Sat at your desk reading the headlines, looking down at your phone during a busy commute, checking the state of the world before going to sleep. Reading the news is something that we all do. These days we can do it anywhere, at anytime. It feels like one of the more passive ways that we can interact with the outside world. After all, reading is a personal pursuit, a private sermon, speaking someone else’s words inside our heads.
It is hard to imagine that series of decisions, from search to click to scroll to share, with your face illuminated by that lonely blue light, contributing negatively to the state of the earth’s environment.
But for all the disembodied fluffiness of cloud technologies, the free flowing feeling of content streaming, all of these products, all of these experiences emanate from something physical. The internet is not just a metaphorical web. From data centres to undersea cables to the Wi-Fi router in the corner of your room, most of the distance traveled by the flickering pixels of your news site is manifested materially. The wires meet, the nodes connect. It takes up space our digital universe, it uses up energy, it generates heat. It has a cost.
This cost is not shared freely over the airwaves. Indeed, most of the time we spend online is managed and ensured by a series of data warehouses in a little-know corner of the East Coast of the USA. For instance, Loudoun County, VA, population 400,000, processes something like 70% of the world’s internet traffic. However, the largest energy provider there is a company whose power sources are only 3% renewable. The internet that we all use is fuelled by unsustainable energy practices. Streaming is polluting.
The problem of digital emissions is so widespread because for most of us who use modern technologies, it feels unavoidable. Everything we do online has a negative environmental impact. As Ben Clifford, the MD of Erjjio studios, explains: “Every time we perform simple daily actions like browsing a website, sending and receiving email, using an app on our phones, saving a file to our cloud drives or searching Google, data gets transferred between our devices and the servers that the websites or software are hosted on.”
Unlike recycling bins or local farm shops, there isn’t a ready-made alternative for us to turn towards. Though we can delete unwanted selfies and unsubscribe from image-heavy newsletters, you simply cannot use the internet without contributing somewhat to harmful emissions. That said, it is unlikely that anyone is going to live completely off-line, so the challenge is to find ways of reducing the impact of the time we spend online.
Though it is fairly easy to understand the harmful impact of streaming videos or downloading large files, it is harder to appreciate that lighter-feeling online behaviours, such as reading the news, can also have a detrimental effect.
The consumption of media online has become synonymous with an over-saturation of pop-ups, banner ads and heavy imagery. For media organisations who cannot or do not want to put up a subscription paywall, ads are what pay the bills. But what is often overlooked is just how energy-intensive all of that extra clutter really is. For instance, when you load a standard Daily Mail page and scroll the whole way down, as well as the countless other articles whose links and images that are loaded, there are videos that automatically play and multiple animated adverts that flicker. The total data downloaded can exceed 30MB, which is the equivalent of downloading half an album’s worth of music!
At the same time, the text of the news story, that which holds all the information that people are clicking on the article to get, is submerged underneath clutter, and difficult to appreciate. Worse still, the pure text that is being so heavily obfuscated by all this additional material will rarely exceed a few KBs. When it comes to weighing up the impact of this digital pollution, there are several orders of magnitude in difference between an ad-heavy, text-light web story page and the same article bring hosted on a simple reading interface.
The sad fact is that many news providers believe that they need all that extraneous material to even run a chance of making a profit. But in neglecting the reading experience, they also drive up the price that users pay to visit their websites. As this research from the New York Times in 2015 shows (and it can’t have improved much in the intervening years as video ads have proliferated), it is a costly endeavour to have a slow-loading, ad-heavy news site.
So not only does polluting news articles with ads and clumsy design have a detrimental impact on the environment, they are also a waste of time and money, for both users and content producers alike. After all, The Daily Mail, The Independent, Salon and other heavy ad-based web pages will be paying much of the cost of hosting all this clutter on the internet.
In sum, a cleaner reading experience is more enjoyable and less damaging to both the outside world and your wallet.