky foundation, than it is to create optimized, high quality software. This is similarly seen on the web, as increases in bandwidth facilitates websites to be larger, more bloated, and therefore less efficient in terms of energy use. As a result, this makes websites not only run slower, but also requires more energy, space, and more powerful devices in order to work. While cheaper to produce, these costs are transferred onto users – and ultimately on the environment.
We don't have to think far to see that this bloat is neither necessary nor unavoidable. As of 2019, around half of the world's population have access to the internet1, and this number is rapidly increasing. However, the consequences of bloat has become a barrier to internet access in the poorest parts of the world, whose developing network infrastructures are comparatively slow, less dependable and have a more costly access2. The services we - those living in richer nations - take for granted are too large, heavy, and data consuming to run on the lower-end devices on expensive, spotty low bandwidths3. By reducing bloat in web design we also make the internet more accessible. While the sizes of apps and web pages have continued to increase4, these new emerging and untapped markets are too valuable to ignore. Services we are familiar with, such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebbok, TikTok, Spotfiy, Google, Tinder, all offer alternative versions of their products, under the moniker of "lite" apps. These apps are designed to run on lower end devices, use less memory and processing power, and therefore consume less energy, data, and processing, which also extends battery life and electricity use. For example, the standard Instagram app is around 287MB on an iPhone, while the lite app on Android is smaller than 1MB. It still offers the same core functionality, for only a fraction of the size. These differences are startling5, and begs the question, what is all that the remaining stuff?
Another contributor to the growth of the net, comes from the massive amount of information created. This can in part be attributed to the attention economy, which is largely driven by target ads, requiring massive amounts of content, and tracking. These things combined generate massive amounts of data. The costs of running such a massive infrastructure are also imparted on the user. As artist Joana Molls’ art piece The Hidden Life of an Amazon User1 show, simply buying a book on Amazon, required a download of over 87MB of scripts to complete the purchase. This reveals that there is an additional, hidden cost, in terms of both energy consumption and surveillance. In addition to power, ads also consume time. The New York Times article The Cost of Mobile Ads on 50 News Websites2 illustrates just how ads and trackers are a major contributor to the size and slowness of today's net.
Creating a leaner and more efficient net may at first seem like a strictly technical problem, more relevant to developers than designers. But in researching this, it becomes clear that these questions are largely two sides of the same coin. As our designs manifest themselves through code, data and processes, the design choices we make do have a direct effect that often goes unnoticed.
Building more sustainably can also be a means to improve the customer experience. By building lighter and more efficiently, our products will load quicker, run faster, and work across more devices, all while reducing energy use. As I found out during the diploma, having a basic understanding of how things work on a technical level can go a long way in informing how we can design and champion more sustainable solutions.
In a time where it is easy to feel powerless with the looming dread of the climate crisis, having researched and learned about digital sustainability, has given me an outlet to approach these frustrations and feel I have a way that I contribute in some meaningful way. It has made me aware of new perspectives to consider when designing. As the field of interaction design can at times feel almost ephemeral, detached from the physical realities of life, learning about digital sustainability has helped me to root it in a way that I've found to be meaningful and important.