Web Summer Camp in Croatia finished with an interesting discussion. It was labelled a town-hall meeting, but it was more like an Oxford debating club.
Two speakers had two minutes each to speak for or against a particular statement. Their stances were assigned to them so they didn’t necessarily believe what they said.
One of the propositions was something like:
In the future, sustainable design will be as important as UX or performance.
That’s a tough one to argue against! But that’s what Sophia had to do.
She actually made a fairly compelling argument. She said that real impact isn’t going to come from individual websites changing their colour schemes. Real impact is going to come from making server farms run on renewable energy. She advocated for political action to change the system rather than having the responsibility heaped on the shoulders of the individuals making websites.
It’s a fair point. Much like the concept of a personal carbon footprint started life at BP to distract from corporate responsibility, perhaps we’re going to end up navel-gazing into our individual websites when we should be collectively lobbying for real change.
It’s akin to clicktivism—thinking you’re taking action by sharing something on social media, when real action requires hassling your political representative.
I’ve definitely seen some examples of performative sustainability on websites.
For example, at the start of this particular debate at Web Summer Camp we were shown a screenshot of a municipal website that has a toggle. The toggle supposedly enables a low-carbon mode. High resolution images are removed and for some reason the colour scheme goes grayscale. But even if those measures genuinely reduced energy consumption, it’s a bit late to enact them only after the toggle has been activated. Those hi-res images have already been downloaded by then.
Defaults matter. To be truly effective, the toggle needs to work the other way. Start in low-carbon mode, and only download the hi-res images when someone specifically requests them. (Hopefully browsers will implement
prefers-reduced-data soon so that we can have our sustainable cake and eat it.)
Likewise I’ve seen statistics bandied about around the energy-savings that could be made if we used dark colour schemes. I’m sure the statistics are correct, but I’d like to see them presented side-by-side with, say, the energy impact of Google Tag Manager or React or any other wasteful dependencies that impact performance invisibly.
And it’s not just performance. I feel like the more important the work, the more likely it is to be invisible: privacy, security, accessibility …those matter enormously but you can’t see when a website is secure, or accessible, or not tracking you.
I suspect this is why those areas are all frustratingly under-resourced. Why pour time and effort into something you can’t point at?
Now that I think about it, this could explain the rise of web accessibility overlays. If you do the real work of actually making a website accessible, your work will be invisible. But if you slap an overlay on your website, it looks like you’re making a statement about how much you care about accessibility (even though the overlay is total shit and does more harm than good).
I suspect there might be a similar mindset at work when it comes to interface toggles for low-carbon mode. It might make you feel good. It might make you look good. But it’s a poor substitute for making your website carbon-neutral by default.