Streaming media is calculated to contribute a surprising 1% of global greenhouse gases, because most regions of the world obtain electricity from fossil fuels to power their data centers, networks, and devices. Streaming large files in large quantities, then, ethically implicates spectators in the warming of the planet. Bad news — but we have some solutions!
Our research addresses the high and rising electricity consumption of information and communication technologies (ICT), which consume as much as 7% of global electricity (Andrae 2020). Given that globally about 79% of electricity comes from fossil fuels, this means that ICT is responsible for 3.3% to 3.8% of global greenhouse gases (Belkhir and Elmeligi 2018, Cisco 2020b, Bordage 2019).
Streaming media – video on demand (e.g. Netflix, Crave), porn, YouTube, games, video conferencing, etc. – contributes more than any other sector to this increase (Cisco 2020). People are streaming video at higher volumes and higher definition, and media and telecom corporations cheerfully encourage us to do so. The Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating this crisis, as people are stuck at home and seeking entertainment and relief. Meanwhile, what we might call “streaming impact denial” plays into the notion that online media are “virtual” and do not impact the environment.
Unchecked, the carbon emissions resulting from ICT could exceed 14% of the 2016-level worldwide GHGE by 2040 (Belkhir & Elmeligi 2018, The Shift Project 2019). It is urgent to immediately reduce that figure, and the rising share of streaming media, through education and policy changes.
Our research project, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Knowledge Synthesis grant program, “Living within the Earth’s Carrying Capacity," is complete. Please read the evidence brief and download the full report. It's a gripping mystery story set in the labyrinthine world of ICT engineering! Includes recommendations for consumers, telecoms, governments, and more.
Laura U. Marks, SFU School for the Contemporary Arts
Radek Przedpełski, postdoctoral fellow, SFU School for the Contemporary Arts
Alejandro Rodriguez-Silva, PhD student, SFU School of Engineering Science
- Critically assess engineering research on the environmental impact of ICT and streaming media, identify the most reliable results, and develop streaming media energy usage and carbon footprint calculator
- Measure the electricity consumption involved in streaming media through case studies in British Columbia, and produce tools to accurately calculate its carbon footprint
- Inform policymakers of the most promising policies and practices at governmental, institutional, and individual levels
- Adhere to an open, reproducible science philosophy
- Advocate alternatives to HD streaming, on fronts including carbon taxes for streaming services; simple alternatives like watching television and borrowing DVDs; and low-bandwidth streaming media
- Teach media makers how to make small-file videos, with technical and aesthetic tips
- Share the beauties of appropriate technology through the Small File Media Festival
The First Annual Small File Media Festival, featuring movies under 5 megabytes each, showed that great cinema doesn’t have to mean great big files! We received over 100 submissions from around the world, with ingenious creative solutions including animation, GIFs, low frame rates, datamoshing, executable files, “obsolete” technologies, and creative compression. More info at smallfile.ca.
The Small File Media Festival team is:
- Laura U. Marks, founder
- Sophia Biedka, festival organizer, independent filmmaker
- Joey Malbon, festival organizer, media activist
- Radek Przedpełski, postdoctoral fellow, School for the Contemporary Arts
- Faune Ybarra, visual artist
- Sanjana Karthik, activist and high-school student
Small File Media Festival 2022
Think Thrice! P-U-N-K
Hello artists! The Small File Media Festival is back with our third iteration! This year we want to blow your mind with new categories. But above all, we want you to be PUNK + CHIC — forceful and elegant, streamlined and stealthy, uncompromising in vision, edgy in message.
We have been low-key, we have been playing it nice. The world is broken. This time we are demanding—stop fossil fuels dependence bringing war and destruction worldwide! We are demanding—unleash creative r/evolution! We are demanding—destroy the large-file clichés of thinking that prevent us from imaging a world otherwise! 
When submitting you artworks, pick a theme + a file category.
One would think NFTs are the last word in media art but Think Thrice! — we have a new solution up our sleeve: Not So F*cking Tiny art. Here come the NSFTs. Send us your files and we will sell them for you at a festive live auction and create a REAL certificate! No need for blockchain: your tiny certificate will get a real rubber stamp of authenticity. Go ahead and make fun of NFT aesthetics, or do whatever you want.
One would think the earth is a landscape for viewing and a site for extraction but Think Thrice! — with our PORTALS theme. We are on the lookout for submissions exploring small-file media as portals to the unseen layers of the universe. We are interested in tiny artworks that act as points around which communities can converge, as crystals grow around a grain. Where new rituals and coalitions arise. Where strange new flowers emerge from ancestral seeds.
Singing, song-writing, and performance meet hugely tiny files. Think Thrice! – here comes Small-file song contest! Animal calls summon the world-yet-unknown. Small-file crooners and magicians woo the pixel moon. Plants and minerals thunder with secret sound. These are the sirens that assemble communities-to-come around their rallying call. We are looking for works that re-inventing song-writing and performance through the small-file medium.
Step up to the opposable-thumbed population's social media obsession! Yes, TikToks are small media, but they still glut the networks. We challenge you to make your TikToks SmallToks! Show us your craziest dances, funniest pranks, and adorable pets as Lil’Toks in our new category. Don’t forget to compress them!
Don’t see your category above? Fearlessly enter The OTHER Category! As always, we’ll make up award categories for the most mind-blowing smallfile works, from Best Cat Video to Lowest Bitrate to Best Haptic Renunciation!
One would think media art needs to an energy-hungry high-resolution urban projection Behemoth parsing millions of data but Think Thrice!—we have three weird submission file categories.
MOLECULES — for infra-small, ultra-small, Demoscene and looped media (GIF, etc.) works under 1 MB.
RIPPLES — for works up to 5 MB
TROUBLE — for multiple-episode bingeworthy series up to 22 MB in total
These files NEED to be small to be accepted into the 2022 Small File Media Festival so make sure you squish them down to size – 1MB a minute max!
 Information and communications technologies are now estimated to generate about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. About a third of that, or 1%, is the infrastructural share of data centers, networks, and devices that support streaming media. The whole category is busting out of control with the normalization of 4K and 8K video and the expansion of streaming platforms, alongside the scary growth of cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things.
Submit to the SFMF
Got it? Ok, great! Now use our online form to submit to the 2022 Small File Media Festival.
We've prepared a collection of downloadable Best Practices PDFs for helping to manage your online carbon footprint.
This year, PhD student Yani Kong, with Marks, is working with SFU's IT department to analyze the carbon footprint of online teaching. Check back here for updates about this project!
Laura U. Marks and Radek Przedpełski, “Bandwidth Imperialism and Small-File Media,” in Post-45, special issue on “New Filmic Geographies” ed. Suzanne Enzerink (2020)
Laura U. Marks, Joseph Clark, Jason Livingston, Denise Oleksijczuk, and Lucas Hilderbrand, “Streaming Media’s Environmental Impact,” Media + Environment.
Laura U. Marks, “Small-File Movies: Saving the planet, one pixel at a time.” Millennium Film Journal 71/72 (December 2020).
Laura U. Marks and Stephen Makonin, “Streaming video is overheating the planet.” Op-ed, The Vancouver Sun. August 15, 2020.
Yani Kong, “Tiny movies at the end of the world,” SFU School for the Contemporary Arts.
Radek Przedpełski, “The environmental cost of binge-watching,” Science Gallery, Dublin.
Laura U. Marks, “Let’s Deal with the Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media,” Afterimage 47:2 (2020): 46-52.
Laura U. Marks, “Streaming video, a surprising link between pandemic and climate crisis,” Journal of Visual Culture and Harun Farocki Institut special issue on Covid-19 (April 2020)
Our research is partially funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s program Living within the Earth's Carrying Capacity
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