Erratic engineeress

A personal blog fuelled by caffeine and curiosity.

The hidden cost of our digital footprint that no one talks about

The Internet may be invisible, but it’s far from insubstantial.

It’s been a while since I wrote a sustainability post, so I figured it is time for a new one, about the Internet, on the Internet. In the days of online shopping and virtual living, we like to say that not printing out an e-receipt or an e-ticket saves resources and that having a Zoom meeting or a teleconference leaves a smaller environmental footprint than travelling to one in person, but even though that is true, the environmental cost is still non-zero. It is actually quite a lot more than zero, but it is so well hidden that we rarely consider it or talk about it at all.

The phrase digital footprint generally refers to the data trail we leave behind when we use the Internet. Much like a physical footprint, it stays there until someone deletes it, so the data on every website you’ve ever visited, every social media post you’ve shared and every information form you’ve ever filled out is still stored somewhere. If it ever becomes public or even semi-public, you lose pretty much all control over it and it can be manipulated, scrutinised and dragged up to be misinterpreted years later, which is where the majority of cancel culture comes from nowadays. I probably do not need to tell you about all the security risks that using the Internet brings, but do take this as a gentle reminder to always protect your privacy and digital reputation online.

What does it take to keep the Internet online?

Short Internet safety lesson aside, there are over 4 billion active Internet users and our data isn’t just floating around in the air, it needs to be stored on a physical server somewhere. Even cloud services aren’t actually in the clouds, but rather hosted in huge data centres, usually in random, remote locations allover the world. When I lived in Sweden, there was a Facebook data centre nearby and it was a bit eerie to see a whole building complex dedicated just to social media data storage. To be honest, it felt like a huge waste for such objectively trivial information and it was definitely a lesson on perspective.

All of these computers, servers, other electronic devices and paraphernalia need to be manufactured somewhere and then shipped off to their intended location, so that’s the first obvious environmental cost. They also need to be powered up and cooled down using local grid electricity, which may or may not be produced from sustainable sources (I already wrote a post on the green energy dilemma here). For example, you may remember the recent rise of cryptocurrencies and the environmental outcry over how Bitcoin alone consumed more energy than a whole country, specifically Argentina.

Although it is difficult to know for sure, our use of the Internet is estimated to account for about 4% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions, which is comparable to the whole airline industry sector. Every time we look up something using a search engine, that single search term runs through multiple data servers, which are connected via an extensive cable network under the oceans. Check out this interactive world map of submarine cables with all the details, because it is really fascinating.

These cables range from old school tar-coated monstrosities to sleek, expensive tech miracles, capable of transmitting over 400 terabits of data per second. Although satellite links are becoming more popular, the submarine cables still do most of the work and they also need to be manufactured, installed and maintained, plus they are susceptible to geopolitical tensions. If you want to know more, definitely go read this extensive article about the intestines of the Internet, because it is, again, really fascinating.

With music, games, movies, social media and everything else moving into streaming mode and cloud storage, our data consumption is increasing like crazy and Internet traffic has tripled since 2015. Currently the increased data traffic electricity usage is still moderated by constant improvements in efficiency, however that won’t last forever. Now, I am obviously not suggesting that we turn the Internet off, but there are some simple ways to reduce the environmental impact of our digital footprint and it is good to be aware of them + they come with some benefits too. As always, I am merely advocating for responsible use and doing what we reasonably can to behave more sustainably.

Reduce the impact of your digital footprint

  • Regularly clean out your email and online storage – delete old emails you no longer need, clean out your spam folder, delete old shared files and free up your virtual drive. As a positive side effect, an up-to-date, empty mailbox also reduces stress and looking through your old photos might bring up some nice memories.
  • Unsubscribe from newsletters and advertising you know you won’t read anymore – even if that includes mine.
  • Delete any old email and service accounts you don’t use anymore to reduce your digital footprint. Although some data often needs to be stored for a certain period of time due to legal reasons, deleting and fully terminating your account will allow the service provider to delete all of your data after that period.
  • Turn off auto-play and watch video streams instead of downloading.
  • Lower the brightness on your monitor to necessary levels, which reduces eye strain too.
  • Shut down and unplug your electronic devices when you aren’t using them for a longer period of time to save energy – both devices and chargers still use electricity even if the device is powered off, which is called vampire power or phantom load. Not charging your devices beyond full battery levels also helps preserve battery health and longevity, so you are saving money in the long run on two fronts.
  • For bonus points: use your electronic equipment for as long as possible and repair and maintain it regularly. Properly dispose of all your hardware electronic waste and donate or sell your old, still functional computers and phones to be reused second hand or refurbished and resold. Decluttering is another very helpful mental health activity… 🙂

Last but not least: space junk

On a final note on the hidden cost of our digital footprint, did you know that the space around Earth is full of junk? Almost everything we have ever sent into space is still up there, so our lovely blue planet is spinning inside its very own galactic garbage patch of 23,000 larger pieces and counting. Most of it is an increasing number of satellites for telecommunications and of course, the Internet, because it is simply cheaper to leave them up there once they’ve outlived their usefulness than it is to get them down. No wonder the aliens haven’t contacted us yet, because would you want to talk to the dirty hoarders next door?

Also, this same hoard of garbage is impeding our efforts at space travel, because it is getting increasingly hard to navigate outgoing rockets through the debris field, so until we can clean it up, there will be no chance of Star Trek. The European Space Agency does have an active mission to clean up space called ClearSpace since 2018, but it is going to be a while before it launches.

So, what do you say? Have I convinced you to clean up your digital footprint a bit? Let me know in the comments below.

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2 responses to “The hidden cost of our digital footprint that no one talks about”

  1. Anonymous

    This is a very very interesting post Petra. I’ve been trying to “clean” my email accounts since I read it some months back and my brightness levels are low because of my migraines but all the rest I didn’t know!

    1. Thank you for reading, I learned new things while writing too. 🙂

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