Jevons’ Paradox Explored in a Website

A great post here on the problem with making things faster and more efficient – the net effect is to increase consumption. We see this in a lot of areas (e.g. more efficient jet engines just increased total air travel for a big carbon footprint increase), but it is especially obvious on the web.

Max Bock has a great post that compares the original Space Jam movie website from 1996 with the 2021 version.

Quote Max: “The iconic 1996 “Space Jam” website was recently relaunched to promote the new movie. Thankfully, the developers still kept the old site around to preserve its intergalactic legacy.”

The new site is nearly 40 times the size of the original (4.673KB vs. 120KB).

You would think that this is mostly the video on the new site, but in fact, bulk went up everywhere:


But this is actually good for 2020. According to the HTTP Archive’s 2020 report, the average page on both desktop and mobile is pushing 2 megabytes. However, their are a significant number of page weights in the 7 megabyte range!

2020 web page weight distribution from the HTTP archive. 50th percentile is around 2 megabytes, 90th percentile is around 7 megabytes.
Source: HTTP Archive. Page weight, in kilobytes in 2020.


This big growth in page size almost perfectly matches Jevon’s Paradox. Recall that this paradox asserts that if you make an energy source more efficient, it is used to a greater extent, and the net effect is an increase in energy. Now, modern Internet connects are much better than dial-up modems in the Space Jam era. What did we do with that bandwidth? We filled it up so the pages still load slowly!

According to Max, on a 56k modem, the 1996 Space Jam site took about 28 seconds to load. The modern site, with a 30x times faster 3G connection (4G and 5G would be even faster) loads in 26 seconds. Basically the same.

The bulk of the website, and its carbon footprint, advanced just as fast as connection technology would let it expand. The overall User Experience, in terms of the “world wide wait” is not that different (remember a 1996 web user didn’t expect video).

Ecograder didn’t think much of either site…

Ecograder result for Space Jam 2021 website, 38 out of 100
The modern 2021 Space Jam website
Ecograder result for Space Jam, 1996 website, 55 out of 100
The old 1996 Space Jam website has its own problems…

As we speed up, we pile on. The net effect is not a lean, efficient, hyper-fast Internet, but a fast Internet stuffed with code and media like a 10 pound bag of Cheetos. Jevons would not be surprised.

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