Paths towards a sustainable internet

Chronicle: By discussing how we can achieve more sustainable solutions for our digital networks, IT researcher Anders J Johansson puts his finger on an important issue. How can we design our gadgets so that they can be repaired or used in new ways? The wear-and-tear mentality of today needs to drastically change if we are to protect more of our natural resources, with regard to both the energy and the materials needed for the products we consume at an increasingly rapid pace.

I purchased my first hobby computer in the mid-80s. It cost around a thousand Swedish crowns and used a third of the watt. It had no screen; you had to connect it to a TV in order to use it. The latest hobby computer I bought cost the same with all the necessary peripherals, and it also connects to a TV and uses the same amount of energy. Although, because of the technological development, the latter computer has a million times more memory and performs its calculations a thousand times faster compared to my first computer, it still uses the same amount of energy as the computer I bought thirty years ago. What I do is presented much more nicely compared to before, but I basically use it in the same way now as I did back then. So, while the development has moved forward, it has also come to a complete standstill. The development has mainly been about improving the performance and the experience, and a lot less about making it more sustainable and energy efficient.

The constantly connected human being

One thing that was not available in the mid-80s was the internet as we know it today. In principle, we can always access all the information we need, order the things we want and stay in contact with our friends. This is made possible through various technical solutions, such as WiFi or cellular networks. There are even solutions that allow us to stay connected far out in the wilderness by using satellites which orbit the Earth.

Meanwhile, our opportunity of always being connected has led to our applications, the apps and programs we use, constantly being in communication with the network. Many of them do not even work without access to a network. A more sustainable alternative would be to choose to communicate as little as possible, and preferably not at all when you only have access to a network which requires a lot of energy. Instead, we could choose to concentrate our communication to times when it requires little energy, like when you are close to a base station for the mobile network or WiFi.

One thing that currently prevents such a solution is that a number of business models have been built around the assumption of the constantly connected person – business models that are often based on offering a service for free in exchange for full access to information on how it is used and, in turn, the opportunity to sell this data individually or as compiled statistics. A transition to only downloading data when needed would require restructuring of these companies, and probably new user behaviour as the companies would have to receive payment in other ways, such as directly for the software itself. For example, there are map software today that are free, but based on open standards where users themselves help improve the software and the maps. Here users pay by contributing with their own time.

The fact that programmers today assume that we always have access to a network has also led us to not take full advantage of the development we have seen in computer technology. Although memory has become cheaper than processing power, relatively speaking, there is a trend to not store data locally on your own computer but, rather, centrally in large server rooms. From a convenience point of view, this definitely has its advantages, but it also means that we must use energy to communicate when it could be avoided, as we do not have access to our own data, our photos and files.

Gadgets that quickly become ‟old″

A sustainable internet does not only mean using it in a sustainable way, but also that the gadgets we use to communicate with the internet are sustainable. Today, it is doubtful whether we can call them that, especially considering how quickly we replace them. And not just because they break, but often also because they seem outdated or simply stop working because their software is no longer updated.

One major difference between today’s and yesterday’s technology lies below the surface and has consequences in terms of sustainability. Our technological gadgets are increasingly made up of customised parts that are difficult to use for other purposes. But the parts are also increasingly protected and secret for us consumers who have purchased and own a gadget. We only have access to use it for what it was designed to do, and have very limited opportunities to change the function of the gadget or to use its parts for something else. Today, it is also very difficult to disassemble and repair something, like a cracked screen or a faulty switch, compared to before.

My own career in radio technology partly started with me repairing old radios for my relatives. These were screwed together with conventional screws and their circuit diagrams were glued to the inside, to make troubleshooting and repairs easy. Devices today are often glued or screwed together with screws which are specially designed to make it difficult to find a suitable screwdriver. Circuit diagrams and service manuals are often classified as trade secrets. Sure, we have gained something from this development – a radio or mobile phone today is much smaller and easier to carry than it used to be – but at the same time, we have also lost the ability to repair, modify and re-use our technological gadgets.

Quickly outdated software

Another consequence of this development is that a lot of the technology around us contains small computers, which in turn contains the software necessary for the gadgets to work. And the gadgets are increasingly interconnected with each other.

One example is the pedometer I use to make sure I move around sufficiently each day. It does not fully function without an app on my phone, which in turn does not work without a connection to a network. So a pedometer can be completely dependent on the company behind still being in existence, and maintaining its online servers, and updating the app so that it continues to work on a mobile phone. The latter can be a problem as the versions of the operating system in phones succeed each other rapidly. It is not always an option to keep the old version, as an update may be necessary in case security deficiencies were discovered in the previous version.

The same applies to accessories for computers, which require that the drivers are updated in order for them to work. I myself have a box at home with fully functioning computer accessories, which are no longer possible to use because there are no drivers to support them in modern computer operating systems.

A solution to this would be to develop new drivers for these computer accessories, but the companies that once produced them have no direct motivation to do so, as they would not make any money from it. For them it would only be an expense. The alternative is that someone else would do this, either as a hobby or by making it into a business. The problem is that we have a culture were a lot, if not all, is considered a trade secret, and we therefore know very little about how our gadgets actually work and how they are structured, which makes it very difficult for an outside party to develop new drivers. In addition, we have set up legal barriers in the form of copyright laws and similar regulations that make it downright illegal to, in some cases, even try it.

Preference for selling new gadgets

Another alternative to throwing old gadgets away, or collecting them in a box, would be to reprogram them to make them serve a whole new purpose. The old e-reader could become a picture frame or a remote control for your TV. Or be placed on the refrigerator, showing today’s weather forecast. But unfortunately, also in this respect the technology is so hidden and secret that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to find out how things are structured to allow you to reprogram them. Companies have very little interest in this and would rather sell us a new gadget. If companies would make their service manuals public and even publish details on how the gadgets were constructed, they could be repaired, reprogrammed and reused to a much greater extent.

An alternative is to use completely open software, with an open source code and open hardware, where the idea is that all knowledge of the product is to be public. However, it is not entirely obvious how to combine this with a modern company’s ability to stay in business, where patents and copyrights are an integral part of the company’s valuation. There are a couple of examples of companies that successfully do business with completely open hardware, but also examples of how companies, as they become a little bigger, are bought by a larger corporation that stops publishing details of the products and instead makes them secret.

Sustainable IT solutions of the future?

An interesting technological development taking place today are the programmable radios (software define radio), i.e. a radio device that can be anything from a mobile phone to a base station for WiFi or a P3 receiver, entirely depending on the software we upload to it.

The benefit is that the same type of electronics, i.e. hardware, can be used for many different and new things as the development continues. This benefit will only be fully utilised if we are truly allowed to do so – it disappears almost entirely if the opportunity to reprogram the radio is only available to those who have constructed it. Today, we cannot be sure that these radios are better from a sustainability perspective, as they are not quite as flexible as you would hope. In other words, you cannot get them to accept any signal you would like without replacing certain parts. Another disadvantage is that they consume more energy than a device that is built for one single purpose, and that the problems with licenses and permits must be solved before they can become pure consumer products.

A sustainable internet has many dimensions – more than I am able to describe here. Those that are particularly important are the energy needed to power all of the servers that provide us with our web pages, movies and music, and the materials used to construct our gadgets, as well as how they are produced. Finally, we can also look at the internet from a completely different perspective – one that could save society time and resources in the form of fossil fuels. As we strive to build a sustainable society, there are great opportunities in using the internet to reduce travel and transports. This is not a natural consequence of the internet itself; rather, it requires that we choose to use it in a certain way. The drive to get there, and to achieve the solutions I have mentioned above, does not only lie with the industry that can provide them to us, but also with the consumers who must ask for and choose them.

Anders J Johansson

Photo: Peter Frodin

Anders J Johansson is a senior lecturer at the Department of Electrical and Information Technology at Lund University. His research concerns radio communication systems and particle accelerators. As a lecturer and a supervisor, he has also engaged in interdisciplinary and ethical issues when it comes to IT technology.


Anders J Johansson

 is a senior lecturer at the Department of Electrical and Information Technology at Lund University. His research concerns radio communication systems and particle accelerators. As a lecturer and a supervisor, he has also engaged in interdisciplinary and ethical issues when it comes to IT technology.

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