Digital Editions and Greedy Networks

Digital editions avoid most of the wasteful practices which bedivil the print magazine industry (paper not needed at all, physical distribution costs gone, wrappers and collateral offers virtual or abolished, landfill for used magazines spared, no returns from sale-or-return etc.). But there is a worry that the environmental savings will be wiped out by the unsustainable and resource-greedy growth of the internet. Steve commented on this yesterday and he cited a fascinating discussion of the issues — concentrating on Second Life.

Larry and Sergey, the idealistic Google founders, are anxious about the growth in power consumption for their data centres and users’ network devices. When one starts to worry about the ecological impact of digital publishing, power ends up being the only real concern. On all other concerns the business is much, much cleaner than print publishing. If Larry and Sergey think that there is a problem with excessive power consumption, I am not going to contradict them, but it is notable that the profile of the problem has changed. What matters now is not, how much power and paper publishers use and waste. The key question now is what resources will users expend and will their pattern of digital consumption be very greedy? With traditional print publishing the resource use and the ecological impact stems from the printing process. There is a shadow, a trail, of ecological impact from the printing plant outwards. The only way users add to this ecological impact is by switching on the lights so that they can read the magazine that has been so laboriously shipped to them. But with a digital information system, the ecological impact and the power consumption is much more a matter of how and how much the system is used and what devices are operating at the periphery. The publishing function uses relatively trivial power and cash resources. In the next generation, the consumers, and their network devices, not the printing plants and paper factories are where the ecological impact is to be located. Brewster Kahle gave a fascinating lecture at Rice University two weeks ago, in which he pointed out that the Library of Congress, all 20 million volumes of it, could be stored in a tower memory box no larger than the podium from which he spoke. A large memory disk system of that capacity can be had for $60,000 (as he noted that is the cost of a garage or a good party in Silicon Valley) and the power used in running that box for a year is comparable to the central heating costs of a large house. Having and powering a very large digital library is cheap and getting cheaper. All the magazines and newspapers ever published could easily be accommodated in such a box. But it is the way consumers use digital resources that will have the environmental impact. If consumers care about ecological impacts then ecologically efficient systems will be built and used.

I find this an oddly hopeful thought: however the ecological challenge of global warming is to be met, it is only by a broad shift in consumer behaviour and expectations that we will see any effective action. Governments and business groups are getting concerned about climate change and ecological issues; but we can be sceptical of all treaties, targets and policies unless and until they have widespread popular support. Consumer behaviour is the key. Which will be my contribution to today’s conference Green and Lean: how will publishing survive?.