A Helpful “Nudge”

One of the main points of discussion in the assigned article revolved around the energy costs of computation and data centers. These energy costs could become a serious environmental problem as internet usage continues to grow, the article notes, with the main problem being the source of the electricity used to power the massive data centers that handle the public’s many technological needs. Until recently, many large tech companies used coal-based electricity to power their centers, but several have started to make the switch to renewable energy sources after facing pressure from pro-environment organizations like Greenpeace (Burrington 2015).

Moving to cleaner energy partially alleviates the problem, but it does nothing to address the fact that the general public does not pay attention to or care about how much energy their technology uses. Burrington writes, “The impact of data centers—really, of computation in general—isn’t something that really galvanizes the public, partly because that impact typically happens at a remove from everyday life”. She is correct with this assertion. When I stream a movie onto my laptop, the only energy concern on my mind is whether or not my computer battery will last through the whole movie. Not once does it occur to me that in some remote Netflix data center massive amounts of electricity are used to stream the content to my (and millions of other people’s) device.

Encouraging people to watch how much energy their device uses could work in a way similar to posting calorie counts beneath food items on a menu.

NEW YORK – JULY 18: Calories are listed next to menu items at a Chipotle Mexican Grill July 18, 2008 in New York City. New York is now the first city in the country to implement a law forcing chain restaurants to post the calorie count of each food next to the items on their menus. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Both of these strategies would rely on a psychological phenomenon called a “nudge” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book of the same name (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). In Nudge, the authors discuss how simply calling attention to the quantity of an item being consumed (calories on a menu or kilowatt hours on Netflix) can act as a catalyst to encourage people to consume less of that item. Perhaps Netflix and other streaming sites could create something similar to a calorie count. Below each movie title, Netflix could list the energy needed by the data center to stream the entire video. By doing so tech companies may be able to encourage their customers to be more aware of their energy usages, thus reducing them in the long run.



Burrington, Ingrid. “The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 16 Dec. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/12/there-are-no-clean-clouds/420744/. Accessed 19 Sept. 2017.

Thaler, Richard H, and Cass R Sunstein. Nudge : Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2008.

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