Your online activity has more impact on the planet than you may think | NTT DATA

Thu, 20 December 2018

Your online activity has more impact on the planet than you may think

Today we know the benefits of living in the digital era. However, what’s not so clear is the impact that our own digital behavior has on society, on the environment, and on ourselves. Our behavior is defined by an unbridled use of data, luckily we are beginning to understand the consequences that this model of consumption has. It has an impact that goes beyond what one could traditionally think, the device in itself. What about the impact that the data we generate has on the environment?

Visualizing the invisible

From the 70,000 thoughts that cross someone’s mind in one day, an important fraction of them come from digital stimuli, given that 55% of the world population has access to the internet (4.2 billion people). And this number will keep on growing.

Whatever the digital activity may be, as inoffensive as it may appear, it has a direct impact on the environment: according to Mike Berners-Lee in his book How Bad are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, a simple email, with no attachments, generates 4g of carbon dioxide (Co2). How much do you think a person generates in a year sending emails? 136kg of Co2.

As well as having an impact on the environment, our digital activity also takes up space. All the data we handle needs to be stored in a physical space, such as data centers, which need a great amount of energy to work. We could say that data centers are this century’s colonizers, if we were to group them together, by 2020 they would take up 45.6 million squared meters, approximately the size of the Netherlands.

Digital anxiety: the new digital illness

The environmental impact isn’t the whole picture. With the millions of clicks, e-mails, searches and publications on social media, we’re bombarded with information.

This reality has shaped our brains into a multitasking mindset which allows us to store and handle vast amounts of information. This model, based on overstimulation, gives us the ability to think and focus of numerous tasks at once.

Our brain has become a data center against the clock. However, it does not have the ability to grow and absorb larger amounts of information. In order to protect itself, the brains removes excess information randomly. I’m sure you’ve forgotten important things such as birthdays or passwords.

All this brings us to the risk of suffering digital anxiety. According to a study from Harrison and Lucassen, of the Open University, this phenomenon produces a permanent distraction, sleep disorders, work and personal life overlap, F.O.M.O (fear of missing out) and a constant habit of comparing ourselves to other people.

How can we revert this situation?

With this panorama, the only thing left to do is correct the digital consumption trend toward a more responsible model.

Question is, where to begin? The first step is to focus on one thing, and only one thing at a time. We should begin by focusing on what really matters to us, on the information and data that truly provide value. Quality instead of quantity should be a philosophy we apply in all aspects of our lives. We need to practice digital mindfulness.

We can carry out a number of actions in our day to day to revert our digital behavior. For example, advocate for EcoData, optimize the use of the information we receive; reduce our internet use, consult and disitribute data that really matters and remove all the data that doesn’t. We are our only filter.

Design as a catalyst for change

In this scenario, design plays a key role. Since the mid 19th century it has positioned itself as one of the main engines of social and political change. In other words, and as it has always done in the past, design is the key to activate this new change.

The causes have evolved. From the dehumanization of workers, social justice and pacifism to the assertion of sustainable design and a stop to environmental damage at the beginning of the 90s.

Influential public figures in design, such as John Thackara, warned us twenty years ago that “80% of the environmental impact of products, services and infrastructures is determined at the design stage”.

Therefore, digital designers have the responsibility and ability to lead change. For this reason, we propose:

5 design tips to achieve responsible digital consumption

  1. Raise awareness about the impact the model of digital consumption has and advocate for responsible user experience which helps reduce digital anxiety.
  2. Practice circular thinking, based on a system that recycles ideas, designs and products that helps reduce overstimulation.
  3. Focus on user experience to reduce mental and digital efforts to carry out tasks.
  4. Be responsible, fostering the data economy and use of renewable energy in data centers
  5. Innovate, incorporating technology and artificial intelligence to create more efficient designs

And what can the users do?

With all the tools we have at our disposal, what we need to do is take action and start fostering change. We need to be more responsible with our digital activity: delete photos you don’t like, don’t send attachments that are too large, remove your email from subscriptions lists you’re not even interested in, purchase eco cloud services, delete apps you no longer use…

The future is in our hands. We’ll keep the world spinning with design that helps us remember things and design that helps us change.

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