This piece has been recorded by Sarah Kearns as an audio podcast. Listen below or read the transcript.
We were told that the Internet would “dematerialize” society and decrease energy use. Instead, the opposite is true: the internet has quickly become one of the most carbon-intensive information processing systems.
The solution isn’t as simple as relying less on the internet or publishing and creating less digital content. Having information available from around the world is important. It archives knowledge, preserves and shares culture, and keeps accountability.
So how do we keep the publishing process ecologically sustainable? And with many around the world, particularly in the Global South, lacking reliable access to the internet, who’s invited to participate in this digital knowledge production if we do make it sustainable? It’s an interesting paradox. On one hand, digital systems connect communities around the world. On the other, it consumes energy and resources that end up harming the ecosystem.
As someone who works in the publishing space with a non-profit that supports community-led and -supported publishing, I’m anxious to find solutions to these contradictions. Luckily, there are many brilliant people who have undertaken this challenge, crafting ideas and models toward these goals. You’ll hear (or read) from them with me here. Even though there are no straightforward or easy solutions, one takeaway I did gather during this process was an understanding that the changes required to repair and recreate better systems should be community- or locally-based efforts.
The Weight of the Cloud (2m07s)
The internet “has become a large and rapidly growing consumer of energy itself…We are using our increasingly energy efficient devices for longer hours as we send more and more data over a worldwide infrastructure.”
This is Kris DeDecker, author and editor-in-chief of the solar-powered digital publication, LowTech Magazine. One might assume that the increased energy consumption is due to the growing amount of people using the network. In actuality, it’s caused by the amount of energy used per internet user, such that the network traffic rate is rising much faster than the number of internet users.
All the digital data—from entertainment like Netflix streaming to scientific research like bioinformatics to corporate cookie data mining—and the infrastructure that supports it, consumes a lot of energy. Indeed, cloud-based data computation has a larger footprint than the airline industry!
Unlike its tangible namesake, the digital cloud is far from being light, bright or condensed. Instead, the cloud takes up a lot of physical material. It’s made up of 1.3 million kilometers of wires, cables, and servers to store information and bridge connectivity intercontinentally.
Graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Steven Gonzales-Monserrate, says:
Just as the clouds above us, however formless or ethereal they may appear to be, are in fact made of matter – water molecules in various states of condensation and crystallization – the Cloud of the digital is also relentlessly material… We must attend to its material flows of electricity, water, air, heat, metals, minerals, and rare earth elements that undergird our digital lives. In this way, the Cloud is not only material but is also an ecological force. As it continues to expand, its environmental impact increases, even as the engineers, technicians, and executives behind its infrastructures strive to balance profitability with sustainability.
Big Tech’s Consumption (4m10s)
The substantial contributors to carbon emissions are big tech corporations and large factories, not you streaming content at the end of a long work day.
As Director of the Environmental Media Lab and an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary Mél Hogan, says:
Big Tech are the new farmers – companies toiling matter as memory, companies using large swaths of land and water, working toward future storage, and the storage of the future… No matter how green data centers become, and no matter how innovative renewable energy is, there is a larger media ecosystem undergirding it – a world of limited natural resources, techo-trash, toxic bodies, and e-waste – driven by ideals of innovation based on perpetual marketing of the new.
Beyond the mere fact that data centers require so many resources, the capitalist framework surrounding data computation has further cemented overconsumption. As more and more of our lives and transactions occur online, buying and selling become less tangible. Instead, it’s reflected as pieces of data: our browser search history, Amazon wishlist items, and even personal information like names and addresses.
Shoshana Zuboff has coined this economic system built on the commodification of personal data as “surveillance capitalism.” Big tech—namely Google, Amazon, Apple, Meta (aka Facebook), and Microsoft—are guilty of tracking personal data and selling it to advertising companies. Increasingly, this trend is being copied by scholarly publishing corporations like Clarivate and Elsevier in the pursuit of profit.
Capitalism as a system continuously pushes corporations to increase profit margins in order to compete. This is often at the expense of privacy, labor rights, ecological sustainability, ethics, and sometimes even the corporation’s own mission.
For example, even though Facebook claims itself to be a social network working for the greater public and ecological good, its actions—from data-mining, union busting, tax avoidance and working with the US’s privacy breaching PRISM surveillance program—says otherwise.
Writer and graduate student at the University of Delaware Ingrid Burrington says that:
Framing the platform policy discussion around the means of production also helps establish reasonable expectations. While it would be nice if Facebook as a “social infrastructure” provider had the vague sense of civic purpose that a term like “social infrastructure” implies, time and again we’ve seen that the company will not implement anything that serves the public but undermines Facebook’s profits.
The problem is that much capital is in the hands of few private individuals. Even though internet users are the source of the data that corporations create, we really are not the owners of it once it’s online. Moreover, each layer supporting the data—the software, the computer servers, and the undersea cables that connect everything together—are rarely owned or controlled by the users. These systems and infrastructures will produce without our public interests in mind.
An Issue of Access (7m50s)
Our current digital infrastructure is also highly inaccessible. Indeed, Burrington notes that “they weren’t ever really the people’s cables.”
More than 19 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed internet (as an aside, this number is controversial since the metrics by which the FCC measures internet access result in gross underestimations). The majority of those without internet access are rural communities with states like Alaska, Tennessee, and Kentucky hit the hardest.
This trend continues across the globe. Though 63% of the global population has internet access, this is concentrated in the rich colonizing nations of the Global North. Poorer and/or colonized nations like Pakistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and North Korea have more than half of their population lacking internet access. Why does this happen?
For one, rural places are geographically remote so laying cable is physically difficult and expensive. Private corporations have no profit motives to increase connectivity there.
It has historically and commonly been the role of the state to provide this public good. For example, in the past, the United States government incentivized phone and electric lines in rural areas. These projects were often at odds with for-profit corporations.
When the internet is increasingly used for access to social services, political participation, health care, news, paying bills, job applications, and other fundamental rights, the lack of stable internet access is a form of systematic marginalization.
Local Solutions to Global Problems (9m49s)
If you lower the energy used to run a website, then how you produce energy becomes of secondary importance. Tackling both issues of website weight and energy source, LowTech Magazine reduced their design and hosting capabilities to be able to run off of only solar energy. Even though solar is a renewable energy source, it is still material because it relies on physical panels and thus solar power production consumes energy at the outset. DeDecker describes:
The solar panel, the battery, and the solar charge controller are equally essential parts of the installation as the server itself. Consequently, energy use for the mining of the resources and the manufacture of these components – the “embodied energy” – must also be taken into account. To find the optimal balance, we have run (and keep running) our system with different combinations of solar panels and batteries. Uptime and embodied energy are also determined by the local weather conditions, so the results we present here are only valid for our location (the balcony of [my] home near Barcelona, Spain).
This means that DeDecker tinkered and engineered the components—the battery, the controller, etc.—to work best and are most optimized to his particular location, circumstances, and needs. Perhaps if every website took these considerations into account, they would be more conscious of the ecosystem and natural cycles beyond the digital world they create.
Certainly, using solar power has its limitations. DeDecker readily admits that,
[S]olar and wind power are not always available, which means that an Internet running on renewable power sources would require infrastructure for energy storage and/or transmission that is also dependent on fossil fuels for its manufacture and replacement. Powering websites with renewable energy is not a bad idea, however, the trend towards growing energy use must also be addressed.
Beyond the particular limitations of solar, LowTech Magazine being self-powered speaks to their awareness of their local ecosystems and climate as part of their publishing efforts. Even though they are technically constrained by resources by relying on sunny days to be online and having a fairly low budget to create and sustain their power sources—LowTech Magazine is still a successful publication with engaged readers from around the world. It is because of their innovations and the founder working with the environment and communities rather than against them that they are a notable publisher (in addition to their prose and reporting).
This case study is compelling because it highlights the impact that a single publication and its small team can have on the slow changes toward making digital publishing a better and cleaner space. It is inspiring to have these examples to take charge and control the small influences we have in order to make the world a better place.
However, thinking about our own impact on the ecosystem, Gonzales-Monserrate says:
Listeners might start to question the environmental impact of their Netflix binges or doom-scrolling sessions, turning to applications like Website Carbon or Neutral to quantify their individual carbon footprints and modify their behaviors accordingly. Yet such individualized responses would not be enough to mitigate the crisis; individuals’ digital abstinence would not likely exert enough market influence to stop or slow the expansion of the cloud, with its servers and redundant chains of idling equipment designed to make the digital available anytime, anywhere.
Here, he is making the important point that significant change is not going to happen without systemic and institutional revisions on how energy is extracted and produced to create digital and social infrastructures. Remember, it’s less about you streaming content—or indeed listening/reading this digital essay—it’s big data and tech corporations that contribute the most to unsustainable consumption of resources and energy.
Alternatives to the big platforms are certainly an intermediate and cast a vote for the types of systems we can and should participate in. For example, using Ecosia instead of Google, or Mastodon instead of Facebook makes the value statement that data sovereignty and community-first platforms are worth more of our time, attention, and support.
However, switching to alternative platforms marketed as “eco-friendly” still has the same issues as Big Tech. Ownership of the means of computation still typically lay in the hands of a few executives instead of democratically with workers and users. Yet shifting ownership is not a straightforward process.
As Burrington notes:
With internet infrastructure, we’re not talking about a discrete piece of property that can be autonomously taken over: it’s cables and antennae and spectrum and all sorts of very expensive stuff that requires specialized technical maintenance, not to mention coordination with other interdependent systems. This is partly why many projects to recreate a distributed internet begin with software. The code is cheap. Subsea fiber optic cable is not.
Going further from her points, data infrastructures that are currently owned and operated by executives and software engineers as part of particular corporations could instead be owned and managed by the distributed collective of people contributing to the codebase.
This is known as “data and network sovereignty.” It is the idea that data—and the larger network they are a part of—are subject to the policies and structures within the nation or community they were collected. Data sovereignty policies, as such, would put the power and ownership of the data in the hands of the people that generate and steward it. Examples of this are most prevalent in workers cooperatives and Indigenous communities with the intention of shifting towards self-governance and decolonization, but also include other examples of scientific research, tools supporting environmental workflows, and supporting community and cultural data centers.
When workers and local communities have the ability to control and maintain their own labor, information, content, and data—and therefore, by extension, their identity and culture—they serve as a challenge to corporate monopolies. With more local instances of digital infrastructures and independent publishing platforms, it could bring communities and societies together to engage with their own data and cultural works, and empower them to steward them in a bespoke way that works for and with them. We can see examples of community empowerment through the analogous works of supporting local agricultural projects: when communities own the resources to experiment with their own means of production and cultural contexts, they are able to identify solutions that are sustainable for them.
Any community-based solution, though, needs to be supplemented by state- and nation-level policies to be protected from big corporations’ interests. Just like the electric and telecommunication companies that came before them, government policies will have to be put into place in order to have systemic justice and proper infrastructure that give more equitable access to the internet and change the way we produce energy to one that is more sustainable.
For example in the United States, Christopher Ali, the author of Farm Fresh Broadband, claims:
The country’s rural broadband plan and ensuring rural broadband policy framework should take into account the following recommendations: it needs to harmonize broadband goals and funding priorities, … eliminate state barriers to cooperative and municipal broadband… [and] democratize the funding process and stop privileging the largest telecommunications companies. This includes allowing cooperatives, municipalities, and new entrants to build on funding… The rural-urban digital divide will only be corrected through a multistakeholder, “all-hands-on-deck” approach: cooperatives, municipalities, small offices; and, of course, local communities.
Creating these types of policies would increase the ability of people to establish network and data sovereignty as well.
Tackling tech’s contribution to the ecological crisis and increasing access in internet infrastructure is not easy. It requires large systemic changes on economical, political, and social levels. Ultimately, how to get this change is up to us—the people—to fight for a more sustainable, equal, and empowered future by working with and for our communities and ecosystems.
About the Author
Sarah Kearns is an acquisitions editor for the Knowledge Futures Group, a non-profit community publishing organization, and a freelance writer based in Central New York. She earned her doctorate degree in Chemical Biology from the University of Michigan and thus has a passion for telling stories about science. Sarah is also a podcast host for the New Books Network reading and discussing books about science, scholarship, and philosophy. She loves to bake bread, use film cameras, be outside, and play old time music.