The information society promises to dematerialise society and make it more sustainable, but modern office and knowledge work has itself become a large and rapidly growing consumer of energy and other resources.
Wireless internet access is on the rise in both modern consumer societies and in the developing world.
In rich countries, however, the focus is on always-on connectivity and ever higher access speeds. In poor countries, on the other hand, connectivity is achieved through much more low-tech, often asynchronous networks.
While the high-tech approach pushes the costs and energy use of the internet higher and higher, the low-tech alternatives result in much cheaper and very energy efficient networks that combine well with renewable power production and are resistant to disruptions.
If we want the internet to keep working in circumstances where access to energy is more limited, we can learn important lessons from alternative network technologies. Best of all, there's no need to wait for governments or companies to facilitate: we can build our own resilient communication infrastructure if we cooperate with one another. This is demonstrated by several community networks in Europe, of which the largest has more than 35,000 users already.
In terms of energy conservation, the leaps made in energy efficiency by the infrastructure and devices we use to access the internet have allowed many online activities to be viewed as more sustainable than offline.
On the internet, however, advances in energy efficiency have a reverse effect: as the network becomes more energy efficient, its total energy use increases. This trend can only be stopped when we limit the demand for digital communication.
Although it's a strategy that we apply elsewhere, for instance, by encouraging people to eat less meat, or to lower the thermostat of the heating system, limiting demand is controversial when applied to the internet, in part because few people make the connection between data and energy.