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.
The high energy consumption of the mobile phone network is mainly due to the limited life span of the phones.
This week, more than 50,000 people gather in Barcelona for the ‘Mobile World Congress’, the annual high mass for the mobile telephone. They gape in admiration at the newest generation of gadgets, which is again fitted with new applications and new designs. This almost unanimously praised innovation, however, has a dark side. Around half of the energy use of the mobile phone network is attributed to the production of the phones.
Is an electronic newspaper more ecological than a paper newspaper?
Newspapers and magazines don’t have a green image because lots of trees have to be cut down to produce them; but electronic publishing is not always more ecologically friendly. The Swedish Royal Institute of Technology made a life cycle analysis of both distribution systems (PDF, heavy download) and has come to some remarkable conclusions.
More than 200 years ago it was already possible to send messages throughout Europe and America at the speed of an aeroplane – wireless and without need for electricity.
Email leaves all other communication systems far behind in terms of speed. But the principle of the technology – forwarding coded messages over long distances – is nothing new. It has its origins in the use of plumes of smoke, fire signals and drums, thousands of years before the start of our era. Coded long distance communication also formed the basis of a remarkable but largely forgotten communications network that prepared the arrival of the internet: the optical telegraph.
How to downsize a transport network: the Chinese wheelbarrow For being such a seemingly ordinary vehicle, the wheelbarrow has a surprisingly exciting history. This is especially true in the East, where it became a universal means of transportation for both passengers and goods, even over long distances.
Firewood in the Fuel Tank: Wood Gas Vehicles Wood gas cars are a not-so-elegant but surprisingly efficient and ecological alternative to their petrol (gasoline) cousins, whilst their range is comparable to that of electric cars.
How to make everything ourselves: open modular hardware Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials. The parts of an obsolete generation of products can be used to design the next generation, or something completely different.
Power from the Tap
Power from the Tap: Water Motors Just before the arrival of electricity at the end of the 19th century, miniature water turbines were connected to the tap and could power any machine that is now driven by electricity.