Low-Tech Magazine switches to a low-tech, low carbon website

server setup
© Low Tech Magazine server setup

Blogging like it's 1999 might make sense for a lot of people.

Low-Tech Magazine is a favorite inspiration, as it "talks about the potential of past and often forgotten knowledge and technologies when it comes to designing a sustainable society." Kris De Decker and his team also "questions the blind belief in technological progress," often pointing out that new ways of doing things are not always better.

It is also practicing what it preaches, and has just turned into a low-tech, self-hosted, solar-powered version of itself. It is a model that could be very attractive for other sites that preach sustainability.

TreeHugger postWayback Machine of TreeHugger 2004/Screen capture

One of the problems we face is that the Internet keeps drawing more and more power as data traffic doubles every two years. Kris notes also that our websites have become far more resource-intensive, and the average web page has increased from half a megabyte in 2010 to 1.7 MB today. Just look at an early TreeHugger post; photos were 145 pixels wide to minimize storage and load times. Now they are ten times as big. Most websites today are also generated "on the fly" depending on device or browser setting.

Low-Tech Magazine throws all this modern stuff away, and has cut their page size by a factor of five. It's static instead of responsive: "It's always there -- not just when someone visits the page. Static websites are thus based on file storage whereas dynamic websites depend on recurrent computation. Static websites consequently require less processing power and thus less energy."

dithered photo of setup© Low Tech Magazine internet setup

They use an obsolete image compression technique called "dithering", which uses a tenth of the resources. They get rid of custom typefaces and logos. It's all basic and simple and so 1999 and it doesn't look bad at all with its own character. But it is responsive in width depending on my browser setting, and it actually looks terrific on my iPhone.

They run the whole website out of a tiny little Olimex computer that looks like a Raspberry Pi, powered by a 50 watt solar panel and an old lead-acid battery. Kris worries that it may go off-line occasionally during bad weather, but he is in sunny Barcelona.

solar panels © Low Tech magazine solar panels

The web server is now powered by a new 50 Wp solar panel and a two year old 12V 7Ah lead-acid battery. Because the solar panel is shaded during the morning, it receives direct sunlight for only 4 to 6 hours per day. Under optimal conditions, the solar panel thus generates 6 hours x 50 watt = 300 Wh of electricity. The web server uses between 1 and 2.5 watts of power (depending on the number of visitors), meaning that it requires between 24 Wh and 60 Wh of electricity per day. Under optimal conditions, we should thus have sufficient energy to keep the web server running for 24 hours per day...We expect to keep the website on-line during one or two days of bad weather, after which it will go off-line.

No Third-Party Tracking, No Advertising Services, No Cookies

Most websites make their money from Google ads, which raise data traffic and energy use. Tracking cookies takes energy too, and many people also have privacy concerns. Low-Tech Magazine has now given all that up and gone to a user-supported model. "Advertising services, which have maintained Low-tech Magazine since its start in 2007, are not compatible with our lightweight web design." And, in tune with their low-tech vibe, "We will soon offer print-on-demand copies of the blog. These publications will allow you to read Low-tech Magazine on paper, on the beach, in the sun, or whenever and where ever you want."

It is a fascinating experiment, and I have already signed up on Patreon to support it. Don't expect to see TreeHugger go this route soon; Low-Tech magazine only publishes about twelve stories a year and we do that almost every day. They also can't do comments; you have to send them an email. Right now they are running the site both in the old version (which isn't exactly state-of-the-art) and the new solar powered version until they work all the bugs out.

My last article based on Low Tech Magazine was about sufficiency -- the concept that aiming for efficiency isn't enough; instead, we have to think about what we need, and pick the technology that works best with the lowest embodied and operating energy.

Sufficiency can involve a reduction of services (less light, less travelling, less speed, lower indoor temperatures, smaller houses), or a substitution of services (a bicycle instead of a car, a clothesline instead of a tumble drier, thermal underclothing instead of central heating).

When it comes to the internet, what is enough? What is sufficient? There are millions of little websites chugging away on Wordpress or TypePad or Squarespace all burning megawatts of power that I suspect could probably get by quite comfortably with a little setup like this.

What do you think? While we still rely on cloud servers and fancy plug-ins, here's a poll, check out the original and solar site.




Low-Tech Magazine switches to a low-tech, low carbon website
Blogging like it's 1999 might make sense for a lot of people.

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