Digital Sustainability — An Introduction

Yes, it’s another article about sustainability, and how humans are so wasteful, and lo, doom is probably upon us. And, sure, this article has elements of all of that. But this is less a lament than an exploration of unplumbed depths.

What Is It?

Let’s turn first to that holy book, Wikipedia, for a description of Sustainability:

Sustainability is the process of maintaining change in a balanced fashion, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.

So it’s about balance: sustainability as a paradigm recognizes the inevitable fact of human progress and seeks a balance between our endless growth and the resources consumed to fuel that growth. With that in mind, let us now explore how this applies to our digital environment.

The Internet is, like, so rad. Trust me, I would know, I’m on there all the time. You probably are too. So rad: you pay a flat monthly fee and get unlimited access to this incredible resource (obviously, mobile Internet is a different beast). Learn anything, watch anything, do anything you want! And up until about two months ago, that’s exactly how I approached the web. But two months ago, I stumbled across this confounding fact:

If the Internet were a country, it would be the 6th largest energy consumer in the world.

You see, the Internet is run on servers. These servers “host” the web — they store all the files, and when you type in a URL in your browser, the server serves up the appropriate files for that specific site (of course, this is an incredibly simplified version of what actually happens when you press Enter). Or when you access some documents stored in the Cloud, the files have to be transmitted from the Cloud to your device. And these processes consume energy. Servers, the Internet’s backbone, are housed in massive server farms which use huge amounts of electricity not only for running the servers, but keeping them cool. And the more we use the Internet, the more energy the servers use.

An infographic explaining our tangled web. source:

The energy cost of the Internet is far greater than the cost of your bill and the electricity it takes to charge your devices. Digital Sustainability, then, is an attempt to maintain the balance between our Internet usage and the energy costs of that usage.

Why Should I Care?

Digital Sustainability is a different beast than other forms of sustainability. The relationship between Internet usage and resource consumption has been abstracted in such a way that it is nearly invisible to us, and in fact, more Internet use is often correlated with eco-friendliness. Electricity bills and Internet bills are separate. There is an innate understanding that using your air conditioning more drives up your electricity bill, but when you use the Internet more your bill stays the same. We pay for speed, or quality, of service but the service itself is unlimited. You hardly even associate the two (internet & electricity) in your mind, not even thinking about the fact that more Internet use = more electricity drain. There’s a reason you turn your phone on Airplane mode when you’re trying to conserve battery.

The costs of the Internet, and to an extent electricity itself, are hidden — we pay in bulk at the end of the month and there is no itemized receipt to tell us what costs what. Additionally, we are only paying for the electricity our devices consume by accessing the web — we don’t pay for the electricity to run and cool the servers that we access.

Hidden, but real. Every pixel rendered on your screen, every email you send and receive, every YouTube video autoplaying after you leave the room, has a cost. Servers, infrastructure and the devices used to deliver digital media produce the direct impact on the natural world … but energy use is ultimately driven by the people interacting with digital products.

The Paradox

This topic is a strange one for me to tackle. As I mentioned earlier, I am a heavy Internet user: I am a designer by trade and my work requires me to spend a lot of time online. I can’t help but feel hypocritical, posting an article to an online medium with the goal of it being read, shared, and spread, all of which consumes energy. All I can do is hope that this article series inspires readers to reevaluate their digital consumption habits, and goes some way towards balancing the scale.

Which brings me to the paradox of digital sustainability and the Internet. In many ways, the Internet enables a greener future — think ride-sharing, paperless billing, knowledge sharing — but in many other ways it enables needless consumption. For example: it has been calculated that it takes more electricity for you to stream a high-definition movie over a wireless network than it would have taken to manufacture and ship a DVD of that same movie directly to your door (source).

Until Next Time…

I know that for many of you, it will be hard to care once you close this tab. Given that a full 13% of people don’t even recycle, I am not going to fool myself into thinking that reading an article or two will lead directly to more responsible and digitally sustainable behavior. As an associate professor of psychology says in the above quoted article, “Individual behavior is both essential and inconsequential.”

Nonetheless, I shall persist. This is the first in a series of articles I am publishing to raise awareness of this situation. The next article will dive deeper into how the Internet works and the efforts being made to reduce costs on the backend. After that I will explore the role of design in Digital Sustainability, which — spoiler alert! — is quite important, as every online experience is necessarily designed and developed before going live.

Ultimately, I will be designing an experience that will de-abstract the relationship between Internet usage and cost, allowing people to visualize and understand the impacts of their behavior. Stay tuned 📻!