Author Archives: Gerry McGovern

Embracing sustainable digital design

How do you work sustainably as a digital professional? If you are a producer of code or content then you are a producer of CO2. How do you ensure your digital activities produce as little CO2 as possible? Better still, how do you ensure that your digital work is useful enough that it saves more energy than the energy required to make and maintain it?

I first came across Norway’s Netlife around 2007. They had invited me to speak at their annual conference and when I checked up their website I was intrigued. Here was a Web consultancy that was putting people and usability first. There was no nonsense, no phony language. They were real. And from then I began one of the best partnerships of my career, working with great people on a mission to help build a Web that was useful.

The partnership continues. Netlife is on a new journey to answer the questions I’ve asked in the opening paragraph. “I want to do meaningful stuff,” Beth Stensen, CEO, states. “Refocusing from user experience to earth experience is what is going to create meaning for us.”

I thought I had reached nirvana once I discovered user experience and usability. To me that seemed like the Holy Grail of Web design. I read with excitement Steve Krug’s great book, Don’t Make Me Think. I was inspired by the thinking of Jared Spool and Jakob Nielsen. I remember watching Jostein Magnussen, one of the founders of Netlife, speak bluntly and funnily about terrible corporate design, and thinking how brave it was to say such things. I’m still inspired by the essence of UX. However, in recent years I’ve started to have doubts about how I was living and whether the work I was doing was good or bad for this planet of ours. I’m not the only one having doubts.

“I too started having doubts,” Beth explains. “Is this focus on people, this focus on the user – have we exaggerated that? I started thinking about what are the outcomes for the planet. Humans are not good for this planet and developing services for humans may not be the right path. So, how can we integrate the needs of the planet into our design thinking and think about earth experience rather than just customer and user experience? How can we change our priorities, and our clients’ priorities, in relation to what we develop and what we put out on the market?

“We’ve been working really hard to make it easier for people to consume,” Beth continues. “Now, we need to see people as something more than just users and consumers. They are humans living in the context of the earth. It’s not good for us to consume more and it’s not good for the planet. So, how can we build mechanisms into our digital solutions that make you stop and think?”

The more I think about these issues, the more I realize that getting people to think more about the right things is a key part of the solution. If we don’t think because it’s so easy to make that ecommerce purchase, if we don’t think because it’s so easy to return what we purchased on a whim, then we build a highway to global warming hell. In every design decision we make we must think about the earth experience. Does this decision contribute to or reduce global warming? How can we design for people to think more and act less, and when they do act that they will act much more deliberately and earth consciously?

Beth Stensen interview

Top Tasks and COVID-19

One of the most important things I’ve learned as a result of observing the voting intentions of some 500,000 people in more than 100 countries is that there are indeed top tasks that are universal.

With Toyota we found that there are universal top tasks in relation to how Europeans approach buying a car. With the European Union we found that citizens of EU member states had very similar needs. With the World Health Organization we discovered that all over the world people had the same top tasks when it came to COVID-19.

Back around May and June, we also did country-specific Top Tasks surveys for COVID-19 in Canada, New Zealand, Norway and Ireland. These countries had so much in common. Their citizens wanted to know about the same basic things. One of the universal top tasks was, not surprisingly, “vaccine”.

We have now just completed a Top Tasks on the vaccine for the Irish government with the objective of finding out what matters most to people when it comes to making the decision to get the vaccine or not. While I can’t go into exact details, what I can say is that there are overwhelming top tasks among the Irish population. Young or old, health professionals or the general public, from rural or urban areas, people want to know about the same things.

The underlying consistency of top tasks is nearly always a surprise to organizations. Every department and manager likes to think they’re special and that their audience or customer base has unique needs. That can, of course, be the case. But it is surprising how much people have in common.

When we did the WHO study, the top tasks included:

  1. Vaccine (development, availability, safety)
  2. Latest news, latest research (alerts, directives, updates)
  3. Transmission, spread, epidemiology
  4. Immunity, antibody testing (criteria, availability, accuracy)

These were common across all the continents. They were common across age groups and genders. They were common for health professionals, academics and the public. When we later asked a large group to sort the tasks into classes, we found that health professionals were organizing things in the same way as the general public. There are common patterns out there, common mental models that can unify multiple audiences.

With the vaccine Top Tasks projects there was only one segment that stood out: those who were highly unlikely to get the vaccine. Even this group shared some of the tasks of the rest of the population. What was encouraging was that those who said that they were “unlikely” had more in common with the groups that said they would get the vaccine than with the “highly unlikely” group.

In February I’m going to be running my first online training session on Top Tasks. It will be a practical introduction to the key steps involved. There is a limit of 12 people and there will be lots of room for interaction. The price is €499 and you can get 10% off if you use this code before December 31: NTTT-10FF.

Top Tasks online training

This has surely been a difficult year. I wish you health and happiness for 2021.

The next issue will be published on January 11, 2021.

Google’s increasingly dark shadow

Timnit Gebru, a leader and pioneer in the ethics of Artificial Intelligence at Google, was working with colleagues on a new research paper. The paper addressed some of the dangers inherent in the Google approach to AI, including data center energy consumption and the impact on marginalized groups.

AI is well known to be a crude and voracious consumer of energy, with a culture of throwing massive amounts of energy at whatever problem is faced, rather than thinking intelligently and wisely about treating the environment with respect.

AI is already noted for either ignoring or discriminating against minorities. The reason is simple. Like most tech, AI is mainly designed by male white geeks. They build a model based on male white geekdom and then scale that model for the rest of humanity. It is also true that in many cases the data the male white geeks feed and train the AI with tends to be from white males, so the AI’s DNA becomes very male, very white. Within these historical datasets are the prejudices and discriminatory practices of male, white society, so the AI swims in a sea of prejudice and discrimination.

Timnit Gebru, an Eritrean-American computer scientist, was brave and brilliant enough to challenge Google’s male white geekdom, and in response, Google did a Trump on her, firing her and then peddling lies and misinformation. This is what we expect from Google because this is how monopolies behave.

I used to be a big fan of Google. It had a search engine that put the searcher before the advertiser. They even had a motto: “Don’t be evil”. The money called and Google changed. Google used to place its ads in the right column of the search results page, but while that was good for the searcher, it was not so good for the advertiser. Google realized that they could make a lot more money if they could pass the ads off as search results by placing them first in the list of search results. Google thus began passing off its ads as search results.

Google is an advertiser and it wants your data. Google is the biggest collector of health data in the world but this is not for the good of your health. Health data creates a healthy bottom line. When push comes to shove, Google will always act in its own best interests, not yours.

It’s funny how so many go on about freedom of this and freedom of that and yet they willingly and freely hand over their most sensitive personal data to an advertising company. Because Google is an advertising company. A company that seeks cleverer and cleverer ways to manipulate you to buy things. A company that hides its true intent behind “free” services.

Nationalize AI. Make personal data a human right. Governments, you have maybe 10-20 years max before AI Google and AI Facebook get out of reach. Politicians, stop sleepwalking. This is complicated stuff but you must get your heads around it.

AI is the super-information architecture of the world we will all soon live in. Our personal data is the most powerful and precious resource in this new world.

To think that our personal data and the AI engines are being designed and controlled practically exclusively by male white advertising geeks is truly scary.

The data pollution problem

In 2020 we will create, capture, copy, and consume almost 60 zettabytes of data. By 2025, it will be 200 zettabytes, according to Cybersecurity Ventures. By 2035, there will be more than 2,000 zettabytes of data in the world.

In my interview with data expert Nick Evanson I asked him to calculate how much it would cost to store 2,000 zettabytes of data. Based on current prices, Nick told me, to store 2,000 plus zettabytes would cost about $58 trillion dollars. The global economy is worth about $80 trillion and could be worth $130 trillion by 2035. So, if data keeps exploding in the big bang tsunami that is currently happening, we could be spending about 40% of global economic output just to store data.

A zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes. Yes, a trillion, which is a thousand billion. If you printed out a zettabyte of data you’d need the paper from 20 trillion trees. (There are a little over three trillion trees left on this planet.)

We are creating data in unimaginable, unheard-of quantities. We have created far more data in the last two years than in all of previous history. The vast majority of this data is crap. It’s useless waste.

The technology economy is actually built on waste. The entire model seeks to create as much waste as possible by encouraging people to create as much useless crap as possible and by designing products that will have the shortest life cycles possible.

Digital e-waste delivers fantastic short-term returns for the technology industry, yet is incredibly destructive of life on this planet. Here’s just one example why. The habitat of the Western Lowland gorilla in the Congo is under threat. In the home of the gorillas you will find most of the global resources for “a dull black metallic ore from which are extracted the elements niobium and tantalum,” according to Wikipedia. “Tantalum from coltan is used to manufacture tantalum capacitors which are used for mobile phones, personal computers, etc.”

About 80% of the pollution a digital device will create happens during its manufacture. The fact that most digital devices have very short lives massively increases their pollution impact. To make matters even worse, rich countries collect their old phones and computers and ship them back to poor countries, often in Africa, where they are then dumped, creating even more pollution.

What can we do?

  1. Think long and hard before you buy digital devices. They may seem cheap but they have a massive pollution cost to the earth.
  2. Hold on to your devices as long as possible. If they break get them fixed. And if they can’t be fixed, demand why. Make some noise. Write to your local politician.
  3. Stop creating data. Think long and hard before you create, collect or store data. Do you really need it? Is it genuinely useful?
  4. Reduce data consumption. Everything digital requires energy and thus creates pollution. If you can avoid using digital, and simply walk, think or ride a bicycle, do it.

The technology industry has grown super rich by being super bad for the planet. All the pollution and nastiness is cleverly hidden, exported out of sight. We can massively cut the waste by using technology wisely rather than wastefully. It will mean more modest profits for Big Tech but for the Western Lowland gorillas and so much other life on this planet, it will mean the chance of a future.

Big Data growth is not sustainable: Gerry McGovern chats with Nick Evanson

How science let us down during the pandemic

We need good science today more than ever. We need a calm, logical, rigorous, scientific way of thinking and acting. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, science and the scientific community often let society down. We must understand why and what must be done to lessen the chances of it happening again.

Scientists are human, all too human. They are thus not gods. They are not all-knowing. They are prone to ego, vanity, guessing, wishful thinking, just like the rest of us. They are prone to rationalizing rather than rational thinking. Many scientists like to build on what they know rather than let what they have just discovered undermine deeply held beliefs. They are human.

Scientists are not by definition good, ethical people. Science has been used to wage war just as much—if not more—than to promote peace. Science has no moral compass. It goes wherever the science leads it.

However, science contains paths to truth, paths to knowledge, paths to discovery that are profoundly important. Science can tell us what the world is, what the facts are, what works and what doesn’t.

Right now, we face a much greater enemy than COVID-19. We face an Internet-enabled industrial-scale fakes new and misinformation onslaught. State actors and misinformation entrepreneurs peddle fake news, lies, propaganda with a view to gaining power and wealth. They see major opportunities in a customer segment that is irrational, emotional and cult-like. Cults are one of the biggest business opportunities of the 21st century, and cult branding is the new innovation.

The science establishment was slow to recognize that COVID-19 was airborne. Consequently advice on ventilation was not developed quickly enough. It was also slow to recognize new symptoms such as loss of smell and taste. In the early days, there was contradictory advice in relation to the use of masks. Some of the data modeling that occurred was naïve and lacked an understanding of the real world. There were arguments from certain scientists promoting pseudoscience such as herd immunity.

Good science undermines cults and promotes reason. Poor science facilitates, encourages and legitimizes cults because it gives the propaganda entrepreneurs some nasty truth to mix with their fake news.

Some of the science was misguided and wrong. Some of our scientific establishments were too slow, cautious, and overly influenced by politics. Some were promoting eugenics-style cull-the-herd approaches under the guise of herd immunity.

Politicians who said they were “being led by the science” did a disservice to science by their pandering. For politics to work it must be a jack of all trades because society is always more complex than one discipline or group.

We should no more believe that science has all the answers than that God has all the answers. We do a disservice to science and society when we hold up scientists as our new all-knowing gods. They are fallible and need to be questioned. We must demand of them that they recognize and learn from their mistakes.

The Internet is a cult-making machine. Much of the tech industry’s business model is fake news, fake engagement. We must rein in the worsts elements of the Internet. A robust, evidence-based, science-informed, societal-level approach can do that.

We need to do more about electronic waste

When it comes to making products, the technology industry has a circular economy. It goes to poorer countries and pays them as little as possible for the raw materials. Once the products are old, it dumps the e-waste back in poor countries where it will be ‘recycled’. The recycling generally involves burning the e-waste in open pits with all the pollution and ill health that causes.

This ‘circular economy’ is really wonderful for rich countries. We can claim that we have achieved continuous economic growth while at the same time improving our environment: cleaner air, cleaner water, etc. Outsourcing pollution is a great branding strategy. At every step, our big brands make the absolute maximum effort to pay people in poor countries as little as possible, work them non-stop and then poison them, their children and communities.

Every year we produce enormous and rapidly growing quantities of e-waste. Less than 20% of it is recycled and most of that ‘recycling’ is crude and highly polluting. Yet in e-waste are huge mineral resources. If we were recycling properly, we could ‘urban mine’ many of the raw materials we need, thus reducing the need to do more damage to the environment.

The technology industry has gotten away with behaving atrociously because for years it has had a halo over its head. It’s modern, it’s geeky, it’s techy, it’s computery, it’s smartphony. It couldn’t be this producer of highly disposable poisonous products, could it?

The wasteful behavior of the tech industry is both deliberate and deeply cynical. Maximizing waste maximizes profits. The more waste, the more money tech makes. That’s the bottom line. Another word for ‘innovation’ is ‘trash.’ Most new features are a marketing con, rather than anything even approaching a necessity. Everything must change quickly not because everything needs to change quickly but because that’s how Apple and Samsung et al maximize short-term return. We have an e-waste economy that must trash the environment in order to maximize profit. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I was part of all this, perfectly happily changing my phone and computer every two years. “If a phone is kept in use for at least five years, instead of the typical two to three years, the carbon impact per year of use could be cut by 50 per cent and the water impact could be halved,” a 2020 UK Green Alliance report states.

We must think very differently about technology. This idea that to race into the future you must be allowed to break everything, to trash everything and to waste everything must be challenged. In making our future, technology should not be destroying it.

We have a cult of innovation, a cult of change. Cults are bad.

Hold on to things. Keep things until they break and then fix them. And if you can’t get them fixed, complain like hell to the brands, to the politicians. Make some noise. Most tech products are designed so that they cannot be repaired, so that it is almost impossible to recycle them efficiently. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s start changing our culture of waste, our culture of disposability, our culture of convenience. We must think, design and behave for the future. We must make things that last and make things last.

Design for a circular economy, UK Green Alliance (PDF)

Moving fast breaks things

In the physical world, there are certain speed limits beyond which there is a huge jump in energy requirements and a major jump in dangers for humans. These limits exist in the digital world too. As speed increases, energy demands rise, waste explodes and the likelihood of humans losing control and making the wrong decisions greatly increases.

An increase in average speed of 1 km an hour for a car increases the risk of a crash by 3%, with a 4–5% increase in the risk of a fatality. If you crash while driving at 80 km an hour, you are 20 times more likely to die than if you are travelling at 30 km an hour. There is also a link between speed and pollution. The harder the acceleration, the greater the spike in fuel consumption. Consistent, moderate speeds work best for the environment.

Are modern Web design and development practices sustainable? Is continuously improving a website or a piece of software more sustainable—more energy efficient, less wasteful—than carefully planning and designing something that is meant to last and not be constantly tweaked?

“More than three out of four decisions directly influencing materials selection and manufacturing processes are determined in the design phase and over 80% of the ecological costs are determined before the product is even created,” the British Design Council stated in 2015. The cost is less when we’re still working with the idea.

For a long time I felt that getting something out there as quickly as possible and refining based on feedback was the optimal way to design. However, I never really considered the energy and waste implications of such an approach. The idea of failing fast seems like a good idea if you want to increase speed. The question is: Is increasing speed good for humanity and the planet? Is this frenzy of innovation and change actually leading to better outcomes, to better societies, better economies?

The motto for Facebook has been to move fast and break things. They’ve certainly managed to break society. When you’re moving so quickly you lose the capacity to think in any deep way. The faster you’re moving, the shorter the timeframe you’re thinking in.

If humans slowed down wouldn’t that slow down global warming? And yet so much about digital seems to be about speeding things up. This frenzied speed, where is it bringing us? The more intelligent Artificial Intelligence becomes, the more stupid, short-minded and thoughtless humans become. We are trading in everything we think makes us unhappy for a world of convenience, a want-less world, where all the trees have only low-hanging fruit and we never have to reach far for anything.

The biggest and most existential problems we face require thinking in the hundreds of years, require planetary-level planning and coordination, require multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural collaboration.

We need to step back from technology. It is not God. We will not find God in the next app we develop. We need to stop worshiping the code. We still have minds and intellects worth something, worth much more than we give them credit for. The greed of humanity got us into this mess and the genius of humanity may get us out.

But to move fast on whatever problems we are facing, we must first slow down to a pace that is both sustainable for the planet and suitable for the human mind.

Reducing energy waste in digital

Using more and more energy does not lead to more happiness. After a certain point there are diminishing returns. In fact, too much energy leads to obesity in the body and overload in the mind.

“The drastic increases in societies’ energy use seen in recent decades have, beyond a certain point, had no benefit for the well-being of their populations – social returns on energy consumption per capita become increasingly marginal,” a 2020 report entitled “Providing decent living with minimum energy” stated.

The authors predict that by 2050 the entire human population could have decent living standards with energy requirements that are 60% lower than what we use today.

How could that possibly be?

Waste.

“Throwaway Living” was the title of a LIFE magazine feature published in 1955. “The future of plastics is in the trash can,” the editor of Modern Packaging magazine, Lloyd Stouffer, stated during that decade. By the 1950s the ideas driving planned obsolescence were already twenty years old. The deliberate shortening of the lifespan of a product to force consumers to purchase replacements is today standard practice for Apple, Samsung et al.

Waste is the prime business model of today. The more waste, and the less that waste is recycled, the more short-term profits will be made. Fixing, maintaining and recycling are not profit-maximizing activities. In our modern economy, designers take pride in building things that break. The PR and marketing propaganda babble is about change and innovation. How you need an 8K resolution screen even though you can’t see the difference.

We can have healthier, happier and more fulfilling lives if we address our economies of waste. Every day, we must work on training our minds to think longer term and to think from an earth experience perspective. To think about how we can create things that last, whether that is content or code or whatever. Short-term thinking is killing life on earth. Long-term thinking can help save it.

Hold on to things as long as possible. According to a report by the UK Green Alliance, “If a phone is kept in use for at least five years, instead of the typical two to three years, the carbon impact per year of use could be cut by 50 per cent and the water impact could be halved.”

Question all the data your organization is collecting. I had a great chat with Tom Greenwood from Wholegrain Digital, who was telling me of his belief that 90% of websites don’t need tracking and analytics. Totally agree. Most tracking and analytics is a pointless charade. It serves no useful purpose other than to give people useless work so as to generate busyness and production.

Just because we can buy new devices doesn’t mean we should. Just because we can create and collect more data doesn’t mean we should.

Digital is not green. It is in fact the secret accelerator of global warming. We must have a radical rethink about how we use digital technology. And it begins by addressing digital waste.

Designing for a circular economy

Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario

Use your brain

Which is more efficient at searching: the human brain or Google? The average Google search takes about .2 seconds to process, consuming about .3 watts per search. The human brain consumes about 20 watts of energy every hour, or .005 watts per second. For a brain to do a “search” lasting .2 seconds would require .001 watts of energy. Thus, our brains can be up to 300 times more energy efficient than Google is. Which is not surprising, considering that our brains have evolved over millions of years.

How many times do you repeatedly search for the same thing? I know it happens to me a lot. I either can’t remember, don’t trust my memory, didn’t bother to write the answer down, or am simply a creature of habit that “instinctively” turns to Google instead of my brain when I need to know something.

“Nowadays, if you don’t know something, all you have to do is type a quick query into a search engine,” Marianne Stenger writes. “But although this is certainly useful, researchers have also found that the more we use the internet to support and extend our memory, the more reliant we become on it and the less likely we are to form a memory of it.”

There’s an old saying, “Use it or lose it.” If you talk to older people who are still healthy then many of them will tell you that the best way to stay healthy as you grow older is to stay active, both mentally and physically.

Slowly but surely, technology is infantilizing us. We lose our natural skills and abilities and replace them with search engines, machines and gadgets. Some machines add tremendous value and enrich life. Growing up on a small farm, I got a taste of what life is like without tractors and other machinery. Working on a farm just with horses and hand instruments really beats up the body. Think of the drudgery women faced before the washing machine. Quite clearly, technology can help us live better, healthier lives.

From a human perspective, there is a point beyond which technology shows increasingly limited returns. Right now, technology is literally destroying life on this planet. Of all the CO2 we have caused as a species, we have caused 50% of it in the last 25 years. As the world has become more high tech, so too have we become super-high polluters. Technology is a massive accelerant of global warming.

Are we damning our children’s future so that we can have 5G and the latest iPhone? Are we are degrading our memory—our children aren’t even learning how to remember—and becoming lazy and obese, so that we can become slaves to Alexa? Is that it?

If there’s an awakening with this pandemic, let’s hope that it awakens us to two ideas. Firstly, we’re not special. We’re part of this earth. We’re not superior to anything. Our actions are negatively affecting conditions for life on this planet. All life is in this together.

Secondly, we are human, physical. We are not digital. We have evolved for millions of years as physical beings and the defining characteristic of our species has been collaboration.

Every hour we live requires energy. If we don’t use that energy productively then much of it gets stored as fat. The obesity epidemic is just one more sign that humans are consuming more than we’re using.

Remember. Burn your own energy.

How much energy does a Google search consume?
How Digital Technology Shapes Cognitive Function, Marianne Stenger

Web, we have a problem

Humans are not used to abundance. For millions of years, we wanted. A steady supply of food was rarely guaranteed. It is only in the last 100 years that food has become more abundant. We can’t cope. It’s estimated that one-third of food that is bought is wasted. Even much of the food we eat is wasted because we don’t use it productively, and if it’s not used, food turns into fat, and that’s why we have a global obesity epidemic.

Modern technology is the central driver of abundance, and is the core accelerator of waste. Technology has created a type of waste that never before existed on this earth. A toxic and destructive waste that poisons us and our environment, whether it is processed foods, fake news or e-waste. We must address waste.

I grew up on a small farm. Practically nothing went to waste. The cow dung mixed with the straw that we used to keep the cows clean and warm and each day it was cleaned out and added to a growing pile that was in the spring spread on the fields to help grow the grass that the cows would eat. A circular economy.

So much of what we make in digital never has a second life. The websites we build, the content and code we write, the smartphones and computers, all those gadgets, they die and sit there somewhere. The content, code and websites will never rot and be spread on fields to make something new and fresh. No, they just sit there, taking up space, eating a little bit of energy every day. Almost invisible.

Modern technology has truly wonderful potential but it is overloading us with abundance. The way we are designing it is so incredibly destructive, both to our own long-term health and happiness and to the viability and sustainability of life on earth. We must change the truly toxic model of planned obsolescence, of a deep design culture that obsesses about speed, coolness, jazziness, production, innovation for the sake of innovation, change for the sake of change, the cult of volume, and the quick buck.

Our organizations have such a myopic short-term focus. We can only think and act based on the low-hanging fruit. The idea of getting a ladder to reach the other fruit requires just too much long-term planning.

Waste that feeds life in a circular economy is good and vital. But so much of the waste we create today feeds death and destruction. The one-third of food waste often ends wrapped tightly in thousand-year plastic. Much of the rest of the food feeds the obesity epidemic, while the marketers tell us we should never feel hungry, that we must snack ourselves to death with processed junk food.

The digital industry I have made my career in is so enormously, wantonly wasteful, and the waste is nearly always toxic, dead waste; waste that has no use, has no function or ability to feed new life. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change. We must change.

Step one is to recognize we have a problem. We are addicted to the easy and cheap abundance that technology offers. Just like technology has made us over-eat, we over-write, over-code, over-publish. Our websites are obese, our code is obese, our content is obese. We’ve gone wild on images, videos; we salivate when they promise 5G. “Wow, 5G!!! Do you know how much faster that is!? I don’t know why I need that speed, but I WANT that speed.”

Web, we have a problem.