Symbols are real

In researching sustainability and the web I often come across resistance. When I go and crowdsource answers to questions about virtual sustainability, I get a lot of pushback. These people  insist that the web is “weightless”.

Here are a few (paraphrased) responses:

  • Computers use a fraction of the power of other consumer devices, so they don’t matter
  • The amount of energy used to deliver and render a web page can be ignored
  • iTunes replaces a bunch of environmentally unfriendly CDs, so it must be good
  • It’s more eco-friendly to have a virtual conference meeting than to fly a plane to a real conference
  • Second Life avatars may use more energy than a family in Brazil, but that’s less than a family in the US. If we bought our cars in Second Life, we’d use less power
  • Google is green, and so am I

In all these responses there is an implicit assumption, without the math, that virtual products and services consume fewer resources and energy than their equivalent in the real world. While this is probably true in many cases, the interesting part is the uncritical assumption people make – the virtual web is automatically “greener” than the real world. Where does this faith (we can’t call it anything else) in those with limited math/physics literacy come from?

IMHO the gut reaction most people have is that sustainability doesn’t matter for  the Internet and “high tech”. It is not lack of knowledge. Instead, it a subconscious feeling that the web and Internet are purely symbolic, and therefore cost nothing. Now, a car has weight, but a symbol for a car, being a symbol, is weightless. It’s a pure symbol is so abstract that it shouldn’t have any effect on the environment.

This symbol world is for many moderns the equivalent of “dreamtime”, heaven, hell, the underworld, you name it. Our minds (despite blabber about “Eastern” synthesis) split the world into Yoda’s “crude matter”, and “beings of light”. Guess where a web page or WoW elf-laden world seems to be, at least emotionally? It’s become the spirit world.

Designers are therefore priests of this spirit world.

This might explain the propensity of of some designers – Graphic Designers mostly these days – to view their work as a holy mission. If you look at the AIGA page “Why Design?” it reads like an application for the priesthood. In a real sense, for some, design is filling a void left by the departure of religion.

If there is one thing we can say about designers and developers, it is that they work with symbols. Symbol manipulation is also the broadest definition for art we can find. So, if my job is shuffling symbols around, how can it be as bad as a guy manufacturing Hummers? If I’m a pixel-pusher, how can those weightless things have any real impact. Better to worry about what the symbols mean – are they ideologically “green” enough?

Certainly there’s is an understanding by those industrial and package designers that the stuff they use to make physical product must be sourced correctly. But that’s not them, personally, not their design, just the “crude matter”. If the design is virtual on a web page, it is no longer “crude matter”, and must be o.k.

Hey, I’m just using Photoshop to push pixels, I’m not bad – I’m a priest of symbols, a shaman of images, firmly in dreamtime. This stuff isn’t “crude matter” – it’s weightless…

So, I’m arguing that the “holier than thou” attitude often encountered in the design world stems from an implicit belief that symbols are better than real, in terms of the environment. This green vision is tied up with a quasi-religious sense that the spirit world = design world = weightless. This belief is so strong that it has become a component of sustainable design.

In this book Design is The Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable, Nathan Shedroff embraces two “virtualization” royal roads to sustainability:

The Future of Design must be sustainable, by Nathan Shedroff
Design is the Problem, by Nathan Shedroff
  • Dematerialization – conversion of a physical product into a virtual service
  • Informationalization – send the recipe, not the thing made from the recipe

I think of these broadly as “symbol-izing” strategies.

Now, it many cases, this may be the right course. Converting from plastic CDs to iTunes electrons is (probably) more sustainable. Sending a recipe for building a blender may be better than shipping the blender over the Pacific ocean. Sending HTML5 and CSS3 is better than sending a Photoshop comp.

But it not not by definition better.

In fact, symbols have their own weight, cost, and environmental impact separate from their meaning. Symbols on today’s Internet are mostly electrons, until the final onscreen rendering makes them into photons. Photons are indeed weightless. The literal weight of all the electrons circulating on the Internet is indeed negligable – estimates are that the entire “electron” Internet only weighs a few ounces at most.

However, the energy needed to free these electrons to course through their networks is massive. This is the first “weightless” confusion, one between matter and energy. The problem is so big (lack of Quantitative Literacy in school?), that sustainability is re-described as a “carbon footprint” – the amount of matter needed to make a given amount of energy – to make it understandable.

In fact, the web weights quite a bit by this standard.

Using this measure of energy use, Alexander D. Wissner-Gross (see: has applied some serious physical calculations to determine the real weight of the web, and comes to the following conclusions:

 ”…viewing a simple web page generates about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second. This rises to about 300mg of CO2 a second when viewing a website with complex images, animations or videos…”

Now, if you think about all the web pages  all over the world being rendered, that might be significant. The problem is that most designers and developer don’t even know what a milligram is. Also note that this measure is viewing – not download and rendering. If a user stays on a screen for 5 minutes, this implies 20mg x 300 = 12 grams for that instance of the page. Now, multiply this by hundreds of millions, even billions of equivalent views per day.

You can understand why the Internet uses 10% of US power, and more than 5% of power worldwide

And, with the vast rush to “virtualize” physical products onto the web, increased use of rich media, rising Internet use in Asia, this can only go up – 10 times – in just a decade.

That would be 100%. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. But it shows the important point. Symbol pushers aren’t moving weightless ideas around – they’re shuffling matter and energy. In some cases, symbolizing is better. In others, it is not, unless considered and adjusted for sustainability.

But if you look at the commentary on Slashdot associated with the calculations on UClue you can feel the anger. How dare you. We are special. We aren’t to be touched – we work on the INTERNET!

The entire tech industry, with its push for the “future” at all costs – voice recognition (requiring twice the resources of an equivalent web-based system), augmented reality, virtual reality, geolocation, etc.,  feels like Dow Chemical in the 1930s and 1940s. And, according to the Strauss & Howe theory of generations and turnings,  (see Lifecourse at, that’s exactly where it is. Circa 2040, the “new hippie” children of the current Millennial generation (born 1982-2004) will call their parents “dammed virtualists” the same way that Boomers in the 1960s and 1970s labeled their parents “dammed materialists”. The “back to nature” revolt that has characterized other “awakenings” in history will be directed at the web.

So, the first thing that designers need to understand, as Shedroff aptly states, is that “design is the problem”.

The second thing they have to understand, if they are creating websites, virtual worlds, or games, is that the things they design have environmental weight and costs, even if they are just flickering pixels onscreen. Just like a package or a toothbrush. Graphic Design has done a good job of realizing that paper and packaging decisions are important. In the next decade, web/interactive designers will learn that their design/programming decisions are just as important.

In other areas, sustainability is blowing back onto design – if anyone doubts that, look at “ecofont”

Ecofont image, showing holes cut in type to save paper
Ecofont after the caterpillar got done with it

Imagine always formulating your design around similar fonts. Imaging sustainability in font choices being a part of a design document “deliverable”. Design will change, possibly not in the direction of this example, but something like it.

Despite their “green” orientation,  the creators of the ecofont website show no knowledge or interest in the impact of the website they created. Rendering ecofont onscreen is automatically assumed to be weightless. How much energy is the little butterfly floating around in their Flash movie using? It’s not a silly question, since Flash is a true “cpu grinding” energy hog.

Sustainable design? Possibly. Sustainable Virtual Design? no.

Designers need to understand that world of symbols, is, in fact, real.

They also need to understand that the design process itself has weight – subject of a future post.


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