The Biggest Machine on Earth

Disegno #30 (2021)


Photograph by Delfino Sisto Legnani.

Like most people, I’ve spent a lot of the past 18 months online. With various lockdowns and Covid restrictions in place, not to mention the rise of the Delta variant, it’s been a year and a half of heroic staying in. My trips to the cinema have been replaced by iPlayer; my work meetings with Zoom; and the listless pottering that filled my pre-pandemic days with a financially ruinous e-commerce habit. If anyone asks what I’ve been up to, there doesn’t seem anything to report. Nothing really.

I don’t know why that is. Doomscrolling Twitter and bingeing YouTube are something. They may not be a particularly enviable or interesting something, but they do fill the time and they’re no duller than anything else people have been up to during Covid. I’ve sat through (and, admittedly, delivered) enough anecdotes about discovering yoga during lockdown or home-brewing kombucha to be keen to hear from someone who neglected any bourgeois self-improvement in favour of staying up all night Googling famous animal mayors (wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-human_electoral_candidates). Perhaps online bingeing is simply not perceived as being a particularly worthwhile activity, or maybe it’s just not seen as fit to mention in company, although I don’t know why that should be. When asked what you’ve been up to, there’s nothing embarrassing about admitting to largely pootling around on the internet – although that probably does depend on what you’ve been looking at. But going online can even be quite wholesome, as shown by the lifeline it’s provided to those kept apart from friends and family during the pandemic, offering a mode of connection every bit as authentic as any IRL counterpart. Which, actually, seems a very lazy phrase insofar as it doesn’t explain why the digital shouldn’t count as real life too. “[Our] inventions open doors to new frontiers of human interaction,” observed the writer Julianne Ross in a 2015 editorial for Wired, in which she criticised the perceived irreality or inferiority of online in comparison to the physical. “[We] need to move forward with enough openness and humility to understand that the places we’re going are real.” But it still feels like I’ve done nothing this past year. Zilch.

I suppose there’s just a certain weightlessness to it all. One thing you could say about the internet1 is that it offers a neat line in closing up distance. I mean, it’s that odd mixture of being both huge and easy: everything is there, all readily accessible, with minimal effort required. I found that earlier Julianne Ross quote, for example, in about a minute. I didn’t even have to read her article properly; I just searched it for “real” in order to truffle out a line or two that might lend this essay a bit of respectability. That’s typical of the internet though. In most of its functions, it exhibits an ease and lack of endeavour that we don’t readily associate with meaningful activity. We’re inclined to think that good things are worth waiting for, but the internet’s native register is immediacy. Design exacerbates this. Infinite scroll and autoplay features churn content, emphasising the sheer volume of online data and facilitating its rapid digestion. There is always more to read, watch and see. “The size of the average web page (defined as the average page size of the 500,000 most popular websites) increased from 0.45 megabytes in 2010 to 1.7 megabytes in June 2018,” states Low-tech Magazine, a publication founded in 2007 to challenge ideas of techno-utopianism. “For mobile websites, the average ‘page weight’ rose tenfold from 0.15 MB in 2011 to 1.6 MB in 2018.” And for anyone not predisposed to discussion of megabytes, you can put that same point in terms of physical distance. “For those living in Europe in 2019,” write Gabi Ivens, Joana Moll and Michelle Thorne in their 2020 essay ‘The Museum of the Fossilized Internet’, “the average user would scroll the equivalent of 180 meters each day, half the height of Berlin’s TV Tower.”

These are huge increases, but design keeps everything lubricated, such that you barely notice. It all slips down smoothly. I have spent hours refreshing Instagram and Twitter, for instance, swiping down to bathe in streams of pointless content. YouTube’s autoplay mechanism and its cavalcade of content suggestions are a contemporary feeding of the 5,000, turning one video into many. None of this is helped by the fact that online business models have a vested interest in keeping users on their sites. “Innovators build products meant to persuade people to do what we want them to do,” writes the tech author Nir Eyal in his ominously titled Hooked: How to Build Habit- Forming Products (2014). “We call these people users and even if we don’t say it aloud, we secretly wish every one of them would become fiendishly hooked to whatever we’re making.” Here, design has been a handmaiden to business. “The way websites are designed is to encourage people to stay on them for as long as possible,” acknowledges Marie Otsuka, a designer and programmer who works with the type foundry Occupant Fonts. “Part of it is a technical problem, but part of it is a design problem too. The way things are designed currently is not a sustainable approach for thinking about consumption.”

Sustainable or not, this ethos of easy, rapid consumption is dominant in the development of digital design. Online, you’re encouraged to glut. On 14 June 2021, for instance, my laptop and phone logged 17h 50m of internet usage.2 That’s definitely something. “The internet has a way of amplifying and enabling many of our latent desires – in fact, it’s what it seems to do best,” writes the artist James Bridle in his 2018 book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. This seems apt: the digital is, by nature, an enabler. It makes whatever you want available, whenever you want it. Boundless in a way that scarcely feels real.

There are, however, some design measures that gesture towards greater restraint, at least at the level of individual web pages. In early 2021, for instance, the designers Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin announced that they had developed a new website for their studio, Formafantasma. Normally I wouldn’t have put too much stock in this kind of redesign – they happen fairly regularly – but there was something unusual about this one. For a start, the site’s design was very pleasingly pared back, such that it seemed as if it might have been technically achievable in 1997. Its home screen looked kind of like Wikipedia, but like Wikipedia when it does that thing where it doesn’t load properly, and you just get a lot of text and links. There was a short biography of the studio, followed by a concisely indexed table of contents. There weren’t any images on the homepage (these only appeared on specific project pages), just standard black text and standard blue links, all in Arial and Times New Roman. “It’s visually simple, because we were interested in the idea of a book,” says Valerio Tamagnini of Studio Blanco, whom Formafantasma approached to develop the site with his partner Sara Tamagnini. “When you start to browse a book you’re saying to the world, ‘OK, leave me alone,’ but websites are the opposite,” he says. “When you start to browse a website, you have a lot of calls to action: click here, click there. You have so many hooks that you don’t have any space to fill with your imagination. We wanted to make something that didn’t promise anything more than it offers.” The site aims to provide a more circumscribed online experience, with precisely demarcated limits and clear navigation. “Our approach was just to be essential,” adds Sara. “No unnecessary graphics or useless media. We deleted what we didn’t need.”

I thought it worked well: very straightforward, very neat, with a lot of effort put into providing clear navigation. “Usually with a website, clients want people to click and click, and go exploring,” says Valerio. “Here it was vice versa – Formafantasma wanted people to really think about what they were doing. If they were going to click, we wanted them to know what they were going to get.” But the really interesting thing was that Trimarchi and Farresin issued a press release in which they explained that the website had been specifically designed so as “to minimise the energy consumption and CO2 emissions that result from navigating the internet”. This wasn’t something I knew much about, but I was curious, particularly given that throughout the pandemic I’d heard lots of people put a positive environmental spin on the enforced prioritisation of digital services. Lockdown may be a drag, they’d say, but at least we’ve cut down on international travel. Can you imagine the carbon savings? There may be something in that. “As we all know, video-conferencing mushroomed during the Covid-19 crisis, as offices closed and flights were grounded,” wrote the researcher Mike Berners-Lee in the 2020 edition of his book How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything. “[The] world has learned that it is both possible and better to replace many a needless, high-carbon and time-consuming trip with a simple video call. In this respect, we will surely never look back.”

Well, perhaps not, but I still wanted to hear more about the negative environmental impact of digital that Trimarchi and Farresin’s website hinted at. So when Disegno held early editorial meetings to plan content for the year ahead, I volunteered to write a story about the project, thinking it might be a good way to check some of this stuff out. A week or so later, I was speaking to Formafantasma over Zoom and telling them that I liked their website. “I have to say,” replied Farresin, “we’ve had plenty of people telling us the website is ugly.” I told him that I was surprised by this because, personally, I was very fond of the design. I said that it looked kind of like Wikipedia, but like Wikipedia when it does that thing where it doesn’t load properly – this, you will soon gather, is my only aesthetic observation. They agreed, but quickly informed me that it wasn’t actually an aesthetic choice. “We don’t find it very new as an aesthetic – it has been around for a long time,” said Trimarchi. “But it was never really used for this purpose before.” Everything that had been stripped out, he explained, was with an eye towards reducing the number of assets loaded when you opened the website. Times New Roman and Arial were employed because they’re fonts that come ready installed on browsers, eliminating the need to download a new typeface (“Although they’re not horrible just because they’re common,” clarifies Sara, “and they’re not too basic to be beautiful”); images on the project pages only auto-load as previews, with detailed information then provided about the size of the download if you wish to see a higher res version; the navigation is designed to stop the user from getting lost in the website, and thereby loading more pages as they search for the information they want; and Studio Blanco also redesigned Formafantasma’s logo such that it is no longer an image file, but rather “FORMA∫ANTASMA”, a string of Unicode characters. “It has real value as a logo because you can apply it everywhere,” says Valerio. “It’s something you can type on WhatsApp or whatever,” adds Sara, “because you don’t need to load it.”

That might as well be the catchphrase for the whole project: the less there is to load, the less energy expended when opening the webpage. It’s a fairly common-sensical idea, and one that would be taken for granted in any other design field that considers efficiencies of material usage, but which is comparatively rare to see discussed in the context of web design – at least from the perspective of environmentalism. “If a website doesn’t load quickly, people lose patience within a few seconds, so that’s definitely something developers think about,” says Otsuka. “But framing it as energy consumption is less common.” This, in part, seems to be down to a failure to see the digital as real and consequential – something that has a physical impact on the world. “There are limits imposed by the laws of physics when you’re working with objects and, on the one hand, it seems like those aren’t applicable on digital platforms,” says Otsuka. “But, actually, there are limits.”

In this respect, Formafantasma’s website seemed something of a curio: an unusual way of thinking about web design that frames slimming down digital, thereby creating “lightweight” websites, as a means of designing more sustainably. “And the idea of building a website like this has received some attention,” confided Farresin when I put this to him, “but the reactions of some people have been completely outrageous.”

“People tend to stick to the surface,” explained Trimarchi. “They really do not understand that the choices are not for an aesthetic reason.”

“It made me realise that a lot of people are really not aware of how much the internet is a heavy, complex infrastructure,” added Farresin. “Because at the end of the day we’re just applying simple, basic parameters of old-fashioned good design. But a lot of people thought that it was complete bullshit and greenwashing.”

“I mean, greenwashing what?” Trimarchi cut in. “In a studio like ours, what do we need to greenwash?”

Which is probably fair enough. I can’t imagine that Formafantasma are big polluters, particularly given that most of the studio’s work falls in the realm of research projects. Cambio (2020) for Serpentine Galleries, for instance, was an exhibition and website exploring the global timber industry,3 while Ore Streams (2017) for Melbourne’s NGV Triennial and the Triennale di Milano used video installations to investigate e-waste. By the standards of most studios, Trimarchi and Farresin don’t even produce that many products: a couple of lights for Flos, and some editioned furniture and objects for assorted design galleries. They’re not exactly ExxonMobil, but then that’s probably how most people think about digital, period: compared to the physical world of petrochemicals and industrial production, online just feels so much cleaner. You can happily click away an evening, with nary a thought for what those clicks are actually doing. That’s natural. It’s what we all do, all the time.

“Digital seems like a great opportunity,” confirms Tom Greenwood, managing director of Wholegrain Digital, a design studio specialising in understanding the internet’s connections to sustainability. Greenwood founded Wholegrain in 2007 with his partner Vineeta Greenwood, having grown disillusioned with the lack of consideration for the environment within product design. “We thought that digital could dematerialise this physical world of products where materials are dug out of the ground and transported across the world,” he says. “We imagined you’d have this panacea of the digital, where there would be no impact at all. It all sounded so wonderful at the time.” Utopian it may have been, but Greenwood’s account of the naive ecological allure of online actually has some fairly heavyweight adherents. According to SMARTer 2030, for instance, a report from the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), digital technologies have the potential to bring about a 20 per cent reduction in global CO2e4 emissions by 2030 through efficiency savings and by replacing heavy physical processes. In other words, the more products and services made intangible through digitisation, the better. This has the ring of plausibility, insofar as while emails and Zoom calls require energy, this pales in comparison to the environmental impact of their physical counterparts. So if you switch to digital, the argument runs, you’re making a saving; the problem, however, is that this logic only works if the digital actually replaces the physical, which is comparatively rare. “Digital is an addition, not a subtraction,” notes Greenwood. “There are various voices in the industry who say that digital is always so much better than the physical equivalent, but what about all the things we do in digital that don’t have a direct physical equivalent? Social media doesn’t have a direct physical equivalent, for example. With email, it’s not as if we were posting hundreds of letters a day before its arrival. These things just don’t compare – they’re extra things we’re doing, not replacements.”

What’s more, the conclusion that replacing physical processes with digital ones will bring about a greener world is not as secure as it may seem. “People always assume that the impact of the digital is positive, but if by default we just think the digital sector is helpful, that doesn’t tell us when, where or how,” says Gauthier Roussilhe, a digital designer and researcher whose work focuses on the relationship between digital systems and climate crisis. “It feels natural because of the discourse of dematerialisation, but nobody is actually doing the research to verify it.” In fact, the research that is being done is fairly discouraging. According to a 2019 study published by France’s GreenIT group, for instance, digital technologies now account for 4.2 per cent of the world’s primary energy consumption and 3.8 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions – figures that show digital technology as more polluting than the airline industry, which is a bit like being more evil than Satan.

Now, in the interests of transparency, I should say that I don’t know how accurate those statistics are, at least in their finer details. In fact, nobody seems to. Elsewhere, in perfectly reputable sources, I’ve seen that emissions figure listed as 2 per cent or 2.5 per cent. “There is basically no clear data you can get,” explains Roussilhe. “For a sector that is meant to handle data, it’s so hard to get data about its own materiality.” So take any statistics I give you with a pinch of salt, because once you start looking into the environmental footprint of the digital world, you find a lot of competing information. “When you’re looking at the footprint of digital, you cannot get precision. It’s impossible – there’s just too much opacity,” says Roussilhe. “You can only assess for direction, never for destination.” Fortunately, that general direction is fairly clear: to date, digitisation has not curbed the world’s environmental degradation and its rise has been coincident with climate collapse. “There’s no evidence to really support the idea that digitisation is helping the environment,” says Greenwood bluntly. “It’s as if digital technology has become a religion we all blindly worship. We think that more technology is good and will solve all our problems, but that’s really just like the economist’s principle that the markets will solve it. The technologist’s equivalent is, Don’t worry, technology will solve it.” And here, even those who are broadly positive about technology’s potential influence on the environment sound a note of caution. “Looking back over the last 70 years, it is clear that four things have gone hand in hand,” summarises Berners-Lee, who could be forgiven for a degree of family allegiance given that his brother Tim invented the world wide web. “1. ICT has become many thousands of times more efficient. 2. ICT’s [carbon] footprint has gone  up by a factor of many thousands. 3. ICT has enabled enormous efficiency improvements. 4. The world’s carbon footprint has continued to go up and up.”5

It shouldn’t be hard to figure out why this is. “When I enter an address into my browser, a thousand tiny processes are set in motion,” writes the technology journalist Andrew Blum in his 2012 book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. “But in the most fundamental terms, I’m asking a computer far away to send information to a computer close by, the one in front of me.” This transfer of data between devices is the heart of the internet, but it requires vast amounts of physical infrastructure to actually operate. The production of the machines and digital devices that allow us to store, transmit and read data is a polluting business, while the energy required to subsequently run that infrastructure is not only colossal, but growing. Society’s Bacchic production and consumption of laptops and smartphones is one part of this (and I’m not even going to try to get into that, but it’s worth thinking about why we don’t instinctively class hardware as part of the digital realm),6 but another driver is the world’s data centres: the server farms in which data is stored and processed ahead of being sent to a device whenever a user opens a website or app, or streams a video. “The 416.2 terawatt hours of electricity consumed by global data centres in 2015 exceeded that of the whole United Kingdom, at 300 terawatt hours,” writes Bridle in New Dark Age. “This consumption is projected to escalate massively[...]. In response to vast increases in data storage and computational capacity in the last decade, the amount of energy used by data centres has doubled every four years, and is expected to triple in the next ten years.”

The key element to retain from these statistics isn’t necessarily their specificities, but rather the physicality that undercuts any digital process. Everything we do online is the output of a physical process elsewhere. No matter how insubstantial it feels, it’s fundamentally corporeal and it all gets added to the ledger. “I think that most of the time we all inadvertently focus only on the ‘window’ of our laptops – that is, on the content of the internet rather than on the infrastructure that underpins it,” notes the architect Pietro Bonomi, co-author of ‘Less than Zero’, a 2020 study of data centres published in AA Files. “Most people consider the internet as essentially immaterial. Even scholars and journalists often fail or seem to forget to address the ‘hardware’ and infrastructural aspect of it.” It is a point with which Roussilhe agrees. “If we look at the history of infrastructure and global infrastructure, there is only one that has come with the discourse of dematerialisations, which was digital,” he says. “So we have ended up with this weird sector where we assume there is no materiality, whereas actually it’s just materialised a bit further away. The digital sector has been good at hiding itself.”

One early attempt at revealing this materiality was provided by the designer and researcher Timo Arnall’s Internet Machine (2014), an installation that displayed video and stills from a data centre run by Telefónica in Alcalá, Spain. The footage shows the centre’s white space, those areas in which its servers and other ICT equipment are stored, but also devotes considerable attention to its grey space: those parts of the facility that house its support functions, such as the air- conditioning and power systems that allow it to operate. “The thing that struck me most strongly was the sound,” recalls Arnall when I ask about his experience in Alcalá. “As you get closer and closer to the server rooms you can’t help but be oppressed by the hissing, the whining, and then the rumbling of generators and battery storage systems. It’s just this feeling of being on top of something that is incredibly energy hungry.” One of Arnall’s stills shows a Cat generator, fed by white, tubular tanks that are fat with diesel. “Data centres of this type must[...] be operational 99.995% of the time (they cannot be out of action for more than 26.3 minutes a year) and each must have 96-hour power outage protection,” Bonomi and his co-author Nicolò Ornaghi write in ‘Less than Zero’. “Redundancy in[...] data centres is not just for backup. Twin systems are active at the same time, and most data centres can facilitate scheduled maintenance without any impact on operations.” At Alcalá, there are four diesel generators, “but they cycle and test them every day to make sure that if the power does go off, there’s something ready to kick in,” recalls Arnall. “I hadn’t anticipated the amount of space that would be given over to energy. If you mention server farms or data centres, people think of LEDs, ethernet cables and racks, but the amount of infrastructure devoted to power was equal to, if not greater than, the space given over to servers. The noise from those power systems was greater and more interesting than the server rooms themselves. Just this sheer power; the constant humming.”

The force of Internet Machine lies in the way in which it lays bare this physicality, stripping away the ephemerality of online. While parts of the data centre are gleaming and high-tech, others are shitty and mundane. One shot shows a room in the basement. The concrete walls are roughly cast, with crummy holes botched through so as to provide passageways for cables. On the ground, directly below a cable hole, sits a small red and white box. “That’s for catching mice and rats,” explains Arnall. “Then that incredibly crude concrete hole is the main internet in and out for that entire building.” This, the film reminds us, is the internet too: rats and techno glory holes in an industrial park outside Madrid. Which is worth remembering. “In general, there is a distinct lack of a material approach to the internet and technology,” says Arnall. “We treat technology as separate from the material world and as being different, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.” Yet the approach outlined by Arnall runs fundamentally counter to the idea of the cloud, the dominant model that society has developed for the way in which the internet ought to work. “Beginning in the 1950s, a new symbol began to creep into the diagrams drawn by electrical engineers to describe the systems that they built,” writes Bridle in New Dark Age. “The symbol was a fuzzy circle, or a puffball, or a thought bubble. Eventually, its form settled into the shape of a cloud. Whatever the engineer was working on, it could connect to this cloud, and that’s all you needed to know.” Blanketing and discarnate, the cloud suggests a space that is not a space – a borderline celestial realm that sits atop our own world, but is somehow not of it. It is, instead, a hammerspace for data.

“In the future we would have total storage, all of us would,” intones Joshua Cohen, the founder of Google- like company Tetration in the author Joshua Cohen’s 2015 novel Book of Numbers.7 “[Our] media libraries would dematerialize and just float above us, books would no longer sit on the shelves reminding us that we had not read them, music and TV and film formats would no longer clutter the den reminding us of all we had not yet listened to or watched.” This is the cloud writ messianic large, swallowing up the physical and converting it to weightless information. By design, this metaphor is intended to reduce the complexity of the internet, which is no bad thing given that the various systems that enable online are hellaciously technical – if there’s one thing that writing this essay has taught me, for instance, it’s that I still don’t really understand what a router is. In this respect, the cloud is liberating, insofar as it enables activity without understanding. As opposed to the early days of the internet, when infrastructure was frequently held within and maintained by the universities and institutions using it, the cloud outsources work to data centres, freeing people up to just get on with stuff. “It allowed one to focus on the near at hand, and not worry about what was happening over there,” Bridle notes. The problem, however, is that it also emphasises what Connie Walsh, blogging for the University of Cambridge’s Sociology Department in 2020, has termed a “discourse of transcendence” – a perception of online that suggests that “the internet allows for free, harmless and entirely non- physical relationships between users”. Now this probably is a bad thing, insofar as it’s both patently false and environmentally corrosive. “[The] first criticism of this cloud,” Bridle explains, “is that it is a very bad metaphor. The cloud is not weightless; it is not amorphous, or even invisible, if you know where to look for it. The cloud is not some magical faraway place, made of water vapour and radio waves, where everything just works. It is a physical infrastructure consisting of phone lines, fibre optics, satellites, cables on the ocean floor, and vast warehouses filled with computers, which consume huge amounts of water and energy and reside within national and legal jurisdictions.”

Should this matter to designers? In some senses it clearly does. “Designers work with materials, we help shape materials, and if we don’t understand them we can’t shape them,” summarises Arnall. For anyone working with digital, the infrastructure disguised by the metaphor of the cloud is the material reality of what they’re dealing with. “The point is that there should be an approach to understanding the world where you do understand its materiality and you understand at a high level that there are these things which have an effect,” adds Arnall. “You cannot treat digital as totally divorced from the material world.” The difficulty, however, is that there’s very little that individual designers, or even all designers, can do about this. Formafantasma’s website redesign may have reduced its own footprint, for instance, but it’s not as if individual websites are the real problem – their contribution to climate collapse is infinitesimal. California’s forests aren’t on fire because everyone is trying to find out more about Formafantasma. “I think there’s a lot else to do, honestly,” said Farresin when I asked what he felt the impact of their web project was likely to be. “I don’t think things like this are necessarily a solution.”

This is a point taken up by organisations such as the Green Web Foundation, a not-for-profit that aims to highlight which portions of the internet are powered by renewable energy, and which run on fossil fuels.As it stands, the foundation lists just 13 per cent of websites as hosted on servers powered by renewable energy, with its work devoted to providing tools that could help improve this ratio. Included among these initiatives are the Green Web App, which accompanies search results with a smiley or sad face to show the nature of an individual site’s hosting, as well as plans to launch a Carbon.txt online standard that would automatically provide internet users with an “indexed style way[...] to find and look up an organisation’s green claims” and systematically trace the energy source of any website across its “whole complicated supply chain”. Which would be very helpful, given that supply chains for web hosting are every bit as labyrinthine as those for physical manufacturing. “If you have a way to identify your upstream provider, and they can update their upstream and so on,” writes Chris Adams, one of the foundation’s directors, “there should [be] a way to ‘walk the graph’, from all the way to the energy used to power your website.” At present, there isn’t.

This emphasis on structural change and energy flows, if achievable, offers a more impactful route to bringing about change than focusing on individual design initiatives. “There’s this discussion around making websites super lightweight, but it’s very difficult to unpick,” says Adams. “There are so many echoes here of the whole individual-versus-systemic- action argument that you see in the wider climate debate. But in my view, it’s very unproductive to shame individual users of the internet when they cannot meaningfully change their use of the web, even if there is an argument for designers and developers to think about this as part of their job.”

It’s not only unproductive, but it also doesn’t work. Researching this piece hasn’t changed my online behaviour one iota – that 17h 50m of internet usage came embarrassingly late in the research process – because the tendency to think of the internet as incorporeal runs deep and online processes are too firmly embedded in everyday life to make opting out a realistic option for most people. “What we should bethinking about instead is where the power comes from, because the internet is the biggest machine on Earth, and it’s mostly powered by fossil fuels,” says Adams. “That doesn’t work in a climate emergency.” One difficulty in remedying this, however, is that the business model that dominates online is powered by consumption. “If you’re Google or Facebook, and your entire mechanism for making more money is essentially by increasing engagement, you are not incentivised to remind people of the environmental impact of them engaging with this stuff,” he says. “You’re going to end up with a scenario in which we’re not encouraged to think about this stuff, because it goes counter to many of the drivers that are powering any kind of business. And I’m using the word ‘incentive’ because it’s not like people are trying to be mustachio twirling bastards or anything like that, it’s just the business model.” So if that’s the problem, I ask, what’s the solution? “Policy, bro, policy!

Well, that’s all well and good. Everybody knows that we need to get off fossil fuels and onto renewables, just like we also know how that’s going: at the time of writing, fresh reporting had uncovered that the G7 nations had spent US$147bn supporting green energy between January 2020 and March 2021, but had also funnelled US$189bn towards the fossil fuel industry in that same period. As I write this sentence, the Gulf of Mexico is literally on fire – the result of a gas leak from an underwater pipeline operated by Mexico’s Pemex petroleum company. To put this in context, the Book of Job states that the primeval sea monster Leviathan made “the deep to boil like a pot”, but even Leviathan seems to have stopped short of actually setting it on fire – so well done to Pemex for a fuck up of beyond Biblical proportions, I suppose. The point being, that while Adams is right that decarbonising the energy grid represents an overarching goal for cleaning up digital, society’s track record on fossil fuels gives little hope that this process is going to be completed any time soon. And while politics may ultimately be the answer, it’s a realm whose operation was once likened by the sociologist Max Weber to the “slow boring of hard boards”, and whose glacial progress feels all the crueller when you consider the fact that all the glaciers are melting.

Anyway, even if the transition to green hosting and data services were achieved, issues would likely remain. “You cannot simply switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy and pretend it’s the same,” explains Kris De Decker, a technology writer, activist and the editor of Low-tech Magazine. “It’s a very different energy source and you have to adapt your energy demands.” De Decker argues that renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are, by nature, intermittent: their availability depends upon the seasons and weather, and they cannot be relied upon as a steady 24/7 green-energy supply, even when deployed in combination with one another. “There are some web-hosting companies who say that they run on 100 per cent renewable power, but their websites are always online,” says De Decker. “To make that possible, these companies need to have very large battery storage systems, which makes them unsustainable in the sense that those take a lot of energy to produce and they have very short lifespans, or else they take in energy from the grid when there’s no sun or wind to power them – which comes at a huge environmental cost.” The second part of De Decker’s argument builds on this, pointing to the strain placed upon renewables by asking them to fill the energy breach left by phasing out fossil fuels. “We want to solve everything with renewable energy,” he says. “We’re going to run electric cars, the heating, the internet, the healthcare system on renewable energy, but where is all that energy coming from and where are we going to put all those solar panels and wind turbines? You simply cannot do that.” None of which is to say that we shouldn’t transition to renewable energy – we should, because we can’t keep setting the Gulf of Mexico on fire – but it’s worth realising that even with this shift, issues surrounding our energy consumption will remain. “Renewable energy is a disaster as well,” says De Decker. “What we really need to do is reduce energy use.”

Now, in the interests of fairness, I should clarify that while Adams champions reducing the carbon intensity of the grid, he is alert to the issues raised by De Decker. Alongside his work with the Green Web Foundation, Adams edits Branch, an online magazine that explores ideas for a more sustainable internet, linking environmental issues to social-justice campaigns. Branch pushes “the conversation far beyond the green capitalism discourse[...] which is focused on cleaning up the energy supply powering the web while keeping its profit-driven motive – premised on endless digital growth – intact”, writes journalist Maddie Stone in issue one of the magazine. Instead, it aims to depict “new kinds of virtual spaces in which principles of climate justice and even degrowth are baked into the digital architecture”. Perhaps the best evidence of this is the magazine’s website, which was developed by designer Tom Jarrett to be “demand responsive” to the realities of the energy grid at any one time. “There’s a need to reconnect the digital to the physical, from minerals and energy to the physical infrastructure that powers the internet,” writes Jarrett, who developed the site such that it displays different interface designs “dependent on the current energy demand and fossil fuels on the grid where the user is.” When demand is low, and the percentage of renewables on the grid is high, you see a version of the site that is rich in images and video. As demand rises, and the percentage of renewables decreases, the site begins stripping back features, offering “lighter Unicode renderings of images and videos”, or else not auto-loading media content at all and instead inviting users to “click to reveal the content” if they are dissatisfied with the alt text description that appears in its stead. “We have to repurpose our digital design processes to consider and reflect these ecological needs,” says Jarrett, “instead of optimising only for business and growth objectives, to achieve more transactions, interactions and attention.”

Other websites have trialled demand responsiveness too, including one developed by the Danish fashion brand Organic Basics (lowimpact.organicbasics.com). “The energy mix of an electricity grid depends on various factors, such as concurrent load, weather and more,” writes the brand’s head of tech Jesper Hyldahl Fogh. “Your low impact website should reflect this fact.” It’s a good idea, highlighting the reality that websites exist within a material context, but it’s not above critique. “[A] fundamental problem with Organic Basics’s approach is that the less carbon the electricity has, the more the site uses,” writes Roussilhe, for instance, and the same could be said for Branch. “The production of energy has other impacts than the emission of CO2,” continues Roussilhe. “Two problems then emerge, firstly, this is an example of a rebound effect: the drop in carbon intensity leads to an increase in electricity consumption. Second, under the pretext of reducing the impact of one factor, we increase the impact of other factors that we do not look at. For example, in France, we know that the production of 1 kWh involves the use of 4 liters of water (production of electricity via steam).” This seems a fair comment, given that responsiveness presents a kind of digital feast and famine model, when what we probably need is digital famine and famine, but Branch and Organic Basics nevertheless illustrate that even if the principal goal remains switching energy supplies, there are things that design might try to help smooth that transition in the interim. “Lean is an acknowledgement that even when we use green energy, there is still an unavoidable environmental impact to most digital activity,” write Adams and Branch’s managing editor Michelle Thorne. “Our decisions of what to build matter, and so we chose to tread lightly.”

Branch’s lean approach falls largely in line with De Decker and Low-tech’s desire to begin reducing energy consumption, which is where both publications see a meaningful role for design. De Decker explored these ideas in a 2018 project developed with Marie Otsuka and the digital designer and researcher Roel Roscam Abbing: solar.lowtechmagazine.com, a solar-powered website for Low-tech Magazine. Although the site is comparatively recent, it has already become something of a bellwether for those interested in environmental web design and a direct reference for Formafantasma, to the extent that the footer of their website links to it – “I think it’s brilliant,” Farresin notes, with nearly everybody interviewed for this essay expressing similar enthusiasm. Low-tech’s influence is explained by a number of radical steps that its site takes towards reducing its environmental impact, as well as its wider efforts to fundamentally reframe our expectations of online. Most obviously, for instance, the site is hosted on a single board mini-computer housed in De Decker’s home in Barcelona, which draws its power from an off-grid photovoltaic solar cell installed on his balcony. Given the energy limitations of a balcony-based setup, it means that the site runs on a tiny amount of power – 1 to 2.5W – which is partially made possible by the fact that solar.lowtechmagazine.com exists as a static website.

In web design, a site is static if it’s generated as a set of documents that exist on a server. This stands in contrast to dynamic websites, which are far more common, and are generated by server-side scripts that kick into action every time someone visits – a process that uses computational power in place of the less energy-intensive storage. “Static websites consequently require less processing power and thus less energy,” summarises De Decker. Although not all environmentally conscious websites are static – Formafantasma’s is not, for instance, because Studio Blanco determined that a static website would be “complicated for [Formafantasma] to update[...] because every single page has to be created from scratch” – the approach does do something to challenge the ephemerality of online. Symbolically, a static site carries a sense of its own enduring existence, pre-generated and read off the disk, rather than being generated anew each and every time. On the other hand, a dynamic website is specifically geared towards receiving regular updates, feeding the cycle of online as a site for constant consumption. “A database-driven website is a bit like having a seven-seater car. If there’s only two in your household, do you really need it?” asks the writer Gerry McGovern in his 2020 book World Wide Waste. “A great many websites do not need to be dynamically created from a database because they don’t change much. They can work perfectly well as static sites.” One reason why static websites are not more common, however, is down to accessibility. “We get a lot of emails from people asking us to help make them a static website, because there are no user-friendly [platforms] out there,” explains Roscam Abbing, who notes that all of the well-known web design platforms, such as Wordpress, Wix and Squarespace, are focused on dynamic sites. “We should have a Wordpress for low-tech websites, but the ones which are out there are geared towards scratching somebody’s particular itch,” he says. “They’re straightforward enough such that anybody with programming skills can write their own, meaning that you then have one for every language or weird toolset, but there hasn’t been a concerted effort to make a project that tries to straddle both accessibility and usability issues. I’m not sure why, because if you want to be famous, then this is what you should be working on. There’s a real need for it.”

The effort to minimise solar.lowtechmagazine. com’s energy usage further extends across its frontend design. As with Formafantasma, the magazine’s logo is rendered using Unicode as “LOW←TECH” and custom fonts have been foregone. In fact, the design doesn’t specify any font – it’s set up such that visitors just see it rendered in the default font on their browser. “As a designer, determining which font you use is a big choice,” says Otsuka, “so removing that and using the default fonts is almost like removing yourself. But it’s a good reminder that design is not necessarily about what you see, so much as the process through which you decide what you see.” In a similar vein, all images on the site are dithered, a compression process by which images are reduced to a palette of black, white, and four shades of grey, with the resultant patterns of clustered dots creating the illusion of colour depth. The effect of the process, the team explain, is to “make images ten times less resource- intensive”, but it also generates a marked aesthetic – a kind of crackly visual static reminiscent of 1980s video games and which carries all the retro appeal you would imagine. In this respect, Low-tech pushes its design elements to aesthetic extremes, but the basic principles that it operates on – limiting use of resources, reducing the number of energy-intensive processes – are broadly identical to those that apply in physical design. “I did my thesis at university on sustainable product design and researching all the things you can do to make a physical product good for people and planet,” acknowledges Wholegrain Digital’s Greenwood. “Years later, when I learned about digital’s environmental impact, I was hanging my head in disappointment with myself: but you knew all of this! The design principles are the same.” The reason why these ideas are little discussed, Otsuka and Roscam Abbing agree, is that digital has a tendency to mask its consequences. “Let’s be honest, when in a design process can we sit down and think about all the consequences?” says Roscam Abbing. “It’s rare, and with digital design all the more so because if you don’t see it, it’s really hard to grasp.”

“It’s that disconnect,” confirms Otsuka. “There are all these different parts that go towards making something work online and it’s hard to grasp how all of those connect. A lot gets lost in just trying to understand what’s there on your screen, so it’s hard to think about what’s behind it.”

To De Decker, these issues should push designers to adopt a new kind of role. “[Solar.lowtechmagazine. com] is about giving up control of the design,” he says. “If you use Wordpress to build a website, like most people do, then that doesn’t care about sustainability – if you upload a 10mb image, it lets you do it. It doesn’t automatically compress that image or even suggest that you should compress it, which shows that the way websites are designed is part of the problem. With Low-tech, we stripped all the design out and let the browser design the website instead, just how it would have done in the past. It’s quite a radical step for a designer to say, ‘Let’s not design.’” Not designing, however, is probably the most useful thing that a designer can do in an age of climate collapse, to the degree that not-design, or anti-design, or let’s-not- design-design, or whatever you want to call it, has rapidly gained credence as a form of design in and of itself.8 “There’s[...] a framing problem in design: every question starts with the assumption of a ‘thing’,” writes the designer and author Alexandra Deschamps- Sonsino in her 2020 Branch essay ‘Don’t Press Snooze: Design in a Crisis’. “The thing and the need for a thing is never really questioned because that would mean a deeper exercise in self-reflection. After all, without the thing, there is no project, no client, no budget and no designer. So once all those things have been put in place, I would argue it’s already too late. Whatever design work should have happened was in convincing the client not to make a thing at all.” This same principle applies in digital, just as it does in any field: if something has an environmental impact, which everything does, then we should think carefully about whether its benefits outweigh this cost. “The key is that we don’t need to assume that digitising is always the best answer,” explains Roussilhe. “One of the first questions I ask when working on digital projects is whether we should digitise or not. It’s what I call an agnostic opinion. I don’t assume that digitisation is always better.”

Now, although solar.lowtechmagazine.com is a thing, it could be read as having adopted a similar position to Deschamps-Sonsino and Rousshile’s advice within its own structure by means of surrendering control of the design to the browser. In fact, those few areas in which the team made more “proactive” design choices are also those about which they now express reservations. “If there’s one thing I personally regret, it’s the pronounced aesthetic,” acknowledges Roscam Abbing. Although the site’s low-fi aesthetic is grounded in its environmental aims, he explains, it has unduly shaped reception of the project. “I stand by it, but one of my concerns with how the project has been picked up is that we have an aesthetic of ‘environmentally friendly’, which can then become a greenwashing front,” he continues. “You cannot control how people interpret things, but I’ve seen a lot of dithered images, for instance, that are definitely bigger and heavier than if you just used normal JPEG compression.” The point, Roscam Abbing says, is that while Low-tech’s aesthetic arises from its environmental goals, it’s not the only route through which these goals might be met – there’s more than one way to strip a website. “One of the things we would really like to see are low-tech websites that don’t look like the Low-tech website,” he says. “None of the principles we’re talking about with this predicate that a site has to look like a 1990s website and I actually think there are some great opportunities for modern typographic design that looks fresh and colourful within these same principles, whereas what we have done really speaks to a crowd that is interested in nostalgia and the retro.” More fundamentally, Otsuka highlights the fact that the site should not be read as an endorsement of solar power as a universal online solution. “A solar-powered website isn’t going to work in Seattle where it’s always raining,” she says. “We want to emphasise the fact that it’s solar-powered because it’s based in Barcelona – it’s specific to where Kris is working. We don’t want the solar-poweredness to be a cool thing that people think can apply to anything. Just because a website is solar-powered doesn’t mean it’s necessarily more sustainable.”

The central aspect of the project, the team insist, is the fact that solar.lowtechmagazine.com sometimes experiences downtime, and this should not be seen as deleterious to the design. “One of the more radical interventions we made was to say that it’s OK that it’s sometimes offline,” says Roscam Abbing, “which is such a shocker if you explain that to anybody in hosting.” In the site’s footer, a section labelled “Server Stats” gives updates on the status of the site’s server, thereby grounding the project in its material realities: “Location: Barcelona; Time: 13:46 CEST; Battery status: charging; Power used: 2.56W; Uptime: 12 weeks, 3 hours, 7 minutes.” That uptime stat is crucial, as if there are multiple days of cloud cover in Barcelona, the site goes down and remains unavailable until the sun returns to recharge it. One day after getting those server stats, for instance, I tried to return to the site to check some data, only for it to fail to load. Barcelona, I assume, must have been overcast, which is somewhat ironic given that the website’s approach is fundamentally a rebuttal of the cloud: an approach to online in which, to borrow Roscam Abbing’s words, “the material circumstances of the hardware and hosting location are made irrelevant”. In the case of Low-tech, the project’s central move is to highlight the materiality of the server on which it is stored and argue that this materiality ought to play a greater role in the decisions that digital designers make every day. “In web design there is a clear distinction between ‘frontend’, the visual and content side of the website, and the ‘backend’, the infrastructure,” says Roscam Abbing. “Outside of professional circles, the material conditions of the web or the internet’s infrastructure are rarely discussed.” With Low-tech’s website, however, “this distinction between frontend and backend needs to disappear as choices on the frontend necessarily impact what happens on the backend and vice versa.”

In more speculative form, these same ideas have been taken up by the designer Lucia Ye, whose 2020 graduation project from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College’s Innovation Design Engineering MA proposed a number of design interventions to nudge internet users towards less energy-intensive online activities. “When people talk about the internet, they often already see something going wrong with its current form, be it privacy or social media,” says Ye. “I was trying to think in that direction of, ‘OK, if you’re unsatisfied with the internet, then why don’t we try and reshape it in a way that’s also environmentally friendly?’” Coupled with this, Ye wanted to avoid any idea that simply mandated reduced usage. “People are so used to how they use the internet currently that it’s hard to tell them to simply reduce usage,” she says. “It’s just not human.” As a result of this, Ye developed Onlign, a proposal for an operating system for digital devices that would provide users with information about the carbon intensity of the grid in the style of Branch, as well as that of the applications and websites they run on their devices, but which could additionally steer them towards more sustainable online practices. In times of high carbon intensity, Onlign would change its home screen launcher to direct users away from media content and towards less energy-intensive activities: “reading an article from your favourite column [in place] of watching those funny videos on YouTube.” Similarly, Ye’s project proposes a form of video calling named Connect Time, in which conventional video streams are replaced by a lighter visual alternative: traces of light that transmit the movements of the other person’s fingers across their touch screen. It would, Ye suggests, “[provide] an alternative evidence of presence” that is less energy intensive and which potentially “connects[...] loved ones better”. In developing Connect Time, Ye drew upon her experience of remaining in touch with friends and family in China while studying in the UK. “Some of my friends would just open the camera and place it on the table, shooting up at the ceiling,” she says. “They know they can see somebody’s face when they want to, but they still have a sense of connection and presence throughout. That’s the core of this – is there a way of sustaining that presence but with low data?”

Alongside her design proposals, Ye hosted a series of research groups in which she questioned people about intermittent internet access, and how they might react to having to plan their online activities around weather patterns and the energy availability they would enable. “The participants ‘hated’ the fact that their videos would become laggy when the wind is not blowing,” she explains. “But interestingly, some participants differentiated this feeling from whatthey experienced when the internet connection was ‘somehow’ bad in their current life. ‘You can complain to the infrastructure company, but you can’t really blame nature,’ said one participant. ‘If it was the future, surely I would learn to adjust to it.’”

The key, Ye argues, is to provide clear information about how our online systems are actually powered and maintained, as well as offering alternatives. “The first step is to provide information, but this is far from enough,” she says. “After providing this information, it’s essential to let people know what the alternatives are. If we can provide people with an added value beyond the environmental impact, it’s more likely that they can adapt to it.” One clear additional value that light websites could bring, for example, is within the realm of accessibility. “With our computers becoming more advanced and internet connections speeds becoming faster, web designers feel that they can have a bunch of full-screen, high-quality photos,” notes Otsuka. “What then happens is that older computers, or people who have access to connections that are less advanced, get left out.” The problem is compounded by the rapid improvement of mobile connections, which drives websites to continually adapt to that technology’s growing capabilities. “But then older phones become obsolete,” Otsuka says. “It becomes more and more about discarding and getting new things, which increases consumption at all ends.”

By contrast, websites that are kept light remain accessible to older devices, extending their lifespan to ensure both greater accessibility and a reduced environmental footprint – a kind of web development that isn’t driven by the planned obsolescence that lurks behind the curtain of smartphone producers’ business models. “Sustainable web design is just one entry point to get to all these other good web practices,” notes Roussilhe. “We need to think about maintainability and pick technologies that can last for at least 10 years; to optimise for the worst conditions of use and not act as if everyone has 4G or 5G, or ready access to data – we need to assume that you’re paying for your data, which we tend to forget remains the case in a lot of countries.” These ideas, Roussilhe says, pertain to notions of performance, but are strengthened by being framed in terms of sustainability. “It’s super easy to do a performance website when you’re doing sustainability,” he says, “but sustainability adds something that the performance discussion doesn’t, which is to challenge the assumption that efficiency won’t lead to more consumption. We can’t put all our hopes on efficiency – it’s wishful thinking.”

The responses to digital’s environmental impact put forward by Ye and Roussilhe, as well as websites such as solar.lowtechmagazine.com, Branch and formafantasma.com are not solutions per se – cleaning up a handful of websites won’t help much, although that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done anyway – but they do have clear value as pieces of communication design. These are real, working websites that meet the demands of their operators, but which also cast into doubt aspects of the internet that have hitherto seemed set in stone. In the case of Low-tech, its solar website frames an essential problem of online as being constant availability, which is one of the shibboleths of digital design. “Something I’ve been trying to keep in mind is that although we’ve approached this project from a technical standpoint of reducing the number of resources loaded, it’s also about trying to encourage behaviour that is sustainable or trying to change people’s perspective,” says Otsuka. “The reason why it goes offline is that maybe we don’t need access to websites constantly, especially for something that isn’t offering urgent information.” While researching the project, Otsuka found a website that serves as a resource for a Jewish community and so goes offline on Shabbat when it’s not likely to be used. “I thought that was a great, contextually specific way of running a website,” she says, “because it is OK if things go offline sometimes.” It’s an attitude that could clearly be applied more widely.

“If you think about energy requirements,” says Roscam Abbing, “accepting energy unavailability rather than shoring up against potential downtime could be a paradigm shift that can drastically sink energy usage without otherwise doing anything special.” While it would clearly be a problem if something like nhs.uk wasn’t available around the clock, for instance, it’s less clear that the same goes for most other websites. Even something pretty established, like uniqlo.com/UK, could probably keep the opening hours of a brick-and-mortar Uniqlo shop, with very few serious issues arising from an inability to purchase cheap T-shirts after 6pm. It might even be a relief to not have the option of 24/7 commerce, particularly if, like me, you’re prone to late-night drunk shopping – an estimated US$45bn per year industry in the US alone.9

Now, I’m pretty certain that limiting uniqlo.com/ UK’s uptime would be very difficult for any number of reasons, and also not help to solve the climate crisis in the slightest,10 but that’s not really the point: the idea is just to reflect on the immediate availability of products and resources that the internet offers, and the rapid digestion of content that it encourages, and think about how this is both a reflection and clear accelerant of wider social patterns. “My pessimism is focused on this greed and hunger we have as a society for constant consumption,” says Greenwood. “I don’t believe that’s innately a human thing, but it’s a core part of the culture we have created, which digital technology is reinforcing rather than encouraging us to step back from it.” Whether digital can play a part in negotiating that step back seems doubtful, but if we’re unable change online habits, then I’m not sure what hope there is for anything else. Online is a real part of our world, and its excesses mirror those of wider society. In Bridle’s words, it is “the best representation of reality we have built”, so if we can’t fix that, what hope is there for the rest? “Computational systems, as tools, emphasise one of the most powerful aspects of humanity: our ability to act effectively in the world and shape it to our desires,” writes Bridle. “But uncovering and articulating those desires, and ensuring that they do not degrade, overrule, efface, or erase the desires of others, remains our prerogative.” Our present internet, however, lets desire run wild.

To be honest, all of this is pretty discouraging. When I started looking into the internet’s physical footprint, I’d hoped the issues might be resolved by a few small tweaks, ingeniously made. Perhaps there would be a YouTube.green or something, which would be entirely powered by a modest solar array in Yuma, or else an option to just toggle images off, hidden deep in Safari, probably close to the “Export as PDF” tab. You know, a classic design solution to a classic design problem! Unfortunately, however, the challenges of creating more equitable, sustainable digital systems aren’t really problems for design, or at least not in any straightforward sense. “As in most proto-environmental claims,” Bridle writes, “the proposed solutions are either appeals to regulation (taxing data), conservative regressions (banning pornography, or switching from colour to black-and-white photographs to save transmission costs) or hapless techno-fixes (like the miracle-material graphene) – all ludicrous, unworkable, and unable to think at the scale of the networks they seek to address.” In this respect, I think he’s right, with meaningful change only likely to be attainable through some pretty heavy-duty socio-political reform. “When we talk about the environmental impact of tech, the phrase I use is that you’ve got to realise it’s about power, not just energy,” summarises Adams. “In our view we have a theory of change where you need to create these ideas and make them feel feasible and desirable amongst the people who are implementing and building technical platforms – once you have something that will not be laughed out the door, it’s possible to begin proposing these at a policy level so you don’t have people pushing back and complaining how unworkable this is.”

The point of creating this sense of feasibility is to stress that our present internet is not some fait accompli – it has reached its current form because of the interplay of specific decisions that could easily have gone another way, and which might still be revised given sufficient political and social will. “We’ve been taught to look at the digital system as a unique thing and something that is only one concept, particularly if you look at the GAFAM actors [Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft] who influence everything we do, especially in design,” says Roussilhe. “But from that same system there is also Wikipedia, where you never accept any cookies because it’s a different business model – which is useful but not necessarily time consuming – and which has a very easy entry point and end point in the user experience. That shows that we already know how to use digital tools with parsimony – we just need to get past the blinding vision of the GAFAM model.” And he’s right – the internet is not a system that we either have to accept or abandon wholesale. Our present internet was never designed as such; rather, it is the result of an accretion of different designed systems and networks. If you can change aspects of those constituent systems, as well as the ideologies that drive them, then potentially you could arrive at a different internet. “The discourse on how we should do the internet has been dominated for far too long by a particular group in Silicon Valley who have priorities and concerns that are at odds with both environmental sustainability
but also matters of social and economic justice,” says Roscam Abbing. “We need different narratives.”

If those narratives are to emerge, they will do so incrementally, but the emergence of alternative treatments of digital is an encouraging sign. “Technology does not emerge from a vacuum,” writes Bridle. “Rather, it is the reification of a particular set of beliefs and desires: the congruent, if unconscious dispositions of its creators. In any moment it is assembled from a toolkit of ideas and fantasies developed over generations, through evolution and culture, pedagogy and debate, endlessly entangled and enfolded.” What initiatives such as solar.lowtechmagazine.com and formafantasma.com are attempting is to fold in some new ideas for online, and hope that with time those may prove useful in shifting the overall recipe. “There are many commercial interests behind the internet that we think are inevitable, but they’re not,” says De Decker. “It helps very much to look back to the beginning of the internet when it was a totally different medium – it was going to bring information to everyone, it was accessible. These days, when I surf the internet, I often wonder what has become of it. Everything is locked up behind a paywall, there are constantly things popping up, there are videos running by themselves freezing your browser, you’re tracked by hundreds of companies you don’t know anything about. That was not how it used to work. We need to remember that you can make a totally different internet.” So while piecemeal redesign of individual websites makes little to no immediate difference, it does begin the work of suggesting alternatives, and revealing what has hitherto been hidden. “We’re just trying to avoid waste, and design and develop things efficiently, but the big thing we’re facing at the moment is lack of awareness,” explains Greenwood. “If nobody even knows this is a thing or a topic to consider, we’re not going to take action. Our biggest contribution as designers to helping solve this problem is to get people talking and share the knowledge that we’ve gained along the way.” Wrapped up in this, he argues, is a need for humility on the part of design, paired with an acceptance that this needn’t translate into inertia. It may feel like a losing battle, but that’s better than no battle at all, particularly when the battle is about whether we should burn the planet. “So, is a website going to save the world? Well, no, obviously: it’s a website,” says Greenwood. “But if it gets people thinking and then individually taking action to help shift the industry into caring about these issues, that’s the real value. Because everything that modern people do is bad for the environment. The question is, is one thing less bad than the other? If it is, move to that step, and from that step we’ll probably be able to see what the next one is. We need that relentless forward progress, rather than getting hung up on perfection, because perfection isn’t an option for us right now. We just need to head towards somewhere we think is in the direction of better.”

That’s probably fair. In the case of Formafantasma, I think their new website is an improvement – very nice, very clean. Very much like Wikipedia. Although, to tell you the truth, it’s been a long 18 months,11 so I can’t actually remember what their old website was like. I very much hope that this fact won’t invalidate everything I’ve just said – God, maybe it was brilliant. “Good that you forgot it,” said Trimarchi when I put this to him. “It wasn’t memorable,” confirmed Farresin. “The coding felt ‘dirty’. We were just using one of those readymade infrastructures to build websites.”

“It took a bit of research, which Low-tech helped with,” said Trimarchi, “but we were able to strategise to make our website more sustainable and ecological.”

“To be honest, it was a surprise to us when we started looking into all of this,” added Farresin. “But this is not fully our work. What we did was to build an extremely precise brief and then ask someone like Valerio to design the website according to the questions that we had raised.”

“They’re great to work with,” confirms Valerio. “But their old website – it was a real shit.”





  1. And yes, I know there is a difference between the internet and the world wide web, and that what I probably mean here is more the latter, but everyone uses them interchangeably anyway, so I think we should pretty much just get over it in most cases, particularly as “world wide web” sounds a bit Encarta 95.

  2. I felt a bit sick when I saw this stat. Then I just browsed Amazon for ages and bought loads of books to cheer myself up.

  3. See ‘Formafantasma’s Findings’ by Alice Twemlow, published in Disegno #26.

  4. Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) is a convention by which the ecological impact of the greenhouse gases emitted by an object or activity are expressed in terms of the carbon dioxide that would have the same impact over a 100-year period.

  5. It’s worth noting that framing the environmental impact of digital in terms of carbon misses a lot, and is a specifically Anglo-American approach to the issue. In countries such as France, where a significant proportion of the energy mix is derived from nuclear power, carbon is less prominent in the debate. “One of the biggest differences between the French approach and the English-speaking approach, in my opinion, is the way we select and assess environmental impacts,” notes Roussilhe, who specifies that France looks at CO2e, as well as water consumption, abiotic resources consumption and primary energy consumption. For an entity that is supposed to be supranational, the internet – and our grasp of it – is frequently grounded in national differences.

  6. Although an excellent discussion of this is found in Shawn Adams’s ‘e-Waste Agbogbloshie’ in Disegno #30.

  7. Same name – it’s that kind of novel. The other main character, a washed-up writer, is called Joshua Cohen.

  8. Which is a very positive development, but probably also highlights the slightly weird rapaciousness of design in claiming things for the discipline: even the negation of design is an exciting new category of design.

  9. The total industry, not just me.

  10. Although nobody has actually tried this, so to hell with it – let’s give it a shot.

  11. To be fair, it’s been a long article too.