Welcome to episode 257 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and cohost, Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast this week we’re gonna discuss the environmental price of modern technology and sustainable design. So, as a little preamble here, talk a bit about the maybe lesser known carbon footprint of information technology. This is probably not foremost on our minds when it comes to thinking about carbon footprint. Maybe we’re thinking about automobiles or perhaps our office buildings, which use lots of air conditioning. But very rarely do we pull the phone out of our pocket and go, “Gee, I’m leaving a carbon footprint here by using information technology.” But in fact we really are. A series of research studies has indicated that this carbon footprint is increasing. Today it’s not particularly substantial, maybe under 2% of the total carbon footprint of all the varying contributors on the planet, the aforementioned automobile industry being significant as well as the aforementioned office buildings. But this is a growing footprint.
Let’s just define a bit what we’re talking about here. It’s both the smartphones and other tech devices such as smartphones. Part of the reason these add up is, you know, every two years people are going out and getting the latest and greatest one. Every time you go and do that, all the rare materials that go into the smartphones need to be mined and manufactured, et cetera. Additionally, perhaps the biggest contributor is the ethereal cloud. Well, low and behold, the cloud has really come to earth in a way that is significant. There’s data centers all over the globe, and these servers take power, they take air conditioning, they take up space, and they have a carbon footprint as well.
As time progresses we are, as you might expect, adding devices online, especially with the emerging technology of the Internet of Things. So, every time we connect some silly object to the Internet of Things to make it more convenient for us, whether it’s unlocking your house or turning on and off your HVAC or your lights or your music, you are actually sending a roundtrip signal that is not entirely processed within the confines of your smart home, but rather traveling around the globe and bouncing off various servers. Each time we add devices that way and additionally as we’re adding monitoring for manufacturing for traffic, for agriculture, for you name it, the carbon footprint of information technology only expands.
So, something for us to be aware of and take seriously, and we’ll get into a number of the items that are part of the product life cycle and worth discussion. Dirk, do you want to react any to my preamble laying out the components there?
Sure. You say it’s something for us to be aware of and take seriously. We may be aware of it, but we don’t take it seriously. That’s not surprising. We don’t take a lot of things seriously. I write an article back in 2010 about our ignorance and ambivalence to the use of just machinery, basically. The example I used in the article was about using a gigantic crane to dig a hole. Why are we using things like cranes to dig holes that could be dug with shovels, to be dug by people? The obvious and quick answer to that is it’s faster, it’s more efficient. However, it is having a deleterious effect on the system that we live in, namely the earth, the planet, the health of our environment.
What I proposed there and which will bring it very relevantly to the conversation we’re having here, is that we be aware of costs, of total costs, from the standpoint of a measure such as like a calorie count. You can measure the amount of energy that was taken to make that giant machine. You can measure the amount of energy it takes to power the machine to do a certain amount of work. That number should be compared to what it would take to have people with shovels and people manually doing it, and make decisions on what should be done with machines versus what shouldn’t be done with machines on that basis.
Is it worth bringing it back to the specifics of using your cellphone and the fact that does in fact have an impact on global warming, even it’s a teeny for each Facebook flip that we’re all doing on our cellphones. Is that time that we’re spending … Are the tasks that we’re doing on our phone worth the effects it will have on the environment? With our smartphones and our mindless, addictive, always on, flip flip flip flip flip behavior, even though it’s individually teeny, the impact it has, it almost certainly shouldn’t be happening.
It’s something that we should have enough awareness not to do. I would even pause it, and this is something that sounds crazy today but won’t sound crazy in 50 years, that we shouldn’t be allowed to do it. There should be rules and there should be laws. We should use common sense. You know, it’s ironic, going back to my article, that we’re in the greatest obesity crisis in the modern world here. We wouldn’t have those crises if we were out with shovels digging holes. We’ve created these machines that are both destroying our environment and are destroying us, are making us more sedentary, are keeping us out of balance with living healthy, balanced lives. You know, sure, there are people who are healthy because they go and run on the stair master, because they’re not out digging holes. So, whatever the manual things would be that the world would need if we didn’t have machines just doing it.
You know, there should be some accounting. We should know. “Hey, you just spent 10 calories. You taxed the earth 10 calories for what you just did on your cellphone, right.” In the short term I don’t think it would change a lot of people’s behavior. You know, 10 calories, roll eyes, and move on. But at some point, these are going to be questions that area more urgent and more important and will be in a world that no longer allows individual liberty to trump common good at all costs. There might be rules, and there might be limits. I mean, that’s a world that I think will be healthier for all of us.
That’s a good transition, Dirk, to the next part of this conversation, which is just talking about how we can be more considerate of the environmental impact of all the variety of information technology products, be they hardware or software. The mantra that is well-known when it comes to a green philosophy is: Reduce, reuse, and recycle, with reduce being the greatest good, followed by reusing things and recycling. I think we can apply that really simple structure to our discussion today about things that we could do from a design perspective, and talk about it over the course of a product’s lifecycle, from the initial design through development, through its use, and at the end of product life.
Reduce. In the industrial design world, there are a couple of interesting philosophies that are taking hold, including design for disassembly. So, I’m talking about the end of the product’s lifecycle and design for re manufacturing. So, these are two variants of the same idea, which is the idea that you’re going to … This falls into reduce and reuse, because you’re going to take pieces of something, you know, like say a smartphone and you’re going to make it part of the next smartphone. I’ve seen some examples of this, very clever ways of breaking down products, knowing that every two years you’re going to be breaking these things down. What’s really horrifying is we’re really not recycling our smartphones at all. I mean, the numbers are atrocious.
Why, though, Jon? This is something I think about. I know I can give you an answer. I’m asking you why. What’s your answer to that?
First, okay, it’s as low as 1% of smartphones that are getting recycled. Why is it? You know, like with all disposable things I imagine its convenience. It’s easier to toss something out than it might be to find the right place to recycle it.
No, it’s more complicated than that. It’s data security. You’re right that for the rank and file person who is not thinking about problems of global warming and the impact on them, it is just a convenience. You’re absolutely right. However, there are people like myself who are wanting very much not to contribute to the problems, but I have in my house right now, we have an iPad II that’s brick, you can’t turn it on. I’ve got two or three old iPhones that are sitting there, they’re bricked. Computers. I mean, we probably have a dozen digital devices in our home, and the reason this thing piled up is because I have no way to recycle them that is data safe. There’s no way for me to take those items and rub them over a giant magnet or something and know my data’s gone, I can confidently put them in a recycling program, and it’s not gonna come back to bite me in some way.
It doesn’t exist. I’ve googled this. This is a hot button for me, because I’ve googled it. I’ve tried. I’ve said, I’m gonna figure this out. When you’re googling it and searching, it’s all about, Well, go into your device and do this, dot dot dot. Some of those devices don’t turn on anymore, but you can bet that there are people who are expert at stealing data who would figure out a way to carve my data out of that thing. I can’t follow the instructions that are being offered to turn the device off as if it was fully functional still. So, we’ve got this house full of devices, and my latest thing is, How can I sneak these into the garbage in ways that a garbage man or someone wouldn’t see it and try to steal my data or put it into some workflow that would end up with somebody stealing my data downstream. I’m somebody who’s one of the good guys, who wants to do the right thing, who spent time … I walked into Best Buy, ’cause they say, Oh, you can do your recycling here. Yeah, you can dump it into a bin where somebody can get ahold of it and somebody can steal your data.
So, these are tougher problems than, Put your plastic bottle in the blue bin. There’s this layer of data and security that currently is not being solved, or it’s not being solved by companies. It’s not being solved by cities. It’s not being solved by countries. So, you have people like myself that have a dozen devices sitting there, who very much wants to responsibly recycle them, but have reached the point of saying, My house is full of this crap, I’m just gonna sneak it into the garbage at some point so that my data isn’t stolen, but it’s the hell out of here. That’s really, really tragic.
Yeah, that’s the same style of thinking that I have around a number of ancient laptops. I have a little pancake stack of this … sediment, basically, of the-
Yeah, I like the metaphor.
… going back in time, and you can see it’s almost like a geological find. You can go back through time and different layers of laptops. But, yes, I understand and sympathize with that. I do think there are some corporate services that will provide a certificate of destruction for certain … I mean, on a corporate level I think they’ll take a ton of these things and certify that they’ve destroyed them all. It doesn’t solve your problem.
It doesn’t solve the consumer problem. And does the business have to pay for it?
I know these programs do exist, but once again I don’t know that they’re on the personal level.
I bet the business has to pay for them, which is another fail. I mean, the Best Buy theoretical model is a good one, but it doesn’t solve for the data problem. But if you have a place for [inaudible 00:14:37], it’s like the Salvation Army, you take your stuff, you drop it off, and you have confidence it’s going to be put to some good use at no risk to yourself. That doesn’t exist for these devices. We’re all going to suffer for it in the longer now.
Yeah, there’s an interesting anecdote, part of how Tom Brady got himself into trouble over the Deflategate, was in destroying his phone. The investigators said, Why did you destroy this phone. It’s because he said that he has all this data on it that’s extremely valuable, and people’s phone numbers, I’m sure of other celebrities, et cetera. A believable argument, but that was definitely data security and phone destruction are really on everybody’s mind.
Certainly a smart excuse, but not necessarily a believable argument given the context in which he destroyed his phone.
We won’t get into that on this show. But yes, very interesting. So, recycling is a problem point that could really use a design solution.
It’s not rocket science. I can give you the solution now, we just need an engineer to say, This is the quick, cheap, easy way to wipe everybody’s data real fast. But this is not rocket science. It just takes somebody stepping up who’s got some money, and some clout, and some scope and scale to make it happen.
Besides recycling, of course, there is the reuse or just longer usage as a way of not going back to the well when it comes to all of these rare materials that go into the phones. I know that I myself am probably on something like a three year cycle with my phones, which is slightly longer than the average of two.
I think I have three as well.
But probably not ideal in any way. Certainly when I was a youngster, the phone that we had in our house was just this plastic box basically that we never changed that. I had the same phone in the house, you know, for quite a long time.
We changed ours once. We went from a dial to a pushbutton. Once.
In 18 years of growing up.
Yeah, as this becomes cheaper, of course, it’s much easier to swap out your phones. But reusing them or keeping them a bit longer is very helpful, and makes this philosophy of the continual upgrade, like the continual OS upgrades that destroy my phone. Like, every time I get an upgrade from Apple, like I cringe because it’s an upgrade for somebody, but I don’t know if it’s an upgrade for me, and I’m always worked that I’m not gonna be able to use the phone anymore ’cause it’s gonna be slow or what have you.
In a three year window you’re probably okay. I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I wait for three years is I can have confidence that I’m not gonna get jacked. But then I change it because I think I’m gonna start getting left behind.
Yeah, that’s very true as well. So, you know, there are a number of resources related to these topics that we’re discussing today around green UX, around environmentally friendly produce design. There’s a report by Mozilla this year that I found interesting, called “How Healthy is the Internet?” That’s worth checking out. And a research paper that is being discussed at length, mostly around the global emissions is in the Journal of Cleaner Production. It’s called “Assessing ICT Global Emissions Footprint Trends to 2040 and Recommendations.” So, we’ll have links to that on the Digital Life site that you can check out.
I think the upshot of this discussion is that the focus on greener user experience is beginning to happen, and worth incorporating into our practices, our design practices. As we continue to innovate, we also want to make sure that we’re considering the impact of the total product lifecycle, especially when it comes to the carbon footprint.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the digitalife.com. That’s just one L in the Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find the Digital Life on iTunes, sound cloud, stitcher, player fm, and google play. If you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on twitter @dknemeyer, that’s D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.
So, that’s it for episode 257 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett. We’ll see you next time.