#28: Software Is Heating The World

To build or not to build

Reading time: 3 minutes

Almost ten years ago, Marc Andreessen declared software is eating the world.

He was right of course. And since his prescient observation, more and more businesses have moved online - from movies to healthcare to agriculture - making software the defact to method to deliver a product or service.

But Andreessen failed to highlight one key point: software likes its meals hot.

Software Is Heating The World

Amid the ever-expanding world of cloud computing, skyrocketing demand has left data centres competing with the aviation industry for the dud prize of highest carbon footprint.

Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean report, gave Apple, Facebook and Google an A rating, a worthy accolde for those running their data centres entirely on renewables. For other industry superpowers however, things are looking decidedly dismal in comparison. Netflix and Spotify earned a D rating, while Twitter and SoundCloud were slapped with a pathetic F. (You might be wondering about Amazon, but unfortunately they refuse to reveal their carbon footprint).

Regardless of the performances of individual companies, at the end of the day, 70% of all global internet traffic is routed through the U.S State of Virigina, where data centres are, in the main, powered by dirty non-renewable resources.

Further along the “pipeline”, between the data centres and our devices, the energy consumption of the wireless cloud accounts for a surprising 90% of total energy consumption.

Using 4G requires 500 times more energy than WiFi, while saving files locally rather than to the cloud, uses one-millionth less energy.

In terms of cryptocurrency, a single Bitcoin transaction uses electricity equivalent to powering over eighteen US homes for one day. It’s total network consumes as much electricity as Bangladesh in a given year. 

It Wasn’t Me!

When it comes to the climate crisis, it’s tempting for digital designers and software developers to absolve themselves of blame. Believing they're not the ones wrapping products in plastic or increasing demand for landfill, they forget many digital experiences require a physical product too - think smartwatches, laptops and smart thermostats. Even Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal of 2015 was entirely software led.

It’s clear they too are culpable.

Maybe Viktor Papanek had a point when he said, in his seminal 1971 book Design for the Real World - “the best and simplest thing that [designers] could do for humanity would be to stop working entirely.”

I don’t particularly feel like talking myself out of a job right now but, if I’ve learned anything about my career choice as a designer over the last few months, it’s that it’s stuck in the 20th century - aka all bound up in consumerism.

Too many devices are built with disposability in mind, especially when there's enough junk in the world.

At a recent consumer electronics show, 20,000 new products were unveiled, with many earnestly labelled as sustainable. 20,000 products isn’t sustainable, it’s vandalism.

So What’s The Solution?

Ethicist Cennyd Bowles says it best; we need fewer, better things.”

Industry could to follow the lead of technology like the Fairphone, where device owners are given the opportunity to repair their own phones. No more planned obsolescence please.

But we need to go further still. Instead of companies asking how to build something sustainably, the question must become about whether to build the product at all.

On an individual level, we could all be more conscientious about our consumption habits too. Not simply in terms of the products we buy or upgrade, but also our behaviour online. Ever increasing bandwidth and cloud storage have made us complacent of our actions. By reducing unnecessary video streaming and compressing personal photos for example, we would be following sustainable online practices.

Look I get it, this is all highly idealistic. 

But if a product musts exist, it needs, at the very least, to have sustainability front and centre. There can be no more distinction between ecological products (high-end) and mainstream products.

Unsustainable design is bad design. Period.

“We must reimagine ourselves as partners, not masters, of the natural world.”


For further reading on the subject of ethics in tech and the challenges technologists face in the wake of the climate crisis, I highly recommend Cennydd Bowles book Future Ethics.

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Scott