By Luis Landa
The very relationship of IT or more precisely consumer technology and our eco-systems was at the core of my thinking and research for my master thesis. Driven by a search for a way to incorporate ecological thinking into IT and our digital lives, I came across a myriad of theories, frameworks, examples, lived experiences, and everything in between. As I finished writing how biophysics informs our ecological models of earth – and related it to the overall system of extraction, manufacture, shipping, retail, and disposal that fuels our IT lives – I noticed that while I had learned a lot of theoretical perspectives of how ecology intersects with IT, I had gotten stuck in my practical approach to this topic. I had learned how things supposedly worked and interacted with each other, but I hadn’t actually experienced this (outside of my ordinary IT life at least). For instance, I never optimized the back end of a website to run on solar energy; I hadn’t measured the material/energy intensity of the websites which I help run; I never saw the server rooms of a commercial web hosting that is powered by renewable energy. Hell, since it was the first-ever corona lockdown, I barely even saw anyone else! But I digress, what this blog post sets out to do is to show a different perspective of what I researched in my thesis.
While all the theoretical perspectives helped point towards a general direction as to what to do, they didn’t provide me with any concrete steps from which to go forward and do them, nor what they would do to me.
This is what this blog post is about. An autoethnographic journey into the practical aspect of creating a piece of IT that is as sustainable as possible covering what I learned and experienced from this. I chose to create a solar-powered web server that also hosts a website designed to be as low energy consuming as possible. It is my way of making the theories and the technologies I learned become visible for myself and others.
Before I begin sharing my experience, I need to touch upon some basics of the theoretical aspects I researched during my thesis. The first one comes from Ecological Economics and is based on biophysical modeling of earth as a system. This view is based on thermodynamics and on the property of energy as it is used to transform matter (Constanza et al., 2015). The use or expenditure of energy is a natural phenomenon in our universe and eco-systems. This framing can also be expanded to analyse different processes. A quick and simplified example of a biophysical process can be seen in how plants require the energy of the sun and nutrients from the soil to grow and thus transform themselves. When we apply this framing to social processes, we see that constant transformation of matter (such as the production and manufacture of consumer technology) requires both energy and resources to happen as well. These resources and energy on a societal scale correspond to our modern energy use from fossil and renewable sources, and materials extracted or obtained from the earth and natural
habitats (Murdock and Brevini, 2017). Furthermore, to get hold of materials via extraction or burning of extracted raw energy, a similar process of energy expenditure must happen.
After all, all transformation of matter requires energy. This extends to socioeconomic processes such as those involved in the organisation of people with the end of extracting material, as well as the underlying structures and institutions that transform and sell transformed matter which by now can be a smartphone or a computer. Thus, based on this multidisciplinary model of our eco-system, an increase in the production of consumer technology requires an equal growth in the use of energy and resources necessary to produce it. Seeing as the current trend for the ICT industry is that of rapid growth (World Economic Forum, 2020), this translates to increasing material intensity. Another example can be observed in the increasing energy consumption of the ICT sector (Andrae, 2017).
I thus argue that any promise of consumer technology offering a solution to climate change must first deal with the issue of constant growth in its ecological footprint. While several cases exist where noticeable efficiency gains can be obtained from newer technologies (CO2Revolution, 2020; The Ocean Clean Up, 2020; World Economic Forum, 2020), often these solutions do not address the growing material aspect of consumer technology at large. In addition, IT and emerging technologies are poised to be at the center of the coming “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and are the target and source of most R&D expenditure in the world (ibid). Every new iteration of the best, greenest, and most energy-efficient piece of technology has as backdrop the extractive industry plundering our earth, which I cannot stress enough continues to grow year-over-year (IPCC, 2019). This growth is a somber reminder of the general direction of the effort taken towards solving the climate crisis.
Now, before I lose you to the darker side of this topic, I would like to step aside from theory and turn to why I decided to focus on a practical approach. Sentences like the one that ended the previous paragraph can make us seem powerless. Indeed, our individual actions might help change some cultural and performative aspects of how we address climate change but the general overall tendency nevertheless steers towards ecosystem deterioration. These overarching complex concepts can be daunting and reading about them can lead to hopelessness. I think that often theory has an “after the fact”-ness that leaves me often powerless, to the point where optimism can plummet and stop me from exploring the beauty of trying to do something about these issues. So, the decision to assemble this stack of sustainable technologies was one that wanted to get away from this and a result of self-reflection based on my experience of the thesis. I thought, that creating something might actually get me moving so to speak, and in fact, it did! I felt the doom and gloom a lot less when mangling cables and setting up the different components.
So, why a solar-powered server and website? First, I wanted to set up a sustainable computing environment at ITU because such an environment does not currently exist. Second, much like the abundance of square/rectangular shapes at ITU over any other shape, such is the abundance of classic consumer-technology oriented spaces and projects in comparison to sustainable or alternative pieces of technology. Third, considering RethinkIT (of which I am a member) as ITU’s ecological community had essentially stopped during Corona, it would serve as a reminder, an art piece of sorts, of a time when students, staff, and faculty tried to learn more about the ecological dimension of IT. This would hopefully inspire a new project or community in its place. Finally, the webserver would be a free space for anyone to use so long as they offered to maintain their space themselves. This would create an environment where anyone that perhaps wants to deploy a personal CV website or web app is able to do it but has to do it outside of the norm. Meaning they will at the very least deal with libraries, themes, and repositories that ensure a minimal impact from an energy perspective. Or fully delve into IT projects from an ecological starting point. See, a solar-powered web server has a hard limit on the energy it can use. That is, the amount it gets from the sun (and also stored in the battery). This serves as a bridge into the second and last theoretical concept in this blog post, one that you are already familiar with but not often fully focus on. Limits.
See, limits are everywhere (Kallis, 2019). From those tied to our planet (for example land and sweet water are unrenewable and therefore limited resources) to our personal life and how we limit ourselves (or not). Limits in our everyday IT life can range from the hardware capabilities of our machines to the speed of the internet connection. However, unless your workflow involves highly demanding software such as for video editing or 3d modeling – and thus sometimes experiencing glitches and the sound of a hard-working computer – you would rarely think about these limits. After all, with every new iteration of a computer or smartphone that comes out yearly, the hardware capabilities only get better. Thus, at first glance, it is the process of constant growth and advancement in computational power that keeps these limits from interfering with most people’s workflow. This is in line with a common way technology (including non-digital technology) has functioned. That is, extending our natural limits allowing us to do things we would otherwise not be able to do. Think of the extended reach a specific tool like a ladder may give us to reach high places or a lightbulb that extends the very real natural limit of light we obtain every day. Digital technology has extended our ability to communicate and interact with the world in ways our ancestors would deem magical. In fact, digital technology is often credited with having supercharged our abilities and access to information (Lewis, 2017). This has, in turn, led us to believe in many of the limitless possibilities of what can be done with digital technology.
Specing out a self-powered server
‘Spec’-ing an IT project is one of the many things ITU has prepared me to do. However, during this initial phase, I already had come into the first distinction from my normal IT life. With previous products and projects I have worked on, I almost never had to think of the hardware capabilities of the end-user. Now not only did I have to think about what type of specs the server would run in but also consider the energy output and consumption over time. This led me to research the power draw of the soon-to-be server and also to understand how exactly the energy part of the hardware will function.
So, my first insight from working hands-on on sustainable IT was that power consumption of web hosted projects is usually not considered. This is due to a few reasons, if the project is going to be hosted on a server that is run by a company that specialises in this service, then it is likely already covered in the overall cost. In this way, the considerations regarding energy
use are outsourced to the webhosting company. This means that any web project that seeks to lower its overall footprint, must do a thorough assessment of the energy consumption of its preferred service. Sadly, this information is not readily available or made public. With this new insight, it was clear that the first step moving forward was to work out how the server will be powered according to the overall goal of the project.
When is the best time to visit… your webpage?
Selecting a source of renewable energy is dependent on many things, among them space, power needs, geographical location, average weather, capacity to store generated energy, etc. In the Danish context this project took place, solar was the only way in which total control over the materials and hardware was possible (setting up a mini wind turbine in University grounds would require permission from ITU and the Municipality, also pretty fancy wiring!). Thus, it was the most adequate for the purpose of the project. Once Ethos Lab agreed to have the solar panel installed in the lab, I moved to the next step in the specing process: choosing a configuration of solar panel and battery to fit the needs of the project. It is at this stage where another unconventional aspect needed to be planned for, that is, how many days per year do I wish the server to run and the website to be up? Considering the project is entirely powered by solar energy, and the size of the panel and the battery limit the amount of energy this is a decision that had to be made prior to the purchase of any hardware. These decisions are also another example of seeing and working with limits fundamentally made me change my perception of the concept of websites and to some extent the internet.
We expect websites to be accessible from anywhere in the world and at any time. One could say that our access to the internet and particularly websites has very few limits attached to it. This implies a conception of resources and energy with no end in sight. Basing the server and website on solar energy in a lab with limited space, meant that decisions had to be made in alignment with the circumstances.
My initial idea was to go for as big as possible panel and battery, as that would maximise the scarcest resource. However, as time went by and as I further researched into the way the circuit works, as well as how power is generated and stored, I decided against this for two main reasons:
- For the time being, the server would only host one website. This website would never use all of the energy generated and stored, as it would be low impact by design.
- Based on the former point, an ecological analysis of the materials used for the production of the solar panel and battery showed that it would be unnecessary and ineffective to go for the larger option.
In the end, after a cursory dive into the data and the different scenarios of power generation, retention, and consumption over a year basing my data on similar projects I decided to go with a 50W solar panel and a 168Wh battery. Furthermore, to reduce the number of emissions from transport of the hardware I made sure that all components had been manufactured in Europe. When it comes to materials, however, it became harder to track where they had been sourced from and in what conditions.
Set-up, Covid-19, and final reflections
A week after the order, the elements arrived, and after a visit to a hardware store to obtain all the cables necessary for the installation I set out to Ethos Lab to begin the installation. It is sadly around this time that the second wave of COVID-19 had started to creep up in Denmark. After a successful installation of the power components, I set out to spec the hardware necessary for the server as well as the project’s website. Though early into the installation stage, the situation became more serious and my visits to ITU stopped. With the full-blown lockdown following a week after, the hardware installation and part of the project had been fully interrupted. While this gave me the opportunity to focus on building the website and becoming familiar with servers that was not what happened for me nor the project. The pandemic affects us all. In my case, it led to demotivation and a general uneasy feeling. In the end, it wasn’t until March 2021 that I began to actually work on the website. The details of this current work as well as the final(?) version of my project will likely be presented in a sequent of this blogpost.
So, what can be learned from a hands-on approach (at least for me)? Well for one, I learned that decisions should be based on far more than just theory but also the circumstances, space, people, time, and money one has around them. I acknowledged that the practical element gave me more joy than when merely focusing on theory. Theory is still interesting but adding a dimension of actual physicality and hands-on work allows me to be more satisfied in my daily effort. At an emotional level, it is far more invigorating to have active work on what one believes can lead to solutions rather than just figuring out how deep the connection of ecology and consumer technology is. I learned about community, which will likely be the focus of the second blog post as I was never really alone developing things. Rather I was delving into knowledge and existing projects from plenty of people that had set out with a similar goal to mine. I hope that my contribution to this field will come in the second blog post as a collection of links and knowledge for anyone to begin thinking about IT from an ecological perspective. As things become more manageable with the pandemic I am looking forward to continuing. I have begun research on which minicomputer would be best to power a server while not consuming much energy and have also begun toying with the front end and back end of the project’s site. For now, stay safe, and thanks for reading! If you have any reflections or want to share your experiences and lessons from working practically with technology, feel free to reach out :)
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