Internet in times of climate emergency

kasia molga
6 min readNov 7, 2019
EFFLUX, LCC for LONDON DESIGN FESTIVAL, October, 2019, fragment.

The surge in concepts how to make everything in eco-mode in recent months has been overwhelming. Although sometimes I suspect that more often than not it became a new business opportunity rather than the genuine action, the good thing is that public attention has been finally captured. People are discussing their consumers’ choices and ideas about how to be good for the environment on every possible platform. I too have worked for the last few years on the personal intimate CO2 footprint counter — easy enough to use everyday, but which can seamlessly take all of our activities (physical and digital) under consideration. The objective for this counter aside the most obvious, was to demonstrate some of the interconnections between what we do and how it affects so many other things/entities.

The prototype of it was released recently during preparation of my EFFLUX data sculpture commissioned by London College of Communication and shown during the London Design Festival. The counter — in the form of the questionnaire was circulated among the participants of the EMERGENCE exhibition in LCC — with results — data — to be fed to the sculpture.

EFFLUX, LCC for LONDON DESIGN FESTIVAL, October, 2019

It can be quite surprising to learn how much CO2 is produced through our online activities. In my counter’s prototype the online/digital section was the largest. Our online activities are so deeply embedded in our daily routines that we don’t even consider them as environmentally relevant. The ephemeral nature of it seems to further reinforce this notion.

The CO2 footprint of server farms which caters to our need of sharing and consuming vast quantities of information is now comparable with the footprint of the aviation industry. While content providers thrive for the hi-resolution, hi-definition movies, sound and images and fast streaming — this has a direct effect on the expectation of the users and our personal computers CPUs.

It feels that there is a direct correlation between CGI industry aspiration to fool us with high-definition imagery and its high-definition fast-streaming delivery as it was nature itself. All of that while contributing to the destruction of the organic nature, in, excuse my colloquialism, RL.

On the other hand however there are designers, activists and environmentalists, myself included, who have been considering how to make internet, digital, data based activities and network environmentally responsible.

For example in October 2019 I attended Mozilla Festival 2019 and had the privilege to participate in the brain-storm session organised and led by Michelle Thorne, aiming to have 100 ideas for the eco-mode internet browser.

The ideas varied from going back to simple HTML developed web front end, through having an optional browsing eco-mode, using the data flow as a currency (i.e one can opt out from streaming music during the day so that one can watch movies on Netflix in the evening), to apps questioning one’s uploading choices (i.e. are you sure you want to upload this photo?), or one’s purchasing habits (“do you really need it? are you sure? Can you borrow it somewhere instead?”). This created the opportunity which extended beyond the browser — that is to share-cycling (like free cycling but instead of giving away one borrows and gives back), the browser being just an agent and a connection point. Someone mention as well the communication system as basic and simple as one used between Earth and the Spaceship travelling towards Mars and beyond — that is as energy efficient as possible. I feel that this can indeed be marketed as a sexy futuristic, but isn’t that too similar to oh-so-last-century sms? Doesn’t matter — all ideas were great.

During the same day I also attended the Feminist Internet workshop where participants were asked to design the feminist chatbot. Although this wasn’t about the environment per se, it made me think about how many overlaps there were between the “eco-friendly” and “feminist” mode. The structure of the web as we know it reflects the traditional social system based on the principles of capitalism. Mirroring the “usual” white male POV — that is to “conquer and exploit”, today’s main stream web is set to exploit our personal data and activities to commercial benefits of corporations. We are purposely manipulated to constantly wanting to overshare illusionary worlds of our internet-selves, which is now full of the slick hi-definition filtered photos and movies of our “successful” and “pretty” lives. That divides all of us deeply, the envy of others and the deep, anxious and unhealthy need to be the “picture perfect” continuously contribute to the vicious circle, as well as to the advantage of the corporates owners.

View from the motorway from Szczecin to Berlin

The nature — its organic life affirming resources have been similarly “conquered and exploited” as a product, with no regards for its complexities and interconnections with human systems. And going back to the hi-definition glossy image of nature which CGI industry tries to sell us, among other digital spaces — over the fast and furious internet — just like glossy and pretty images of our illusionary selves — various propositions of the feminist internet seem very much bang on with the eco-mode one. Both concepts are parallel with many crossovers and the underlying objective that the change of narrative is urgent.

There are some examples of practices which already have taken these — not so new after all — ideas under consideration. Michelle Thorne and Firefox is one such example. Also Gauthier Roussilhe, researcher and designer has released recently amazing digital guide to low-tech and share my passion and quest to incorporate in the design and technology debates the non-human makers. There is also, mentioned by Gauthier, Solar Low-Tech Magazine — which website is purely powered by solar energy. The investigative and critical work of artist Joana Moll is also worth mentioning here — with her project DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST for example, which, quoting Joana, is “net based piece that shows the amount of trees needed to absorb the amount of CO2 generated by the global visits to google.com every second. “ and “has been created with the aim to explore strategies able to trigger thoughts and actions capable to highlight the invisible connections between actions and consequences when using digital communication technologies.”

Joana also includes in some of her projects their footprint, which in my opinion shall become a standard practice across all the internet by now.

For now all these solutions live in a domain of art / proposition / scenario which plays with technologies. However both — technology and art permeates, sometimes very quietly and discreetly, all layers of social structures. It might not be so strange that the eco-mode fair internet will originate and disseminate from here.

In my practice at the moment, besides redesigning my own website, I am focusing on making things using low tech, while commenting on the environmental impact of the high-tech. In particular interest of mine are Machine Learning models — the annoyingly trendy tech being mentioned everywhere and used by many creatives, despite the growing evidence of its crazy high environmental footprint.

Being awarded to do so (among a few other things) with DYCP grant from Arts Council England I can now officially launch my research — offering this article as a start. More soon to come, over and out and stay low tech!

*I was awarded an ACE DYCP grant in September 2019 for the “Coding in Time of Transitions” research, and this article is first in a series of posts documenting my research and projects

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kasia molga

Design fusionist, traveller, environmental(ist) biodata whisperer, art/science/design explorer, creative technologist & coder, serial beginner