Interview: Michael Hedges on digital sustainability

Michael Hedges is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. His research looks at sound technology in US novels since 2000. Michael has been working with Creative Carbon Scotland for a few months on a research project around digital carbon emissions. The project’s aim is to raise awareness and promote best practice in low-carbon digital communication and web design.

We interviewed him to find out what he’s discovered through his interactions with the organisations we work with and to learn more about digital sustainability.

What were your key findings from arts organisations around their digital emissions?

As my starting point I used the carbon management planning (CMP) survey data to get a sense of which organisations Creative Carbon Scotland (CCS) works with had flagged some kind of digital carbon emissions as changes they wanted to implement, and I was quite pleased to see that quite a few of the organisations had already flagged things to do with that.

Just as an example, lots of people were interested in the differences between going to paperless environments and reflecting on whether that’s actually more harmful depending on whether that meant you were more reliant on cloud-based storage and therefore meant you produced more resources as a consequence of moving digital. Organisations had also flagged online conferencing best practice as something to reflect on, in terms of how to conduct meetings in a way that minimises the carbon impact. I was impressed by the awareness and openness of an issue that I didn’t quite expect because it still is in early stages of people becoming aware of it as a problem.

The other thing to note is that there is a sense in all organisations that as a consequence of needing to stay relevant need to continue to broaden or improve technological engagement. So even if there is a willingness to make changes along these lines that sometimes is in opposition with the practical realities of running a cultural organisation that requires finding new participants or new people to reach out too. For example, arts organisations that produce high resolution video content. There needs to be an awareness of the practical realities of emissions that they’re implicated in if they are using lots of high-resolution videos but also the understanding that that’s the creative medium in which they operate. So, it’s about trying to find a middle ground whereby they can continue to do that work in a way that is maximumly efficient but minimally impactful.

What barriers did you find existed for arts organisations to engage with low carbon ict?

In terms of barriers the main three are time, resources, and know-how because lots of the steps that I think may become more and more of a necessity may require people to remove themselves from the structures that we already operate within.

The almost universal dependence on cloud-based storage that most organisations, educational facilities or small businesses now rely on make it inconvenient to take the conscious step to try and remove yourself from those kinds of structures. The reality is it will probably affect the efficiency or the reliability of your day to day running as organisations. Organisations need to be confident that what they are doing is being done for the right reasons or that they have the resources available to them to make that something that they can do without adversely affecting the running of the organisation. So that’s an immediate barrier right there, and because lots of these discussions are still in quite early stages, and because of the clandestine nature of measuring ICT carbon emissions, there is a reluctance that some people aren’t yet convinced that it’s enough of a change to make. To that, I would say just know that the current data suggests that 3% of all carbon emissions are implicated in ICT, but that’s expected to rise to 15% by 2040. 3% is already large for a sector that people don’t even associate with carbon. When you factor in that the trajectory we are on suggests such a large leap in not too many years, it’s evidence that even if people aren’t convinced about the argument now, they will be in the future.

Another barrier is denial. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the digital or technology is something that is our ally in the fight against climate change. That’s largely down to the quite convincing rhetoric of lots of these organisations, such as how they describe their products and services like clouds and streams. This is the watery language of big tech, that belies the fossil fuel dependent realities of some of the solar farms and infrastructures that these things are held up by. It’s such a shock because we aren’t made to face the realities of these things because of how removed from them we are. For lots of people who aren’t especially tech literate, the internet might as well be magic, it just sort of happens. We haven’t really been encouraged to interrogate how content arrives at our screens. It’s just become such a part of our day-to-day life, it’s almost like breathing, it’s such a given. It feels like such a difficult step to extricate yourself from existing structures. There’s a sense that lots of these things are happening at a level beyond the individual organisation or beyond the individual practitioner, and so much of the changes that would make a huge difference are structural and systematic.

In some sense, quite understandably, organisations think that they are just one organisation operating within these huge structures, why should they be the ones who has to change? They feel like their change isn’t going to make a difference, which is the classic kind of response people have towards their own individual consumption be it meat, dairy or air travel. This is an is ultimately flawed response to these things because if there is enough of a groundswell that people do start to do things differently, that’s when change really does make a difference.

What do arts organisations understand as digital emissions, as you’ve explained there might be some confusion around what it even is, they might have a warped idea of digital consumption?

No more than anyone else though! My interactions with organisations have been entirely consistent with everyone else I spoke to, by which I mean a niggling sense that this is an issue but I’m not really knowing where or how to be directed towards the data or the facts or the steps to make a difference.

There was about a dozen or so of the organisations from that survey data that specifically flagged issues that I read as being related to tech and digital, but that’s quite a small number considering the number of organisations that CCS work within total. It’s also a quite correct assumption that as things currently stand, these emissions associated with digital are smaller than say, travel or building infrastructure. I’m not surprised that other organisations where most of what they do is based in in a physical space or involves moving people from one place to another as a as a part of putting on the events that they do, that digital emissions would be less of a priority.

However, there are organisations that work almost exclusively in digital and that’s the bulk of what they do. I think that because these organisations are involved with Creative Carbon Scotland, any of the digital promotional materials or marketing resources that they produce is a good opportunity to direct the traffic or the audience’s that arrive at their website to these kinds of discussions, to prompt them to reflect on their own digital consumption or their own awareness or lack thereof of digital consumption. That’s something that became really clear to me in terms of what’s the organisations I worked with understand, they have a powerful role to play in flagging, perhaps for the first time, these kinds of debates. Generally, there is a great willingness to be that kind of mediator between the people who they work with, and then getting access to some kind of awakening of consciousness around digital and the carbon emission.

What changes do you suggest for organisations, for their website but also beyond the website?

The main thing to stress here is that any of the changes made, should never really be viewed as punitive or judgmental or enact guilt amongst the people who are making the websites, it’s more about creating opportunities that might arise from rejecting the aesthetics of contemporary web design as they currently stand.

For example, how many times do you arrive on a website landing page these days and a high-res video plays immediately on the landing page without you even clicking anything? It’s about being more conscious in these designs, and in some sense a return to deliberately and consciously low res or low-tech aesthetic, as a point of principle, as well as something that will dramatically reduce the emissions associated with each website.

This idea of using vivid images, so making the size of an image file considerably smaller by introducing visual noise so that the image is still. It’s still visible, but it’s taking up a lot less space on the website. Another idea is making a website where images or videos don’t load automatically, but only the only load if you scroll over them some sense that you can navigate the website without these things appearing. So, if you are literally just logging on to a website that you know well, each time you load that you’re not confronted with the same sort of 1080p promotion videos that you’ve seen 100 times.

Some aspects of websites are less about changing them. For example, making them available offline. Once you’ve accessed them, you can subsequently access them again, without having to rely on that connection. That’s only appropriate for aspects of websites where the information is very constant.

Another huge consideration, which may or may not apply to the organisations associated with CCS is third party tracking advertising and cookies. To what extent are those things necessary? Because again, that this creates another channel to be maintained. Of course, sometimes these things are a commercial reality for the running of organisations or businesses, but there should be an interrogation of the necessity of that data traffic and energy use.

Image dithering can make images 10 times less resource intensive, so you can still use an image in a way that’s useful and appealing, but its 10 times the size, and if you started thinking about the number of images on each website, that can really start to mount up.

Those are some good and manageable practical considerations; do you have anything further to say about embracing opportunities to do things differently?

I think embrace the opportunities, see the opportunities to do things differently as an exciting and playful and as a means to set yourself in opposition to the general consensus of what constitutes good web aesthetics, and wear that as a badge of honour, like ‘you may think our site looks less glossy, and, and less professional, but what we’re saying is we need to rethink what constitutes a professional looking website’. It doesn’t need to be as data intensive, or as glossy to communicate information efficiently and desirably. There’s something quite nice about the idea of challenging that whole mindset of what constitutes professional websites in accordance with sound climate science. I would also say be realistic, it’s going to be a very gradual change and an immediate overhaul doesn’t really make sense. We’re inexorably tied up with things like Google Drive, or OneDrive.

What kind of capacity do you think it takes; do you think this something green champions could do?

I think it’s something that green champions should be aware of for sure. One really nice way to do things is to just make one or two of these changes on the website and see how people respond. I quite like the idea of some aspects of the website being jarringly different to the other ones, and just gauge people’s response to it. If you have a quite aesthetically jarring and different part of your website, it can be used to direct people who arrive at the website to some of the questions and information that I’ve been raising and that might feedback into them reflecting on their own consumption habits.

Do you have any examples of a less-carbon intensive website?

Low Carbon Methods is a really good website. Its run by a fantastic researcher in Canada, who is very much interested in prompting us to reflect on in the same way that we might look at the weather to determine when we booked a tennis court to play tennis, is there some sense that we can look at some kind of carbon intensity forecasts for controlling our internet habits. So, if it was going to be a moment of particular high intensity, you can choose to read an article instead of watching a high-resolution video on Netflix. Again, this is going to be a huge shift in mindset for people because we’re used to everything now, but there’s a lot to be said for just completely reconfiguring our assumptions around what we can access and when. I think people will be quite supportive of that. In the same in the same way that we’ve been encouraged to take fewer car journeys or fly less frequently, if people think they’re making meaningful efforts towards changing their carbon impacts, they will think more carefully about when they use which internet resources.

But interestingly again the thing that I’ve come across quite consistently is that people seem almost more indignant about being made to change their digital habits than their food or travel habits, because this one felt like a safe space this, the feeling of at least we’ve still got our internet to kind of keep first issue. My friends have been much happier to switch to oat milk, rather than dairy, as opposed to cancel Netflix or Spotify subscriptions – it’s more of an affront to the way we live.

Laura Marks is another researcher dealing with the impact of streaming media, and it’s full of interesting statistics about the impact. For example, the 1.7 bullion streams of Gangnam Style, that’s more than the electrical consumption for the entire population of Burundi, which is quite high for a throwaway viral video. The response people often come back to me with is surely that’s better than DVD’s or CD’s because they have a physical materiality. The studies that have been done on DVD’s were produced in 2014 based on 2011 data, on an assumption that people consume five movies per month, which is laughable because now it’s more like 5 hours a day of some kind of streaming consumption via YouTube or Netflix in the evening. So, the existing data used to undermine the idea of some kind of move back to physical media is now outdated, and also fails to address that it’s not so much the means of distributions of dissemination it’s just the understanding that our consumption will have to drop. It’s about coming to terms with the fact we might not be able to consume as freely as we used to.

Do you have any thoughts about how this issue around digital carbon and consumption intersects with issues around artist ownership?

Ownership is a fascinating thing because that’s what’s been undermined, right? We own very little of the media we consume, we pay rent to our content landlords, and they can evict us from that as whenever they want, essentially. Then you’ll be left with nothing having paid rent for that period which is quite scary. I have a lot of friends who are composers and musicians, and they say, ‘I’m a professional musician and I own no music’. It’s quite a surreal change around how things were even 10 years ago.

The other pivot point in the conversation is how much the producers of these media objects have been paid. Spotify is laughably negligible per stream, .0003 of a penny per each stream, and not only that, but it’s the fact that because we don’t own it, and therefore store it locally, either on a hard drive or a device. Each time that track is accessed, unless there’s quite stringent local cache infrastructure in place, it’s going to maybe going from a server farm in California to Kuwait to goodness knows where before it arrives on your phone. Whereas if you buy something for money that is equitable and fair for the musicians who produced it, that’s yours to access locally, for as long as you as you’re able to or want to. There’s an interconnected nature of artists and the ownership rights of who controls the content they create and then the carbon emissions implications.

Do you have any guidance around online meetings, and the way that has changed for organisations?

I interviewed Laura Marks last summer and did a review of a plenary speech she gave about streaming and online teaching, turning of webcams during meetings is an effective way of reducing digital emissions. If one were to have 15 one-hour meetings a week the monthly carbon footprint would be approx. 9.4kg of CO2 equivalence, turning off the video would reduce that to 377g of co2 equivalent so that’s a colossal drop really. It’s video that is maximally energy intensive. Even lowering the resolution of the video is good. We have an almost addiction to 1080p; that frustration we feel when the YouTube video isn’t available in 1080p, that’s an interesting thing but that’s something we could reconceive of as a luxury. Again, it’s not about never doing these things, it’s just about questioning what we do and reconsidering. Why do we associate 1080p with professionalism? Can we reframe that to say we’re actually doing the more professional thing by turning the camera off or lowering the resolution because the importance we think it has on doing the right things for the environment? There’s a good resource called online OS that visualises touch as an alternative to being able to see each other on visual calls. So, on a touchpad, you and the person you’re talking to can touch it, so in some sense replacing that evidence of presence that we want from a video call, and it gestures towards that meaningful connection that we want.

Thanks so much. Is there anything else you want to add?

I will be developing a guide and resource around best practice for organisations – and this will be shared in the not-too-distant future.

Cover photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

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