Dossier 11: A Lighter Internet


Even now that physical events can happen without any corona restrictions, we’ll continue to offer the possibility to attend our programs both physically and virtually. We want to keep live-streaming our events to make them more accessible. Dutch visitors don’t necessarily have to travel to a physical location, and we can welcome both international speakers and guests. At least, if they have a good internet connection.

The internet has been a solution, and a lifeline, to the many problems caused by COVID-19. Our work, education and social life was largely able to continue thanks to affordable and consistent internet connectivity. But the pandemic, and our reliance on the internet, has also made more visible the billions of people worldwide (around 45% of the population according to UNESCO) who lack internet access, and the even larger number of people who lack access to affordable and fast internet. That’s not just in the Global South, there are many states in the US where 25% of the households lack broadband internet access. During the lockdown, many schools and districts had to get creative with low-tech forms of schooling that don’t require internet access or digital devices. Some were printing lessons, others were using local television to reach the students.

As privileged heavy internet users in the Global North we Zoom through the day and Netflix and chill at night. Our phones have high resolution cameras. We’re playing games with our friends, via the internet. And we’re envisioning a parallel virtual life via VR glasses. We always want more. While a lighter internet—by that we mean less data, low resolution or low tech —not only reduces the digital divide, but is also better for the environment. According to researcher and founder of the Small File Media Festival Laura U. Marks, video streaming—from video on demand to embedded YouTube videos on social media—represents 80% of the consumer data demand. This is 1% of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, and occurs almost entirely in wealthy countries. COVID-19 made this percentage even higher. 

By popularising the term ‘Carbon Footprint’ in 2005, oil company BP encouraged people to shift their focus to their own personal contribution to the climate emergency by offering a carbon calculator. While the climate problem can only really be tackled if the government and big companies—from tech to oil—pursue climate goals more strictly, Marks argues that slowing the increase of streaming video’s carbon footprint begins with the individual: “Individual best practices include streaming less; streaming at lower resolution; watching physical media and TV instead of streaming; and keeping your phone for three years or more.”

In this dossier we’re discovering how a lighter internet can be more accessible and sustainable. Saratu Abiola researches if the blockchain can make the internet more inclusive. Guus Hoeberechts speaks with Innocent Ekejiuba and Ingrid Kopp about how to design for a lighter internet. Lilian Stolk interviews Andres Colmenares about the interconnection between the environmental emergency and social injustice. And Margarita Osipian interviewed eight contributors to the Small File Media Festival who show the beauty and potential in low resolutions and tiny media.