Lowering our computing impact: the environment, sufficiency and Gemini

I first stumbled upon the Gemini Protocol when following links from the No Tech Magazine website.

No Tech Magazine

The author of that site had previously experimented with low power, 'low tech' websites, powered only by a small solar panel. It was very interesting to me as I'm rather concerned that our energy footprint is far too large (for reasons I will probably end up exploring here in the future) and there is quite a bit of talk about how much energy our information technology consumes. It was refreshing to see someone try to take a different approach and reduce requirements for running a website, both in terms of the computing power necessary on the server, and network but also on the client. All of these are important as the longer our hardware lasts the more we can save on the embodied energy (the energy used to manufacture a device) when we need to upgrade.

The website was stripped back, fast and responsive, and a joy to read. Compared to the rest of the web it seemed like a little oasis. I wished I could do something similar, but how could ideas like this possibly compete with the noise of the rest of the web? Could it ever become an idea mainstream enough that most of the web would one day subscribe to this philosophy? I feared that these ideas would not end up anywhere near the mainstream. That being the case, how could you build a network of these websites on top of the web, so that you could remain on websites as light weight as possible? Lofty ideas that maybe aren't ever going to get traction, I thought.

How to build a Low-Tech Website.

I read that article sometime in 2018, but I didn't discover Gemini until December 2020. When I did discover Gemini the idea resonated strongly with me. Here was a protocol that wouldn't require endless computer upgrades, where the markup was simple, the protocol light on resources. A system with self imposed limitation that was expressly trying to avoid the bloat and feature creep of the web. The fact that it's a different protocol avoided problems with just using a subset of web technologies. Where using a subset of web technologies would leave individual light weight websites floating adrift in a sea of bloat, Gemini provides a harbour. A place where there is a network of sites, capsules, using the same light weight technology.

More than that I found that there were thoughtful interesting people already posting to Gemini (and Gopher, a protocol I remember reading about in a children's computer encyclopedia aged about 8 and that despite 20 years of using the internet I'd never used before). I was especially interested to see people talking about things that I was considering myself. I've been interested in what you might call 'environmental' issues for a number of years now. By that don't just mean just climate change, but the whole of our impact on the natural world. I've been interested in our relationship to technology, permaculture, de-growth, peak oil and other concepts. I found others here thinking similar things. For example Solderpunks posts on sustainable computing and 'Permacomputing'.

Solderpunk: "Permacomputing"
Solderpunk: "Discussions toward radically sustainable computing"

   ☙  ❦  ❧

There is a caricature of an equation that gives some useful concepts for thinking about our impact on the environment. It has it's critics but is, I think, a useful tool for reasoning if you don't take it too seriously. The equation is this:

I = P x A x T

Where I, P, A and T represent Impact, Population, Affluence and Technology respectively. Technology here, in my mind, is a fudge factor that accounts for the fact that for constant 'affluence' and 'population' our 'impact' can go down as technology gets better. Think LED light-bulbs, I can still switch on the lights at night and get the same brightness, but compared with when I was a kid LED lights are much less energy guzzling than they were.

There is another interesting concept, Jevons paradox:

In economics, the Jevons paradox (/ˈdʒɛvənz/; sometimes Jevons' effect) occurs when technological progress or government policy increases the efficiency with which a resource is used (reducing the amount necessary for any one use), but the rate of consumption of that resource rises due to increasing demand.

Jevons Paradox

So typically even as we get more efficient at a thing we tend to consume more of it perhaps until we reach a /sufficiency/ of that thing. So despite technology improving we tend to have a /greater impact/ due to using more.

Perhaps computing and the web is an example of this in the extreme. Computers have been getting exponentially faster over the decades but we end up using more and more compute power. Worse, sometimes (but not always) the extra computation power is spent on bloat rather than increased function. The web has been getting more and more bloated for years, and I don't think it serves me any better. In-fact, there is a large part of me that thinks it's /worse/ than it was 10 years ago, say.

Perhaps that's what I like about Gemini. It's saying "this is /sufficient/, work within these limits" and maybe as the technology improves we can stick those limits and reduce the impact of computing.

Well, it's a nice thought anyway.