How Will Self Led Me to a Greater Appreciation of Sustainable Design

Recently I read “The Printed World in Peril: the age of Homo virtualis is upon us,” an essay by Will Self in Harper’s Magazine. After he devotes some time to describing the declining role of literature in our world, Self says his essay is about “the impact of the screen on the page,” a subject of great interest to me and the real focus of my Digital Gloss project. He says that he has been concerned about the effects of technology on reading and writing for over ten years and has often been excoriated by his readers and fellow writers for having such a negative point of view about what he calls “the tyranny of the virtual.” Self goes on to say that he is not impressed by people who quote sales figures that prove print book sales are still going strong and e-book sales are declining because the printed books sold “are not the sort of difficult reading that spearheads knowledge transfer but picture books, kidult novels like the Harry Potter series, and… spin-off books by so-called vloggers…” Self also says that the decline in e-books is occurring because the screen isn’t a good way to deliver long reads and those long reads can’t really compete with video, games, social media, and “all the other entertainments the screen affords.”

Like everyone, I play a number of roles as I go about my life – sometimes I’m a writer and sometimes I’m a reader and sometimes I’m a designer, among other things. And in all these areas of my life I have noticed that the rise of the screen – particularly in regard to social media and smartphone usage – seems directly correlated to people’s inability to focus and tendency to read distractedly. (See “Why you should read this article slowly” for a compelling description of the ways that screens affect our reading habits.)

Earlier this year I was appalled when I read “Welcome to the Post-Text Future” by Farhad Manjoo, in the New York Times. Manjoo says, “The defining narrative of our online moment concerns the decline of text, and the exploding reach and power of audio and video.” Text won’t go away altogether, he says, but audio and video show signs of becoming “the universal language” as text fades into the background. The internet was once a text-based experience because computers only understood text, but now they have multimedia capabilities, and Manjoo says that it’s now easier to communicate with machines using images and sounds than through text (think of speaking to Siri). He believes that, “The haze of misinformation hanging over online life will only darken under multimedia,” but there’s no turning back.

As a writer and reader I want to ask: Is this really true, and is there nothing we can do to prevent this distracting and problematic multimedia trend? As a designer, I appreciate Alex Crowfoot’s perspective when he cautions in “Designers, stop designing for yesterday’s planet,” that we should “Minimise data.” He goes on to say that this is important in a climate-change-challenged world because “It has been estimated that streaming just an hour of video per week for a year requires more energy use in the server farm than two domestic refrigerators.” And then he says that much of that energy comes from burning coal. As designers we can be part of the solution by making lighter weight pages and giving careful thought to the problem of data transfer when we use video. So just read that sentence again: “It has been estimated that streaming just an hour of video per week for a year requires more energy use in the server farm than two domestic refrigerators.” Crowfoot doesn’t source that claim, however, and I wondered where that information came from? Could this in fact be true?

So I searched on the term “streaming an hour of video per week for a year uses more energy than two refrigerators” and I found a five-year-old article at Salon called “Your Netflix habit uses more energy than your fridge.” In this article Lindsay Abrams says, “It may come as a surprise, but it takes a lot of energy to keep ‘the cloud’ up in the air (or, you know, housed in giant data centers). According to a report posted online by Mark Mills of the Digital Power Group, the ICT (information, communications, technology) ecosystem — which includes the cloud as well as the digital devices and wireless networks that access its services — is approaching 10 percent of the world’s electricity usage, or the same amount of power we used to light the planet in 1985. Streaming an hour of video per week it says, uses more electricity in a year than two new refrigerators.”

Abrams also tells us that the original study probably overestimated the amount of energy streaming video requires and underestimated the amount of energy that comes from renewable sources used, for example, by Google and Apple. It turns out that the Digital Power Group was sponsored by the coal and mining industries and so the study was inclined to emphasize that coal is key to energy production. But the cloud uses a lot of energy nonetheless, and the proliferation of multimedia means that it will need more and more. So I have decided that, as a concerned reader, writer, and designer, I will argue that designing smaller, lighter websites and using less multimedia content online will not only use less energy in our climate-change-challenged world but will also contribute to a renewal of our ability to focus and really read. Sustainable design and attentive reading have something important in common. Thanks, Will Self, for leading me to that conclusion.