Exploring the environmental impact of data

As part of our wider expedition to understand the material properties of data, I have been exploring the environmental and carbon impact of data and digital technologies. This journey has taken many directions and I wanted to share some of the key things I’ve learned so far.

Exploring the environmental impact of data

Attention Economy
In 2019, I ran an experiment to collect my data for an entire week's worth of my digital activity. I tracked the energy/carbon use for every digital product and service I used during this period. The results were quite surprising in many different ways, but one of the most interesting insights was that when the data was rendered as percentages for different categories, social media was by far the largest percentage, accounting for over 34% of my energy/carbon during the week of the experiment.

Social media services have been designed and fine-tuned to capture users' attention, and this has had a direct influence on their carbon and energy impact. This also manifested itself in the experiment when measuring news articles, where some pieces of news contained text and relevant content that was much less energy intensive than the adverts, trackers and auto playing video ads around the content. Commodifying attention has hugely impacted the design of the internet.

You can read more about this experiment here

Through my experiments, three insights have emerged that point to how we might better manage the relationship between data and the environment:

Don’t put the burden on the user
Reducing the carbon footprint of our digital lives shouldn’t be about shaming individual habits; it’s counter-productive to data shame users. Those of us designing, engineering, marketing and regulating digital products and services should be the ones taking responsibility for ensuring that they’re fit for a more sustainable world. We should be careful, even, of the language we use to frame the issue. The term ‘Carbon Footprint’ was invented by oil companies to deflect attention away from their responsibility to shift it on to individuals. It is important we don’t fall into the same narrative of making people feel bad for watching Netflix.

Think about more than carbon
I’ve met some great communities around the world looking at the environmental impacts of the internet and groups such as ClimateAction.tech and Climate-KIC. I have also heard some interesting things from France and their community of designers and researchers - there is an excellent write up from Gauthier Roussilhe here about this. This has led me to consider water and other finite resources, such as rare earth metals, and the role they play in not only data centres and digital technologies but in the sustainable energy infrastructure that we’re relying on for the transition to clean energy.

Ecology-centered design
I think it’s going to be important to shift our design principles and processes to reflect the finite resources and ecological limits of the planet, moving away from user centered design and designing to optimise for conversions and attention. These principles need to be built out together by those of us designing and building the digital products and services that are used by so many. Last year I attempted to start writing this for Branch Magazine.