The average internet/bandwidth speed in 2007 was approximately 3.5 mbps. That same year Kris De Decker started Low<–Tech Magazine, an online platform underscoring the potential of forgotten technologies and how they can inform sustainable energy practices. Internet speeds today are five times faster, leading to increased bandwidth usage, which consequently increases energy consumption. Inline with its ethos, Low<–Tech launched a redesigned solar-powered website that addresses these concerns compressively: optimizing code, design, and hardware. Since its launch in September, the self-sustaining platform has gotten the attention from a broad audience, featured on websites ranging from brutalistwebsites.com to Hacker News. The encircling dialogue is equally diverse in that it covers topics ranging from aesthetics to alternative image compression algorithms, leaving Low<–Tech with a backlog of suggested improvements and alternative solutions.
The following conversation addresses the notion of a speculation, innovation, and the complexities associated with self-hosting a website powered by a solar panel on your apartment’s balcony in partly-sunny Barcelona.
Jas Stefanski (JS)
I wanted to start by asking you specifically about the design. The site is optimized to be as efficient as possible, but it also maintains very specific design sensibilities, ranging from the battery interface to the the colors mix blend mode (it was even recently featured on brutalist websites). Can you speak to the aesthetic choices behind this site?
Kris De Decker (KDD)
So many people have commented that you can use a different image compression technique and make it look more normal, but what we want to do with the design was to show the materiality of the website to make clear that there is some hardware behind it. And that’s why, for example, we chose the battery meter. But also we chose the dithering compression because it looks obviously different. You could build a website that’s just as energy efficient as this one, but it would look like any other website, and then nobody would even realize that it’s a special website. We wanted make people aware that it’s run on solar energy and that it’s not always aways online [via the battery meter]. So that’s also why we added the weather report, etc.
Would you say that the aesthetic of the site becomes both an identity but also a way of projecting the website’s intention? Because you’re right, it could be plain text, which would be more efficient.
Yes, you could compress the images with a normal plug-in, and then they would just look like normal images. We’ve received a lot of feedback about the design decisions (not everybody likes them).
Most publishing platforms function on complex content management systems and databases. And I know you mentioned that the site is static in an effort to be as efficient as possible. Can you talk about how that has adjusted your workflow?
That’s a good question. I have been blogging for quite some time, and this is a pretty big change for me. It’s not easy to change, because people get used to a specific way of working, so I’m suffering a bit at the moment, in the sense that I need my web designers for many things that I used to do myself without any problem.
That being said, it’s a wonderful way of working. I think it’s easier than WordPress or Typelt or whatever. Also, one of the advantages is you can make your articles and your layout offline. So, for instance, I could sit on a train or on the beach and I could still prepare a blog post, which is something I couldn’t do before.
With the old site (which is still on TypeIt) you can’t really export it. If you have WordPress and, say, you want to make a book of your website, you have to go through all this HTML and stuff. And with the format that we have now, it’s very easy to turn the whole website into a book or migrate it to another system. So it became very portable.
With technology stacks behind apps and websites becoming more complex, handling more rich data and processor-intensive tasks, user expectations of that data and consumption also change. How do we justify or balance optimization and innovation? It seems as though though aspects are a bit at odds.
Yeah, in a way, they are. So you’re never going to see 3D videos on my website, obviously. I don’t think we should stop innovating, of course, but I think it’s important that we take into account the price we pay for that.
So if you innovate and the result is some technology that increases energy use by a factor of 20 then maybe that innovation is not so innovative after all, and that’s a big thing. What we call “innovation” these days usually results in something that uses more energy.
So if you innovate and the result is some technology that increases energy use by a factor of 20, then maybe that innovation is not so innovative after all, and that’s a big thing. What we call “innovation” these days usually results in something that uses more energy. There’s nothing wrong with innovation, but you can also innovate without constantly increasing the energy use, and I think that’s where we should be heading to, to take that into account also.
And if it turns out that you can only do 3D video by doubling the energy use of every website, then maybe we shouldn’t do it. And maybe we should look for a way to do it without raising the energy consumption. What this website wants to show us is that—so we made it six times lighter or something, but at the same time, the images became bigger than on the old site.
So that’s a bit of what we’re trying to show. It doesn’t mean that making it use less energy makes it become less attractive. You can do both things at the same time, but it needs a lot of thinking, and, yeah, innovation.
Innovating in a more holistic way where you’re approaching it from multiple vantage points.
Yeah. It’s simple, actually. The only difference is that you innovate with the energy use in mind, and then you can go a very long way. It’s not constrained just to websites, it has to do with many other technologies as well. For example, there’s a lot of innovation going on with cars, but it doesn’t really result in solving the problem of cars. You could make cars 10 times lighter, much smaller, much slower, and you would still have a personal motorized vehicle that uses 10 times less energy. That’s also possible. So, yeah, that’s what’s missing today, you know? A concept of innovation.
You mention early projections that the internet would save energy, using more power but making up for it by making other processes more efficient. Those projections have been proven incorrect. What were the factors that went into that?
The problem is that people are confusing energy efficiency with lower energy use or energy savings. These are very different things. Something that’s extremely visible on the internet is that making everything more efficient (like a data center) doesn’t necessarily result in less energy use; it just results in more data traffic.
What you see is the resolution of images and videos continuing to increase. So whenever a data center gets more energy efficient, whenever bandwidth speed increases, the result is not less energy use or a faster website. The result is just higher resolution images, more video, higher resolution video, and this progress in energy efficiency is constantly eaten up by more bells and whistles. At the same time, that’s also a great opportunity. If you somehow disconnect these two and say, “OK, everything related to computers and the internet, the efficiency is increasing so fast that you could actually half the energy use of the internet every two years instead of doubling it.” And that’s simply by taking advantage of the progress and energy efficiency without having ever more higher resolution images or videos or 3D or whatever.
We have an opportunity that we don’t have with other technologies because the advances in energy efficiency aren’t as significant as with computers and the internet. So while it’s a big problem, it’s also a great opportunity in that solving the energy use associated with the internet is actually quite easy.
So, do you think one potential route could be regulation?
That’s always a difficult question. I think the first thing that needs to happen is that people need to become aware of the fact that the internet uses energy. People know that cars, planes, and heating systems use energy, but somehow they don’t realize the internet consumes energy. So that’s probably the first step.
I wrote an article, “Why We Need a Speed Limit for the Internet,” which addresses the fact that there are no limits with the internet. Again, it’s always interesting to compare it to cars: Okay, cars cannot get bigger anymore because they don’t fit our garages and our streets, and they also cannot also keep increasing their speed indefinitely, because a car that drives 2,000 kilometers an hour wouldn’t be very practical. That’s not safe; it’s not going to work. But on the internet, you don’t have these practical or safety problems, so if the speed of the internet can just keep increasing without limits and eat more and more energy, and there’s nothing keeping it in check, you really have to limit it voluntarily. We have to set our own limit. And that’s of course very difficult. It’s already difficult in Europe. I have quite a few readers in the United States. Any sign of regulating something, and people shoot it down, you know? That’s, I think, one of the greatest challenges of our time: how are we going to find an acceptable way to limit things? Things like the internet?
It’s a bit like outlawing the incandescent light bulb.
How are you going to limit people’s data use by limiting the amount of e-mails they can send? It’s very difficult to think about a way of doing that. If you have a higher price for energy, I think that’s still the best way, because then it self-regulates. In terms of government policy, for instance, you don’t have to say exactly which technologies can be used and not be used, because of course that’s very tricky to navigate … and it’s also not fair. It’s a bit like outlawing the incandescent light bulb. Can a government really forbid certain things, and how useful is that? So the great advantage of higher energy prices—or, say, a carbon tax—is that people can decide for themselves. But it would mean that surfing the internet would get more expensive.
Any time you try to introduce price increases or regulation, especially when it comes to content, it becomes problematic. It’s interesting that you talk about the internet as something that is measurable but complicated in its intangibility. I feel like that’s what introduces some complexity to the conversation.
Exactly. People really have this idea that it’s for free. It’s in the cloud, and people have been told so many times that the internet is a sustainable alternative for other things. So it’s now very hard to say, “Yeah, but the internet also uses energy.” So that’s what we’re trying to do with the server: make it clear that there is a machine, an internet connection, and a power source behind it. And that if you power it with renewables, or renewable energy sources, they are not always available. It’s another of these needs that people think, “Oh, we just switched from fossil fuels to renewables, and then we can keep going on with what we’re doing.” But it doesn’t work like that. It’s a very different energy source.
So you have to adapt your society or technology to a new type of energy source. We actually need a lot of innovation because all our technology is based on fossil fuels, and it doesn’t really work with intermittent power sources. Which could be done, for instance: in some developing countries, internet networks are not always on. They are indeed intermittent, because they work with solar panels. Every internet node has a solar panel, and the data only gets from one node to another if there is sun. Your email might take three days to arrive, depending on the weather. So you can adapt basically anything to an intermittent energy supply. It’d be a kind of cultural shift towards something more sustainable.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) often addresses issues of the web space and sustainable practices, conversations that don’t necessarily surface for the general public. There are more public efforts, like Google’s logo redesign that cut its file size down by 85 percent. Are there any noteworthy efforts or models that you referenced when building the site?
There are some. You mentioned Brutalist websites already, and there’s this guy who built motherfuckingwebsite.com. It was very low-key until someone else said, “Well, this is also a mother fucking website, but a bit better.” So he kind of made a limited design which actually made it look much better.
It’s not fun to be on the internet anymore,…
We received an enormous amount of feedback on this new website. It’s clear that it’s something intrinsic to web designers, this desire to build better things, because it’s not just that the typical website uses a lot of energy, it’s also just a horrible thing. It’s not fun to be on the internet anymore, at least not like it used to be, in the sense that these days, you open a website, you get a cookie warning, then you get some privacy thing that you have to click away, then you get the newsletter, then you get the ads in your face, and then by the time you get to the content, you have already lost your interest.
Maybe we should not only focus on the energy use but also simply on creating a website that shows what I want to read and that loads fast and that doesn’t bother me with all these questions.
If you want the solution, just look to the past and you will find it.
Last summer I had two interns from the States who were tasked with redesigning the website [for Low<–Tech Magazine]. For more than two months, they showed me all these shiny designs, and I was never convinced. By the end of the period, one of them came to me with a design that I was immediately in love with. So I asked, “What’s that? Where’d you get this from?” And she said, “This is the first website ever made.” And then I was like, “Yeah, that’s what we need,” because in the end that’s the story of Low<–Tech Magazine. If you want the solution, just look to the past and you will find it. And indeed, even if the history of web design is much shorter than all the other technologies, again, this grew old in the sense that you just look back 20 years, and you find a solution in the static website. Like with many other things, you can improve it because now we have the static site generators which makes the use of the static websites easier. We just have to go back to the basics of web design and see where we come from, and then it becomes clear pretty quickly that all these things we put on top of it are just not really necessary.
I feel as though your site and the way it’s working is a bit of a speculation, a proposed way forward that is adaptable in pieces or in ideology but not necessarily in its entirety or detailed blueprint. Do you think that a model like this could influence the efficiency of other models or other sites?
Yeah, I don’t think that many people will decide to let their website go offline. That’s probably one step too far. But it’s the kind of eye-catching element of the blog, so it kind of did what it had to do. And also, the old website is still online, so we have actually two options for the future. I think what we learned through this blog is more interesting from a research viewpoint, we’re going to apply it to the old blog, but then just host it in a hosting company, which will also make it extremely efficient in keeping it online.
Our site is very fast, which is good for Google, but if it goes offline for three days every four weeks that’s not good for your search results. And of course that’s what drives the whole internet.That’s why people build websites. They want to be viewed/read and they want to be found on Google. So maybe Google changes that, but I don’t see that happen so quickly.
That’s why people build websites. They want to be viewed/read and they want to be found on Google.
But maybe adapting other aspects?
A static website is also not for everybody. If you’re tree-hugger.com, you probably share 15 articles a day and you have comments. That’s pretty complex when you want to update it regularly, because then you have to regenerate the site all of the time. So it works well for sites that are not updated constantly. A newspaper website, for instance, on a static website would be more like the old-fashioned newspaper that appears and is refreshed once a day, which could work.
Also, it saves a lot of costs that would be associated with traffic. I would get in trouble if it were hosted through a company because we easily take 40,000 visitors a day on this little blog here in my living room. And it’s really amazing, that you can get on the front page of Hacker News and it still works just fine. The maximum CPU use we got was 30 percent, so we can actually run three of these high-traffic sites on this server.
I think one of the most fascinating parts of the project is the conversation that ensued. You mentioned that you had 35,000 views when you weren’t really intending to fully launch the project. The comments range topically from aesthetics (like you mentioned) to logistics, like proposing alternate image compression algorithms. How has your team reacted to the discourse?
Yeah, we were very surprised to receive so much feedback, and we’re still kind of absorbing everything. There are great ideas in there. We got some new ideas from the feedback that we would like to research further.
Many of the contributors were interested in and left feedback on how to keep the blog online. For instance, to mirror the sites on different parts of the earth, and then change the DNS so that you can keep it online regardless of the weather. The sun is always shining somewhere. But of course, that’s not what we want to do. We just want to make people aware that a website uses energy, so we are fine with being offline occasionally. There are so many interesting ideas in the feedback that we also actually would like to discover these other pathways. And that’s something, for instance, we could do with the old blog, or with Low<–Tech Magazine, or the Human Power Plant. I mean I have enough blogs that can be used for experiments.