Solar Protocol network explores the potential of a solar-powered internet

Internet traffic is controlled by the “logic of the sun” in Solar Protocol, a solar-powered network whose creators argue for digital design within planetary limits.

Solar Protocol involves a series of solar-powered servers, set up in locations across the world’s time zones and serving its hosted websites from whichever spot is enjoying the most sunlight.

This subverts the typical operation of the internet, as usually when an internet user goes to access a website, their request is directed to whichever server gives them the quickest response — typically the one that is closest geographically.

The Solar Protocol website is one of three things currently hosted on the network

The website might load slower for someone using the Solar Protocol, but the process will make use of the most naturally available energy, so it is optimised in a different way.

The network’s creators — artists and New York University professors Tega Brain, Alex Nathanson and Benedetta Piantella — consider this the “logic of the sun”, a way of designing by considering earthly dynamics such as the sun’s interaction with the Earth.

They created Solar Protocol to get people thinking about the links between energy use and digital design, a topic that they say is hugely overlooked.

A solar panel sits on a rooftop, held in place by sand bags
The solar-powered servers are located all over the world, such as this one in Queens, New York

“In the field of computer science, there’s always been this idea of computing being unlimited and infinite,” Brain told Dezeen. “There’s not a culture of considering the material impacts and the fact that these systems are reliant on giant energy-sucking, water-sucking data centres that are all around the world.”

“A decision about, for example, whether you are going to run JavaScript or not, it doesn’t matter, it’s completely insignificant if it’s just one. But if you scale that on the level of Google or Facebook, and you have millions or billions of users, it’s enormously significant.

“We’re trying to develop a different approach to design and particularly to UX design, where this thinking currently doesn’t exist at all.”

“We’re really concerned about how to frame design as being within planetary limits and within the energy context,” added Nathanson.

The creators are keen to qualify that their project is a provocation about how we use the internet and not a solution to its energy issues.

They don’t advocate switching the entire internet to a solar protocol. Instead, they are using the experimental project to explore multiple intersecting ideas, including whether systems could be designed around “natural intelligence” as much as artificial intelligence, designing for intermittency, and questioning the primacy of high-resolution.

These ideas are explored on the Solar Protocol website and in a recent paper by the team on the site Computing Without Limits.

Aerial photo of a man sitting surrounded by wires and circuitry while talking to someone on an open laptop
The Solar Protocol creators worked with collaborators all over the world to set up the servers

In the paper, they take aim at some expected targets – Web3 technologies such as cryptocurrency, they

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