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Great piece, as always!
I'd add that another limitation to internet use is material resource use. The materials used to make electronic chips are not "conflict-free".

A.B Prosper


I don't know how I feel about your proposal but that was a smart and technologically proficient article. Well done.



Thinking of all the companies with animated intro videos, and the growing number of Retina/UHD/4K displays on the market, it made me think "Gosh, if only we had a format for vector video" only to swiftly realize we do.

It's Adobe Flash, and it's on its way out.
For content that is animated, not filmed, replacing Flash with grids of pixels, no matter how smartly they are encoded, isn't going to compare to the bandwidth economy of a vector format.

I'd take it a step further and suggest creating a format for educational videos where you just stream text/markup and the client's browser uses an appropriately ample library of vector 2D/3D "primitives" to render the content. One-time install of a large software package, then measly KB-sized streaming. Xtranormal/Plotagon/Nawmal boasted this, "Text-to-Movie", but there are no energy efficiency gains in rendering them in datacenters then encoding them as raster videos to stream to users.

Thankfully Low Tech Magazine has drilled in the concept of Rebound Effect hard enough in me to have a healthy amount of doubt as to the efficiency of such a pipe-dream scheme.

Monica Hall


Jared, come read this, it'll help pitch Pied Piper with hard data!



some modern thoughts to the rebound aka jevons effect of oil...video(ups) http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-02-25/oil-supply-and-demand-forecasting-with-steven-kopits read here http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-10-18/goldilocks-and-the-three-prices-of-oil and here http://ourfiniteworld.com/2015/09/29/low-oil-prices-why-worry/ acn also arguent too much bandwidth brings us to much dopamine http://fleeingvesuvius.org/2011/05/10/the-psychological-roots-of-resource-overconsumption/ so we need ever more kicks same with oil energy etc...but i also explained in german how new inventions like the nylon nets and motorized fishery. replacing the inefficient hemp nets and rowing boats http://www.be24.at/blog/entry/700259/florida-hat-seine-fischerei-mit-weniger-effizienz-gerettet rebounds into exploited fisheries and more migration...positive feed back loop everywhere

Moshe Braner


In the USA at least, internet access (except via cellphone networks) is billed by the month, in effect making the light users subsidize the heavy users. Changing it to billing by the byte would be useful in encouraging low-bandwidth usage choices. But when they suggested than in Hungary some months ago riots broke out?! One can reduce ones usage of bandwidth by choosing to visit web sites that give more text and less imagery (and no video). Also, browser add-ons can be used to supress images and videos (most of which are superfluous advertising, although that's the current funding source for much of "the internet" - another big topic).



The worst of all is that many ads are now videos. Almost nobody will watch it but they still run somewhere in the background and waste ressources. I try to block them but for instance at work i cannot and i see thos Videos running in many Tabs in the browser. Nobody really cares.
I guess all the text on this blog will fit on a old floppy disk if you omit the images.



Thanks, a great article once again, although I do not agree with the conclusion.
Actually the most efficient wired connection is also the fastest one - a 1 Gbps fiber-optical line consumes a little less energy, than a 30 mbps DSL, barely measurable in watts: win-win, just make sure the ISPs continue spreading their network (it's a rather slow transition due to high installation costs). On the wireless-side I also believe people should return to the good old habit of sticking a cable in their devices - not just because of power usage, but also because those networks might have some other side-effects (maybe yet unknown, maybe known but not so much advertised).
...but as you correctly mentioned, if the technology keeps reaching higher average speeds, the content providers will roll out bigger and bigger amount of data. That's the only part I can imagine being regulated by the law. Some 10-15 years ago in the IT education it was taught that a webpage shouldn't exceed the size of 20 Kb, so everybody can access it easily. Nowadays? No limits, no recommendations, gigantopages. I would love a rule stating that every home/index page should be below 250 Kb. No place for embedded videos, HQ pictures, just the basics you want to see when visiting (yes, you can be proud, just like on this blog). People living in remote areas with slower connections would also welcome that. Though setting a speed limit for the whole acces is a no-no for me: some use the web as a read-only media, other listen to music on it, while others host servers. Completely different needs, whose broadband should be limited? Libraries and DVDs? Those are close to extinction for a reason (I have no personal problems with them, it's just the truth).

Tilman Santarius


Hi Kris, a fantastic article. From first line to last, it speaks out of my heart. The suggestions on sufficiency limits are very very progressive (in the sense that public debate is not yet there at all, and will probably not be there for some time).

As of rebound effects, there is more that could be mentioned. For instance, motivational changes brought about through efficiency (i.e. "psychological rebounds"): the more efficient using the internet / mobile device will be, the more "ok" (desired, accepted) it is in terms of attitude, responsibility, behavior control.

Another aspect is what I call "strcutural rebound effects": The efficiency improvements in IT have brought about social acceleration, have sped up our lives. It's not only that we use mobil internet devices in spare times (e.g. in the train/car, in breaks), but using them also enables us to maximize our activities. For instance, modal split through smart mobility apps allows for more travel trips in one day etc. In effect, energy efficiency improvements speed up economic production, social interaction, and end-use consumption.

I have just finished a comprehensive book on rebound effects where I outline such and other effects - but it's in German only. https://www.buchhandel.de/buch/Der-Rebound-Effekt-9783731661764 If you are interested (and able to read German), let me now!

Moreover, I am about to start a five year research group that will look at "rebound risks and sufficiency opportunities of digital consumption" from a sociological, economics, psychological , engineering and sustainable marketing angle. If that sounds interesting, let's get in touch!



Insightful article as usual Kris, but I believe you have left unsaid 'why' increased energy usage is such a bad thing. In almost all of the comparisons where internet data usage is a substitute for an 'offline' process, stationary primary energy is replacing distributed fossil-fuel energy.

A kerosene powered data-centre displacing a kerosene-powered aeroplane flight is naturally worse when it comes to climate change and resource depletion, but where you have a data-centre powered by hydropower at a dam we might be willing to tolerate some inefficiency if it displaces the burning of petroleum. It is far easier for us to ensure cleaner sources of power for a North American data centre than for DVD factories in Vietnam or for fiercely air-conditioned cinemas in Singapore.

Anecdotally I feel that the true impact of distributed computing and communication has not been felt yet. Where I work we are shutting down regional offices and having people work from home with remote access to the HO server, we are also employing fewer people by having teleconferencing and video-conferencing interstate. Developing countries will not need any where near as much office space as was built in my developed city, and the existing office space may be retro-fitted into residential spaces as all of the files and desk-jobs move into the digital ether.



this is total nonsense.

the faster the internet, the less people will need to travel for work.

telepresence and other types of technologies, such as fast rendering of 3d printed prototypes, will also lower the need for transporting physical objects.

transport is , above all , one of the most wasteful of energy human endeavors. the less we need transport to achieve our ends, the more sustainable a system things become.

short of going back to the stoneage, the information society, replete with an ever accelerating internet bandwidth is one thing that will take us to a sustainable future.

worrying about speed limits is total utter nonsense, unless you are talking about the unsustainability of fast cars, fast trucks, the concord plane, space flight in general (let alone the joke idea of space tourism).

moving electrons is the path to a sustainable advanced civilization because electrons require ever lesser energy to travel fast.

Andrey L.


Video-streaming and music-streaming brought enormous changes to the cultural media market that the author totally ignores. Even the largest DVD rentals couldn't possibly compete with the breath and deapth of what I can watch on streaming services. Same goes for music.

Going back to physical delivery of content would constrain choice, and restict availability based on minimum geographic demand - if you want to watch some indie Australian movie, but live in a city where not many people want to watch it, though luck, you can't.

I know there are some activsits/thinker who lament this loss of "geographically-constrained cultural commonality" in that it forced, by limitation of past times, people to stick with a common much smaller sets of books, videos, music, food and even clothes styles, but I'm certainly not one that wants to revive these dreadful times.

Kris De Decker


@ Andrey

Seeing that you could store about 600 movies or 15,000 music albums on a 3 TB portable hard disk, I don't think that physical distribution would lead to a less diverse culture. All the more because we could copy that content at home and distribute it further through the use of portable hard disks.

It's a different approach, but it could have similar results. Digital storage media evolve at least as fast as internet connections and they both improve communication in an equal way.



A great and challenging article! I agree with most of it from the perspective of a datacenter/centralised model, but it shouldn't be the only way to develop the Internet!

Enforcing energy prices that cover all its costs seems to be much more practical than setting speed limits, and it might also favour decentralised and less energy hungry technologies relying on P2P/mesh networks. Some research show that using the end point-devices capacities is significantly more efficient (for example http://www.researchgate.net/publication/266910166_Energy_Efficiency_Dilemma_P2P-cloud_vs._datacenter ), and existing technology mixing bitorrent and the blockchain could be more efficient and diverse than both netflix-style services and physical distribution...

Did you come across more evidence about the P2P model during your research?

Sherwood Botsford


I question that 1.8 TWh figure.

Let's do a ball park figure:

I'm a power user. I have both a laptop that I surf while sitting with my wife while she watches TV; I have a Mac Pro with 6 disks and 3 monitors. The laptop draw a few watts.

The mac pro, where I'm writing right now is drawing 200 w.

We have an internal network with a gigabit switch. It's something like 8w, and the modem draws another 12 -- wireless link to a tower 15 miles away.

So worst case I'm at 300 W. For everything, which is about 4 times what you are claiming per person for the world.

My computer is not the Internet.

Alas your link #4 where you claimed this figure is a turnip.

Now more realistically:

I have a remote webserver that I share a fractional virtual machine on. I think I have 1/20 of the virtual machine, and there are 16 VMs on the box. This is a non trivial server. Probably has a kW power supply. But 1/20 of 1/16 of 1000 is 3 w. My site ranks about 5 millionth.

For internet, I can't count my internal network, but I should count my connection to the world. That's about 12 W.

Yes I use other people's sites. They use mine (now and then.) Overall, I can't see this doubling my current useage. Call it 40 W. And, as I said, I'm a power user. I suspect that most people are 1/10 of this.

So 40 W * 8800 hours per year is about 360 kWh/year, or about $32 on my electric bill. That is the gas for ONE trip to the local library.

Don't tell me we need to cut back on Internet.



You can switch YouTube to 144p resolution when watching videos. This greatly reduces the bitrate. It also makes your phone run cooler and last longer on one charge.



Some thoughts.

1. As another comment mentioned, utility style per-byte billing would do wonders vs lump sum unlimited billing, as the latter does not create a useful incentive for either party. The supply company will be motivated to serve you faster internet as they will be paid for it. Users will be more likely to carefully consider the content they consume. It should be more like turning lights on and off.

2. Energetics and efficiency are such hard things to measure, especially in a distributed entity with so much infrastructure changeover, ie. frequent updates of lines, towers, servers, and local machines. Lots of these are left out of calculations of efficiency. Certainly a home electric bill is no indication of the true cost of digital technology.

3. When do limits really work? Be it drug prohibition or increased #'s of people in jail. Speed limit seems like a wrong way to go.

4. A truly distributed internet, where something like local libraries stored local versions of common data, or neightborhood wireless servers acted as "lakes" of data. The cloud analogy of all transactions going to corporate servers is a way to extract a transactional tax.

Flynn Darby


I just discovered this site. Thank you for your well-written and well-researched analyses of problems like this one. Since this article was written, I've become troubled by the increasing bandwidth use of society as well, starting with my own real-world issue of hitting my 1 terabyte monthly bandwidth cap on my home internet connection in the USA. Could any of us imagine downloading 1 terabyte of data in a month 10 years ago?

I suspect that as time passes, high-definition video streaming will dwarf all other data consumed. When the first HD content surfaced in the late 90's, it was a huge step forward, allowing consumers legitimate benefits to better see and understand what they were watching. Over the last 5 years though, this has now turned into a never-ending race to higher resolutions--4K and beyond--with little benefit to consumers. Even with a 65" TV, a person with normal eyes would need to sit no more than 8 feet away to even discern a difference between 4K and 1080p content. Now, TV manufacturers are increasingly pushing new 8K TVs, which have 16x as many pixels as a 1080p TV. Presumably, TV manufacturers and content producers alike will need to continuously increase resolutions to continue to sell new products and services. In 5 years, we may see 16K TVs, which would require 64x the bandwidth to stream content as 1080p.

My personal story on this resulted in my decision to revert to lower definition streaming, if only to stay under my bandwidth cap. I came to realize though that I couldn't really tell much difference if I was streaming at 4K or 1080p, or in many cases, even lower resolutions. It seems like a ripe opportunity for regulation, a "speed limit" as you've proposed, or something. Because these gratuitous amounts of data are not benefiting anyone.

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