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.

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