The price of free is waste

All “free” systems are wasteful by design because a free system merely hides or displaces its costs. Take for example Google and Facebook. These so-called free services cost the earth. Even as both organizations vigorously participate in greenwashing, saying how they embrace renewable energy, they will always be engines of waste because they run online advertising systems.

The very model of online advertising is both massively wasteful and fraudulent. In the dystopian attention economy, an online ad may need to be displayed a million times to get one person to purchase, and probably half a million of those “displays” were fraudulent. So, free to you and me costs the earth in wasted energy. A massive underlying system of surveillance, data collection and content production can be found in the Internet’s underbelly of advertising waste.

Free merely displaces costs and feeds wasteful habits. WordPress is a great and noble service and I have used it over many years because it was free and did useful things. I didn’t need a free service for building and maintaining websites. But when something is free and when it works pretty well, it’s hard to resist, isn’t it? Because at heart we’re all cheap, aren’t we?

Deep down, we all know that there is no such thing as free, but it’s easier to believe the big lie. Somebody or something somewhere along the line is paying. Because WordPress is free and because it’s so popular you get lumbered with lots of features and code you don’t really need.

What did I care that my webpages were hundreds of kilobytes heavier than they needed to be? Everyone’s on free broadband plans, surely, and everyone has a cool smartphone?

Except of course that’s not true. There are millions of poorer people out there with crappy phones on expensive broadband plans. In lots of countries you have broadband plans where you get to use Facebook for “free” but any Web usage is very costly. But I digress. Who cares about poor people anyway? We don’t design for them. They don’t use our websites. So we can ignore them, right?

My old site delivered 405 KB of JavaScript. The new site? Zero JavaScript. Because my new site doesn’t need JavaScript. The old site didn’t need it either but you know it came with the free package and if it’s free you can’t complain, can you? JavaScript is a real energy sucker because when it arrives on a device it needs to be processed. For one of those poor people, a typical JavaScript bundle can add 10-20 seconds of energy-intensive, battery-wasting processing.

My website didn’t need any JavaScript. A great many websites could clean out up to 90% of their JavaScript code. In numerous situations, they could replace JavaScript with less intensive options. But to do that requires some serious analysis and expert programming skills. Why bother?

Because we are killing this planet with waste. Because we’re in a climate emergency and we need to behave like we’re in an emergency. Every opportunity we have to save one gram of CO2 we should take. Heavy websites are a tax on poor people and a tax on the earth. The bad and wasteful habits we develop in digital feed into the rest of our lives. Let’s clean up our digital world.

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Podcast: World Wide Waste
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