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Cyber-sustainability: Leaving a lasting legacy of human wellbeing



This paper presents a case for the importance of sustainability in HCI as it relates to the Web. So far, the discussion about sustainability in HCI has focused on environmental aspects. However, our belief is that cyber-sustainability is much greater than this. We argue that to address cyber-sustainability correctly, the principles of sustainability should be considered in relation to 3 concerns: 1) environmental impacts, 2) psychological impacts, and 3) the worldview that the Web tends to promote. Several broad implications for more sustainable Web development are proposed.
Cyber-Sustainability: leaving a lasting legacy
of human wellbeing
Bran Richards Stuart Walker Lynne Blair
Lancaster University Lancaster University Lancaster University
Lancaster, UK Lancaster, UK Lancaster, UK
This paper presents a case for the importance of sustainability in HCI as it relates to the Web. So
far, the discussion about sustainability in HCI has focused on environmental aspects. However,
our belief is that cyber-sustainability is much greater than this. We argue that to address cyber-
sustainability correctly, the principles of sustainability should be considered in relation to 3
concerns: 1) environmental impacts, 2) psychological impacts, and 3) the worldview that the Web
tends to promote. Several broad implications for more sustainable Web development are
Keywords: Sustainability, design, cyberspace, environment, wellbeing, worldview.
Sustainability is a familiar term in the design
community as it relates to material objects and their
consumption, yet we rarely question the
sustainability of our virtual environments. The fault
may lie in the misconception of cyberspace as
being infinite. In practice, cyberspace is
constrained by server capacity, i.e. physical
hardware, which has real life environmental
implications (such as power consumption). But an
underappreciated threat to the sustainability of our
digital worlds is the unintended negative
consequences they may be having on human
wellbeing, and whether we as a species are able to
survive its encroachment in our lives.
This paper argues that the issue of cyber-
sustainability goes beyond our virtual worlds,
because our engagement with technology shapes
our worldview by reinforcing certain values and
encouraging specific types of behaviour. The key
contribution of Design for Sustainability (Walker,
2006) research is that achieving true sustainability
requires a fundamental shift in our thinking and in
the structure of our society. This paper proposes
that part of the cyber-sustainability discussion
needs to address the question of whether our
virtual encounters are contributing to, or
obstructing, the development of a worldview that
will promote a healthier relationship to our physical
The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the
debate about the longterm viability of our current
development paradigm and what kind of legacy we
wish to leave for humankind. It is organized as
We begin by exploring the often ignored
environmental impact of our Web technologies, and
discuss the direction these trends are heading with
Web 3.0. We next discuss a small number of
unintended consequences of the Web on our
human wellbeing, which will only worsen if we do
not make attempts to deliberately steer the course
of Web design and development. Then we discuss
the secondary implications of our Web
engagements in fostering a worldview that
perpetuates the negative trends identified in earlier
sections. Finally, we propose some guidelines for
more sustainable Web development, in order to
leave a positive, lasting legacy.
In 2008, Microsoft Research identified digital
footprints as one of the issues facing HCI in the
coming future (Harper et al., 2008). We tend not to
think of the environmental cost of data storage,
particularly because these costs have not yet
translated into direct monetary terms for the
ordinary consumer. For all intents and purposes,
we see data as free, both economically and
environmentally. The consequences of this
perception are significant. Every month, 2.5 billion
photos are uploaded to Facebook (Pingdom, 2010);
every minute, 24 hours of video are uploaded to
Cyber-Sustainability: leaving a lasting legacy of human wellbeing
Richards, Walker, & Blair
YouTube (YouTube, 2011); and the blogosphere
doubles every 6 and a half months (Dube, 2006).
Of course the reason we are unconscious of the
environmental impact of the Web is because, in the
name of usability, we aim to conceal its means and
present it to the user as an unmediated experience
(Borgmann, 1984). We have created the illusion of
interaction in an immaterial space, which, if it were
true, would mean this activity could not possibly
have real world environmental costs. However,
nothing is as free as it appears in cyberspace.
When using the Web our browser’s computer
consumes electricity, estimated between 12 and
150g of greenhouse gasses (C02e) per hour
(Berners-Lee, 2010). (For comparison, boiling a
litre of water using an electric kettle consumes 70g
C02e.) In 2008, the Web itself represented 5% of
the world’s total global electricity usage and it is
continuing to rise (Kelly, 2007). We also use
servers and networks to the tune of 50g C02e per
hour as of 2010 and this is also rising. We rely on
data centres, which emit 130 million tonnes C02e
globally per year today, but are estimated to emit
250-340 million tonnes C02e per year by 2020
(Berners-Lee, 2010). Additionally, we need
technologies to enable us to access and interact
with the Web. Mobile phones, eReaders, and
computers, all consume virgin materials, emit C02e
during their production and use, and contribute to
eWaste (Grossman, 2006).
The real danger comes when these consumption
trends continue to accelerate unabated, and indeed
are glorified by the proponents of Web 3.0 who
dream that cyberspace will eventually hold
everything imaginable (Berners-Lee, 2009; Kelly,
2007). It might be argued that these visionaries’
suffer from a form of ecstatic myopia, failing to
recognize that as we become increasingly
dependent on cyberspace as storage for all we
value, we are forever consigning ourselves to
supplying energy to maintain it, unable to
disengage when the environment inevitably
compels us to do so.
Our mass migration into cyberspace has often
been compared to the Gold Rush; except many
contend that the difference is that in cyberspace,
the resources will never dry up (Bezos, 2003). Yet
even if the rate of our improvement of digital
capabilities continues to outpace our production of
data, the cost of upgrading our hardware to keep
up with our storage requirements will be
unmanageable quantities of eWaste. But perhaps
more insidiously, and as we shall see in the next
section, we are inadvertently enabling an
irresponsible production and consumption of data,
which contributes to the proliferation of an
unsustainable worldview that may have knock-on
effects in terms of our relation to our physical
There is a growing awareness of the environmental
aspects of sustainability in HCI (DiSalvo et al.,
2010; Huang et al., 2009; Nathan et al., 2008;
Blevis, 2007; Mankoff et al., 2007), but thus far the
human aspects of sustainability have largely been
ignored. In the following section, we will explore the
potentially unsustainable psychological impacts of
the Web as it exists now.
3.1. Damage to wellbeing
Mental health statistics reveal a disturbing trend:
today’s “average (i.e., normal) young person…
scores as high on anxiety scales as children who
were admitted to clinics for psychiatric disorders in
1957”, 21% of them at least minimally impaired by
a mental or addictive disorder (Schor, 2004). Schor
blames consumerism for these shocking figures, in
part because a culture of ‘getting’ contributes to
feelings of inadequacy for those who cannot have
what others have. What we see in our use of Web
2.0 is that feelings of inadequacy frequently spring
from our inability to keep up with the constant
stream of information available for consumption.
Trying to reach the end is like trying to chase down
a photon. And while we know it is impossible, we
are encouraged to follow this will-o-the-wisp by
developing tools that enhance our information-
gathering capabilities. The resulting psychological
disorder is our insatiable desire for information
what we refer to here as information pleonexia.
A new study by Retrevo Gadgetology reports that
nearly half of respondents indicated that they check
their social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
during the night or as soon as they wake up, which
is suggestive of addiction (Elsner, 2010). There can
be devastating social impacts of this addiction to
information, not just in terms of the amount of time
it takes away from our real-world relationships, but
because it can reduce our capability to be
compassionate, empathetic, and tolerant (Naish,
2009). Research indicates that we are so
overloaded with information that our mental abilities
cannot keep up, meaning that not only do we
struggle to make intellectual sense of this
information, but we cannot possibly make
emotional sense of it either.
We have seen above how unbridled consumption
can negatively impact mental health. Other
psychologists (Christopher & Schlenker, 2004;
Kasser, 2002) explain our culture’s soaring rates of
anxiety and depression as being a result of the
promotion of materialistic values, the nuance being
that materialism is extrinsically motivated.
Cyber-Sustainability: leaving a lasting legacy of human wellbeing
Richards, Walker, & Blair
Materialistic individuals seek external rewards and
are overly concerned with how people perceive
them (Christopher & Schlenker, 2004). And despite
existing in a non-material space, social media
seems to be exacerbating materialism, as
adolescents and adults alike fall into the trap of
measuring their self-worth by their Facebook traffic.
Contributing to this is the fundamental mistake that
Facebook and other social networks make, namely
that online ‘friendships’ are founded in information
sharing, and the quality of these ‘friendships’ is
measured by the rate of flow of that information.
Jaron Lanier (Lanier, 2010) suggests that this
abstraction is leading to a devaluation of the very
notion of friendship, chipping away at one of our
most important sources of meaning.
While supposedly ‘connecting’ and ‘informing’ us,
our virtual engagements seem to be promoting
addictive behaviour and eroding attention,
emotional capacity, a sense of coherence, and
substantive notions of meaning. The question we
have to ask is how much more our mental health
can withstand, and whether we will eventually
reach the point that our only resort is
disengagement from cyberspace.
3.2. Reaching a breaking point
A 2005 study (Niemz et al., 2005) revealed a
disturbing growth of Internet addiction, estimated to
be as high as 18% of British students. Support
groups abound for this new disorder. And yet
certain Web 3.0 enthusiasts embrace the
inevitability of the final “McLuhan Reversal”, where
the human becomes an extension of the machine;
in other words, a state where we are entirely
dependent on technology (Kelly, 2007). This
scenario can only exacerbate unhealthy addictions
and our anxiety at the notion of being separated
from the Web.
Meanwhile many others who may not fall under the
category of the clinically addicted are seeking to
free themselves from the grip of social media (e.g.
Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, http://suicidemachine.
org/ – a web-based service that will eradicate all
one’s social media information and which promotes
itself with the tag line, ‘Wanna meet your real
neighbours again?’). And yet our most celebrated
Web ‘visionaries’ are demanding more data
(Berners-Lee, 2009), indicating we are in a positive
feedback loop for information pleonexia both for
users and developers of the Web. Furthermore, the
call of Web 3.0 is for unfiltered data: anything and
everything is to be added to our already
disappointing “mediocre mush” (TheGuardian,
2010). At this rate, the ecosystem of cyberspace
will become inhabitable. We will not be able to see
the information we seek through the smog of data,
and we will feel increasingly choked by its toxic
For many, the Web 2.0 hype fails to deliver. We
see examples emerging like Path, the alternative to
Facebook, which aims to encourage more
meaningful and fulfilling friendship connections by
capping networks (Levy, 2010). It seems that there
are some initial indications that our enthusiasm for
Web 2.0 is beginning to wane. For example, while
Second Life can boast of continued ‘growth’ in its
user base, the number of users logged in
simultaneously is in decline (Wagner, 2010); and
73% of Twitter’s users have tweeted less than 10
times (Parr, 2010).
Perhaps the message we should be taking from
this is that the Web needs to be more ambitious in
its aims, rather than in its scope. What our
wellbeing demands is less information, but greater
meaning. While the Semantic Web is beginning to
address how we find information that is meaningful
for our search purposes, what we also must
consider is other dimensions of human meaning
that we can begin to incorporate into the very
foundation of the Web.
3.3. Creating a worldview
The Web also affects our psychology in subtler
ways, by influencing the development of our
worldview, i.e. our orientation to the world and our
understanding of our role in it. Without implying any
conscious or sinister motivations, we suggest that
the Web produces a kind of intelligibility that works
to promote a worldview that is at odds with
sustainable living. So while it would be difficult to
prove, it seems likely that participating in an
accelerated and risk-free cycle of production,
consumption and waste in cyberspace reinforces
these bad habits in the physical world; whereas a
sustainable future would require our cultivation of
responsible stewardship.
The web tends to condition us to expect immediacy
and ease. In doing so, it spoils us, making it more
difficult to recognise or respond to the fact that we
may soon have to take a very different path if we
are to survive as a species. This is not a question
of ‘greening’ our practices (e.g. Zelman, 2011). In
fact, making our irresponsible behaviour less
damaging to the environment only further
reinforces the fundamentally unsustainable notion
that we can retain our highly consumptive lifestyles
so long as we make minor adjustments. What is
clear from Design for Sustainability research is that
true sustainability will not be reached without
people accepting drastic changes to their current
way of life (Jackson, 2009; Walker, 2006; Davison,
2001; Daly, 1997).
Unfortunately, what we see is that the current
unsustainable models persist because they are
highly integrated (economically, socially, culturally,
Cyber-Sustainability: leaving a lasting legacy of human wellbeing
Richards, Walker, & Blair
and philosophically) and are thus mutually
reinforcing and self-perpetuating. In other words,
the reason we live unsustainably is because it
makes a certain sense to us, therefore what is
required most of all is a radical shift in our thinking.
But perhaps our greatest hope for a more
harmonious relationship with our environment lies
in the fact that our interactions with technology
influence our understanding of our world and our
role in it (Borgmann, 1984); as such technology is
our most powerful tool for affecting a more
sustainable worldview. If we aim to design the Web
upon a foundation informed by principles of
sustainability, our engagements in cyberspace
must begin to foster behaviour conducive to human
and planetary wellbeing.
If, as we propose, our current approach to
development in cyberspace is unsustainable from
both an environmental and psychological
perspective, it is only a matter of time before we
are forced to make changes that will likely be highly
disruptive to our way of living. Yet if we begin to
formulate a desirable alternative now, we may be
able to embrace these necessary changes as
opportunities to create something better than the
Web as we know it today.
One of the clear imperatives is to curb our
(seemingly) mindless expansion of the Web,
though we anticipate objections to any discussion
of restrictions, given the Web’s supposedly
democratic foundation. But we must recognize that
if the cost of greater and less contextualized
information (i.e. raw data) means that fewer people
find any meaningful coherence in cyberspace, we
are unintentionally producing an elite class of those
who can interpret and disseminate their knowledge
to the masses. In other words, we should shake
ourselves free of the notion that more information is
the same as greater democracy. Furthermore,
democracy is about more than freedom of action
and information. As Lanier explains, “it’s the thing
that… allows us to act better than we otherwise
would” (TheGuardian, 2010). We see glimmers of
this potential with the stirrings of a grassroots
movement working to secure social justice and
environmental harmony (Hawken, 2004), but for the
most part, the Web has failed to realize this
massive potential.
Indeed the most significant shift may be in
constructing a new purpose for cyberspace.
Although initially borne out of practical needs for
governmental and institutional information
exchange, this foundation may not be meaningful
enough now that we have appropriated the Web for
social purposes. Rather than serving to merely
augment our cognitive abilities, we ought to be
aiming to design the Web so that it supports our
holistic, human development.
It is worth reflecting on whether the current values
underpinning Web development are truly our
human aspirations. We may benefit from adopting
principles of the Slow Movement (Footprint
Choices, 2011), which encourages people to
reprioritize and make a considered effort to foster
connections to people, place, and the things we
The table below summarizes some key
considerations for the development of a more
sustainable cyberspace.
Table 1: Proposed directions for HCI for the Web
Traditional notions of the sustainability of our
material production include economic,
environmental, and social factors. This model, also
known as the triple bottom line of sustainability,
fails to account for the human on the individual
level, and only recently has the design community
begun to recognise the need for a fourth bottom
line, such as personal meaning (Walker, 2011).
Learning from this example, we suggest that cyber-
sustainability would benefit from considering the
individual human impacts of the Web up front. Even
the environmental, economic, and social impacts of
the Web – what we call its externalitiescan be
viewed from this individual human perspective, if
we consider the degree to which these impacts are
hidden from or accessible to people. So rather than
concealing these externalities, a more sustainable
alternative would be to expose them, or perhaps
reflect them in cyberspace development (e.g. in
costs). Along these same lines, we must address
the values embodied by, and subtly communicated
to us by the Web, as well as the engagements it
supports, all of which contribute to the development
Cyber-Sustainability: leaving a lasting legacy of human wellbeing
Richards, Walker, & Blair
of our worldview and our notions of appropriate
Simply put, we would do well to cultivate a greater
reverence for cyberspace, lest we waste, abuse, or
take for granted the opportunity it affords for
humanity. This does not, however, imply we ought
to idolize this technology. Rather we should seek
greater independence from it, not merely because
we may one day have to reduce our technological
consumption to live more sustainably, but also
because our human wellbeing demands we assert
our control over the technologies and work to
reduce the impact of their unintended harmful
We have proposed a threefold framework for cyber-
sustainability that considers 1) the real world
environmental impact of our Web technologies, 2)
their impact on human wellbeing, and 3) the ways
in which they shape our worldview – contributing to
our notions of meaning, encouraging certain
behaviours, and affecting our relationship to our
planet. Our proposed possibilities for new HCI for
the Web are just the starting point of what we hope
will become an ongoing discussion about the
greater potential to be found in cyberspace, that
may not only bring us closer to environmental and
human harmony, but may unlock unimagined
human greatness.
It seems sensible to ask whether or not cyber-
sustainability is even possible. We could equally
ask that of Design for Sustainability in general; but
to do so is to underestimate the value of having an
ideal to strive for. Sustainability has in many ways
become our contemporary mythology, embodying
our very real fears that we cannot go on living the
way we are now, and warning us that if we do not
make major change we will be responsible for our
own destruction (Walker, 2006). Similarly, cyber-
sustainability strives for an ideal, without illusions
that we will ever fully arrive at perfection.
Nonetheless, it inspires us to be great, and to make
the difficult design decisions that will leave a
positive and lasting legacy that we can be proud of.
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Sustainability is an increasingly prominent and critical theme in the field of HCI. More needs to be known about how to critique and assess design from the perspective of sustainability, and how to integrate sustainability into the practice of HCI. This workshop focuses on achieving this integration, identifying challenges, and defining directions for Sustainable Interaction Design (SID).
Previous research has established an inverse relationship between materialism and psychological well-being (e.g., Belk, 1984). To test the hypothesis that the link between materialism and affect is due in part to an individual's level of self-presentational concern, American college students (N = 297) completed the Richins and Dawson (1992) measure of materialism, the Brief Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale (FNE), the Social (SAI) and Personal (PAI) Identity Subscales of the Aspects of Identity Questionnaire, and the Brief Measures of Positive and Negative Affect Scales. Results indicated that the significant relationship between materialism and negative affect disappeared when FNE or SAI were statistically controlled, and that the significant relationship between materialism and positive affect disappeared when FNE was statistically controlled. Results are discussed in relation to other research that has explored reasons why material ism is related to lower level of psychological well-being.
Is more economic growth the solution? Will it deliver prosperity and well-being for a global population projected to reach nine billion? In this explosive book, Tim Jackson a top sustainability adviser to the UK government makes a compelling case against continued economic growth in developed nations. No one denies that development is essential for poorer nations. But in the advanced economies there is mounting evidence that ever-increasing consumption adds little to human happiness and may even impede it. More urgently, it is now clear that the ecosystems that sustain our economies are collapsing under the impacts of rising consumption. Unless we can radically lower the environmental impact of economic activity and there is no evidence to suggest that we can we will have to devise a path to prosperity that does not rely on continued growth. Economic heresy? Or an opportunity to improve the sources of well-being, creativity and lasting prosperity that lie outside the realm of the market? Tim Jackson provides a credible vision of how human society can flourish within the ecological limits of a finite planet. Fulfilling this vision is simply the most urgent task of our times. This book is a substantially revised and updated version of Jackson's controversial study for the Sustainable Development Commission, an advisory body to the UK Government. The study rapidly became the most downloaded report in the Commission's nine year history when it was launched earlier this year. In 2017, PWG was published in a second, substantially revised and re-written edition that updates the arguments and considerably expands upon them.
Conference Paper
With the recent growth in sustainable HCI, now is a good time to map out the approaches being taken and the intellectual commitments that underlie the area, to allow for community discussion about where the field should go. Here, we provide an empirical analysis of how sustainable HCI is defining itself as a research field. Based on a corpus of published works, we identify (1) established genres in the area, (2) key unrecognized intellectual differences, and (3) emerging issues, including urgent avenues for further exploration, opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement, and key topics for debate.