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.
Artificial cooling and digital equipment are the main drivers behind the quickly growing energy use of modern office work. To lower the energy use of the typical glass office building, many agree that we need to revert to earlier forms of architecture that were common up to the 1950s: T-, H- and L-shaped buildings, light wells, natural ventilation, and radiant heating and cooling systems.
Would the same hold true for office equipment? Should we revert to pre-1950s machines like manual typewriters and calculators, carbon paper, vertical filing cabinets, and the telegraph? Such a radical solution would lower energy use dramatically, but could we obtain equally good results by rethinking and redesigning office equipment, combining the best of mechanical and digital devices?
The typical solar PV power installation requires access to a private roof and a big budget. However, wouldn't it be possible to get around these obstacles by installing small solar panels on window sills and balconies, connected to a low-voltage direct current (DC) distribution network? To put this theory to the test, I decided to power Low-tech Magazine's home office in Spain with solar energy, and write my articles off the grid.
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 power consumption of our high-tech machines and devices is hugely underestimated.
When we talk about energy consumption, all attention goes to the electricity use of a device or a machine while in operation. A 30 watt laptop is considered more energy efficient than a 300 watt refrigerator. This may sound logical, but this kind of comparisons does not make much sense if you don't also consider the energy that was required to manufacture the devices you compare. This is especially true for high-tech products, which are produced by means of extremely material- and energy-intensive manufacturing processes. How much energy do our high-tech gadgets really consume?
Fast and complicated calculations are a product of fossil fuels.
Multiplying and dividing numbers was not always that easy. Before the arrival of cheap electronic pocket calculators and computers in the 1970s, people relied on an array of low-tech means and machines to calculate taxes, profits or the properties of engineering parts.
Being an obsolete technology now, some of these 19th and 20th century calculators are surprisingly sophisticated and fashionable. Moreover, most are powered by a crank, which makes these gadgets "green". Today's pocket calculators are no power hogs, either. The thing is that computers took over most calculating jobs from calculators, and a large supercomputer consumes as much energy as a convoy of trucks.
What do we do with all that calculation power? We build fast cars, giant jumbo jets and worldwide information highways, all of which, in their turn, raise energy consumption. We also construct opaque financial products, rickety electronic voting systems and contradictory global warming scenarios. Mechanical calculators may be an inferior technology, but they had the benefit of keeping things on this planet relatively simple. A brief overview of the most remarkable models.
Chances are slim your children will be able to enjoy the family photo album when they grow up.
Nowadays family pictures, writings and home movies are stored on digital media, under the impression that this personal information will be accessible for a lifetime. However, this is not self-evident.
To guarantee the accessibility in the not even so far future, digital data requires active and regular maintenance – contrary to the archiving of analogue media.
Even though this constitutes a large challenge for libraries, for them the problem is not insurmountable. But in everyday life, a lot of personal information is in peril of getting lost.
The energy consumption of supercomputers is getting out of hand.
Supercomputers are becoming ever more important in scientific research, the financial world and big business. Their processing speed keeps growing. But even if we take into account future energy-saving technologies, the electricity use of these machines will become an insurmountable obstacle in 10 to 15 years time - says Alan Gara, developer of the world’s most powerful supercomputer.
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.