By Luis Landa & Merethe Riggelsen Gjørding
In the new year, our website will be traveling to a different server. A server running on solar power, where we do not yet know its capacities. Our availability online might change, but we also want it to.
The Generous Aspects of Limits
The fast pace and ever-expanding possibilities of digital technology has extended our ability to communicate and interact with the world. With few clicks, seemingly endless information is curated to us in an effortless manner in terms of time and visible operations. Even though we might sit with a computer on our lab, much of the machinery is hidden away.
The ever-expanding always available internet (as experienced in the bigger cities of the Global North) is a crucial component in the myth of a limitless internet and indeed limitless digital technology overall.
As all other websites at the IT University of Copenhagen, the server hosting and energy consumption of ETHOS Lab’s site are handled by the IT Department. This distance and division of tasks is part of why we have not dealt with our own website infrastructure. We have followed suit, followed the ways of the institution. Our site has just been available; for ourselves and for you.
Quite striking for an STS lab, one might add, but it also speaks of the power of the myth of endless limitless internet, which to some extend has affected and crept into all of us.
Hosting a Junior Researcher’s project in the Lab on learning about sustainable IT through a DIY approach creating a solar driven server, turned into a Lab self-reflection over our own website infrastructure.
Having a solar panel server in the Lab, made another energy path clear. The materiality made us think about the lack of visibility of our current energy supply and created a desire to know more, and to do differently.
Sitting with our annual theme of 2021: “Limits”, it seemed arbitrary not to try out differently paths, and actually engage with our own energy limits. Until now, we have not experienced them, and we desired to get to know them and work with them.
Thinking through limits demands to situate ourselves, and really try to understand what we are dependent on, what we are relying on, and what is enabling our practises. Limits have a generative quality in making us appreciate what is actually possible, and wiser in attempting to understand how.
Desires of Not Being Available
A sly feeling of pleasure in not always being available spread around the Lab as planning how to proceed with the solar panel server transition.
Perhaps as the personal pressure of being available is linked to the experience of a 24/7 availability of information online, it seemed relieving not to “give in” on all website surfers’ requests. We will allow our website to answer: “No, we don’t have energy. Come back later when we have.”
Perhaps because it feels more honest and connected. When the website will be available, we know that it is due to sufficient energy supply powered by the sun.
Perhaps because it feels joyful to work with the energy sources of the planet in such a direct manner. Just as we feel less energetic during winter, so will our website.
The Process of Transitioning
As we want to bring attention to the materials and the different components that will make up the solar server, we plan to exhibit the solar panel and the server in our Lab and showcase the energy level on the website. Our intention is to invite others to rethink our relationship with the energy used on the internet, and IT projects in general through the materiality of infrastructure.
We will construct a “house” for the physical server, where some of the energy components (battery and solar panel controller) will reside. The house will be displayed on a shelf inside the Lab, and the solar panel will sit next to it by one of the corner windows.
Underneath it, you will be able to find an explanatory document as well as a first aid kit on how to care for the technology and troubleshoot some common issues accompanied by some hardware parts. This kit will be aimed at everyone that wants to learn how to repair or create a similar project at home!
As for the website, the path is less clear. Currently our aim is to experiment on keeping the website as it is (with minor changes) and to see how long it would last on a full battery charge. This will inform us on how to proceed and help the decisions needed to accommodate our limits and vision.
This will be a generative process, as usually the constraints of IT projects are limited to budget and time, including energy and other ecological limits will direct us in ways we perhaps don’t even know yet.
Working with Unknown Factors
We are aware of some things we don’t know, yet surely not aware of elements that we don’t even know we don’t know. We can do our best to use methods to quantify the energy necessary to keep the website up as much as possible, and from there make decisions on how to expand its availability in winter. However, these models will only help us navigate the uncertainties that will arise during the project.
We luckily can be guided by those that already mapped a bit of this unknown territory. We are inspired by what the people at LowTechMagazine managed with their site (available at solar.lowtechmagazine.com). A quick look at their project in comparison with ours shows us glimpses of what we will find out. Since their traffic is around 1.000.000 visitors a year and their site managed to stay up for most of the year, our website with less visitors (for now!) should be able to stay up for the whole year.
However, the geographical location of our energy units is different, theirs in sunny Barcelona and ours in wet Copenhagen may point us in different directions. Or not! We will be delving into a lot of uncertainty.
What if our vision for the full website hosted on solar servers is harder to achieve? What if the sacrifices we make to reduce its energy consumption lead to radically different interactions between users and the website (and could that be a good thing)? What about the ultimate functionality and user friendliness of the website? Will future staff at ETHOS be able to easily publish their blogs without much addition to their workload to fit within our limits?
This is the exciting part of the challenge and the hope to bring attention to this to in our own part of the world and contribute to the maps and guides of sustainable IT.