Calculating the pollution cost of website analytics (Part 1)

The most dangerous cost is the cost closest to zero. The most dangerous concept is cheap. The cost close to zero easily becomes invisible. We don’t see it so we don’t think it exists, and that makes us consume with abandon, that makes us waste at will.

That which is cheap—or, worse still, free—is nearly always abusive. It is often abusive of the people who work for cheap to make it. Free, in particular, seeks to abuse those who use it because one way or another it intends to make money out of them. Cheap and free are abusive of the earth’s natural resources because cheap costs the earth. Because cheap is plastic, cheap is once-off, cheap is throwaway. Convenience is destroying our planet. We are bequeathing a wasteland to future generations because we are too lazy to plug in or plug out, to switch off, to conserve, to reuse.

In order to save ourselves energy, we spend more and more of the earth’s energy. Wireless charging, for example, costs 47% more energy than plugging a wire into your phone. What’s more, the wireless charger is always on, drawing “approximately 0.25 watts each hour, even if your phone isn’t sitting on it at all,” David Murphy writes for Life Hacker. “Vampire” power used by always-on devices is estimated to account for up to 20% of a typical electricity bill in the United States.

There are lots of vampires when it comes to digital. Things that suck energy, spewing out data waste. Even some of the things we consider useful are in reality vampires, constantly taking and rarely giving anything useful in return.

Over the coming weeks, I’d like to examine the energy and waste impact of website analytics. It is something that on the surface seems useful. But the metrics it produces for a great many organizations are not simply useless but dangerous. These vampire metrics feed a Cult of Volume—an addiction to big numbers, to production, to bringing people to a website by any means necessary. To trapping them there with the tactics of engagement, to draining their life through sucking their time. Because digital vampires grow fat on your time. They lust for it. They crave it. And they will do practically anything to ‘engage’ you but in reality what they want to do is trap, snare—turn you into an addict.

Every time you visit a webpage that is using Google Analytics, 21.6 KB of data about your visit is transferred to Google. That’s a tiny amount of data; close to zero, almost invisible.

In 2015, Marketing Land estimated that there were 30–50 million websites using Google Analytics. I’m estimating that currently there are about 50 million websites using it and that each of those websites get an average of 10 visits a day, giving a total of 500 million page views a day. That tiny 21.6 KB transfer now becomes 10,800 GB per day. That’s almost 4 million GB of data per year.

Based on research for my book, World Wide Waste, one GB of data transmission causes 0.0042 kg of pollution. That’s 16,556 kg of pollution per year. Assuming that an average tree can absorb 10 kg of CO2 per year, we’d need to plant 1,656 trees to deal with the pollution caused by the transfer of visitor data. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

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Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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