From user experience to Earth experience

Digital is physical. Every byte is supported by an atom. Every single action in digital costs the Earth energy. Turn the electricity off and you turn digital off. Digital is demanding an increasing share of the Earth’s energy and resources and is a major contributor to the generation of toxic trash, to a culture of disposability, convenience and the most wasteful behavior ever seen in human history.

Used wisely, digital could be saving our planet, making things more productive and efficient, and more environmentally friendly, while improving living standards. Right now, however, digital is killing our planet, creating enormous quantities of physical and data waste, and generating more and more useless innovation. We have become addicts to convenience and speed.

Digital is not green. In 1994, there were 3,000 websites. Today, there are 1.7 billion, almost one website for every three people on the planet. Not only has the number of websites exploded, the weight of each page has also skyrocketed. Between 2003 and 2019, the average webpage weight grew from about 100 KB to about 4 MB.

Wow. I’m part of all this. It only struck me about a year ago that digital is not neutral when it comes to climate change. Digital is a polluter. It is an accelerant of bad, lazy behavior. There’s something we can do about it. We can create cleaner digital. We can create digital designs that do the least harm to the environment.

We need to do less Search Engine Optimization and more Earth Optimization. We need to start asking about how much pollution our content and code is creating and how we lessen that pollution.

For too long digital has operated without any real constraints. I write this on a large screen that is connected up to my laptop. I feel a bit ashamed. I don’t really need such a large screen. I certainly don’t need two screens. This all costs energy. So much of how I’ve worked has involved wasting energy.

We struggle within organizations that have a voracious appetite for more of everything. We must struggle more to ensure that our organizations first do no more damage to this precious and hurting planet. Do we need this new app, this new feature? Do our customers need it? Do we need all the pages on our websites? Do we need to store all the data that we need to store?

In April I will publish World Wide Waste, a book which examines how digital is killing our planet—and what we can do about it. From now on, I intend to focus as much as possible on helping nourish a cleaner, greener digital.

I’m asking for your help. This will be the most important book I’ve published. I need help to get the word out as much as possible. If you can help to promote in any way the ideas within World Wide Waste, I would truly appreciate that.

I used to think that the user/customer experience was everything. But it’s nothing if we don’t have a good Earth experience.

Please get in touch.

15 thoughts on “From user experience to Earth experience

  1. Kirsten Gysels

    Hi Gerry,

    I am very interested in your tips on how to make a website ‘greener’. I am the websiteowner and projectleader of the website of the biggest city in Flanders and would love to make that little difference by making our website greener and in the meantime help spreading the word!

    Best regards, Kirsten

    Reply
    1. Gerry McGovern Post author

      The lighter the better. Less weight, less pages, less images, less code, less text. Don’t use an app unless it really delivers value. Test relentlessly to make sure the site work for your citizens because if it doesn’t work they’ll call, etc., and that wastes more energy.

      Reply
      1. Hamish McKillop

        Hi Gerry. Big fan of your work. I like this comment and really wish you’d included it in the original post to be honest! I think it’s a good point, and I think it supports your older thoughts that UX/CX is everything. Maybe it’s not everything, but minimalist design requiring less data, leading to less energy consumption on servers and fewer customers calling helplines from their cell phones is a big part, as you suggest. That, to me, suggests UX is an environmentally friendly best practice if done right; UX is green. If that’s what you’re getting at, I couldn’t agree with you more. Cheers.

        Reply
        1. Gerry McGovern Post author

          Thanks, Hamish. Appreciated.Yes, alongside CX/UX can sit many ideas that can lead to less waste. As you give the example, if a person gets the answer on the website and doesn’t have to call, that’s waste reduction. But let’s say UX makes it really easy for you to return goods? The ecommerce return rate is three times that for stuff bought in physical stores. UX could make it easier to do the wrong thing.

          Reply
  2. Dimitris

    Dear Getry,
    I am the European Commission Human Resources officer responsible for the “Digital Overload” dossier and its effects on our staff and their families. (some 100,000+ people across the whole EU in total). I would like to be informed of any information about your project and I shall be happy to exchange my humbre material with you (mostly on the health and wellbeing effects of digital overload can have but I would like to enrich it with additional info. on the very important environmetal/green aspects and digital technology and the personal responsibility of each one of us to protect ourselves and our planet in this context. I am already in your mailing list.
    Kind regards, Dimitris

    Reply
  3. Mary Chipman

    Another instance of the Tragedy of the Commons, a perfect storm of capitalism, short-term thinking, and human greed. Multi-national corporations have become forces beyond the control of any nation-state, owing no loyalty allegiance to any external entity other than their bottom line, which generates the oceans of money enabling them to corrupt the governments and institutions that might otherwise rein them in. What would motivate them to change the business model(s) that have become so wildly successful for generating the obscene profits that are the source of their power? When disaster strikes the rest of us, they’ll just jet off to a place that’s not starving, drowning or burning.

    Reply
    1. Gerry McGovern Post author

      Well said. We must do what we can while we can. As you explain, the multinationals will not change a winning strategy. We must change them.

      Reply
  4. PR Smith

    Gerry –
    Energy is an abstract concept for most of us. Am sure you will include the simple reference points e.g.
    How much energy:
    does the average ‘search’ on say Google, chew up?
    do all the platform companies chew up in their HQs & Storage warehouses?
    do the average website (defined as xyz) chew up?
    AI & complex computations …?

    Whether KW or MW or GW – can energy references be related to
    (a) cost (money)
    (b) how many homes this energy could fuel

    Am working with both http://www.MainstreamRP.com – world’s largest renewable energy company (defined by public tenders won) – HQ based in Dublin & also http://www.SuperNode.Energy (connecting all of Europe’s northern windfarms to southern \europe solar parks – to deliver 100% + of Europe’s future energy needs from renewable. Can intro you if this is deemed helpful.

    Reply
    1. Gerry McGovern Post author

      Thanks, Paul. I will be exploring energy more deeply in the new book. Right now, very fosused on book launch, but maybe in a few months could be interesting to have conversations with those firms.

      Reply
  5. gabriela baron

    Hi Gerry, this is great. I am currently developing a methodology called “Design for Conservation” and I am trying to get some external parties to come up with some ‘agile’ tools for each of the steps, I think you could make like a checklist canvas to help users apply these principles to digital products. Let’s get in touch!!

    Reply
  6. Lise Sastakauskas Østergaard

    Hi Gerry,
    Thank you for a very enlightening and inspiring blog post about the environmental aspects of todays digitalization. It is something that we are trying to take into account with our web development at Mostly Code.

    I’m very interested in the facts, you present – I really think we could use them too to convince our customers to choose more sustainable websites.

    (“in 1994, there were 3,000 websites. Today, there are 1.7 billion, almost one website for every three people on the planet. Not only has the number of websites exploded, the weight of each page has also skyrocketed. Between 2003 and 2019, the average webpage weight grew from about 100 KB to about 4 MB”)

    Where do do you find these data? Can you send me a link?

    Best regards,
    Lise Sastakauskas Østergaard,
    Mostly Code, Denmark

    Reply

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