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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Is the Internet killing the planet?

Over at BLDGBLOG earlier this week there was an interesting article on the environmental impact of servers. It's something most folks don't think about (and neither do IT people, apparently, since a huge majority of them expressed stunning ignorance of their industry's contribution to climate collapse).


The writer at BLDGBLOG cites a recent piece from the New Scientist that revealed, among other interesting facts, these tidbits:
"Computers are seen as quite benign things sitting on your desk," says Trewin Restorick, director of the group. "But, for instance, in our charity we have one server. That server has same carbon footprint as your average SUV doing 15 miles to the gallon. Yet, whereas the SUV is seen as a villain from the environmental perspective, the server is not."

The report, An Inefficient Truth states that with more than 1 billion computers on the planet, the global IT sector is responsible for about 2% of human carbon dioxide emissions each year – a similar figure to the global airline industry.

The energy consumption is driven largely by vast amounts of customer and user data that are stored on the computer servers in most businesses. The rate at which data storage is growing surpasses the growth in the airline industry: in 2006, 48% more data storage capacity was sold in the UK than in 2005, while the number of plane passengers grew by 3%.
This massive increase in storage capacity, demanded as it is by capitalism, the state -- and the technology itself -- is having disastrous effects on the planet, as we found out today (again!) with the release of yet more dismayingly catastrophic news about the environment. While we certainly can't lay the all the blame for the rapidly increasing onset of global warming at the feet of the tech industry, I still find it curious that we have had exponential growth in computer power (and the resulting computerization of everyday life) at the same time we have seen a major escalation in the pace of ecological collapse.

Ironically, thanks to technology we are able to record the facts of our own planetary demise with unprecedented accuracy at the very same time that the technological system is driving us off a cliff. As one NASA climate scientist, Jay Zwally, said, "The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming. Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines." Zwally worked in coal mines as a kid, so maybe he's someone we should listen to. "The Arctic is screaming," said another scientist.

And the pace of neither seems about to slow any time soon. Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for job growth in the computer industry certainly foretell a continuation of this trend with job growth in the industry centering in data handling specialties:
The report, released Dec. 4, said network systems and data communications professionals will make up the single fastest-growing occupation between 2006 and 2016. That category will grow by an estimated 53.4 percent, followed closely by computer software applications engineers, whose ranks are expected to rise 44.6 percent in that time span.

Strong growth also is projected in computer systems analysis, 29 percent; computer software engineering, 28 percent; database administration, 27 percent; and network and computer systems administrators, 27 percent.

The news is not as good for computer programmers and computer operators, who were among the occupations with the largest projected declines - 4.1 percent and 24.7 percent, respectively.
Environmental scientists increasingly point out that we are in a ecological feedback loop.
Melting of sea ice and Greenland's ice sheets also alarms scientists because they become part of a troubling spiral.

White sea ice reflects about 80 percent of the sun's heat off Earth, NASA's Zwally said. When there is no sea ice, about 90 percent of the heat goes into the ocean which then warms everything else up. Warmer oceans then lead to more melting.
Likewise, we are in a feedback loop with regard to information technology. As storage capacity increases, it creates more demand for data, which in turn requires more storage. Indeed, where would such ambitious projects like IBM's S3 surveillance system, soon to be deployed in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics (and in Manhattan), be without the massive storage permitted by modern computer systems and servers.
The S3 system, developed by IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center, combines existing network and video surveillance infrastructure with state-of-the-art Information Technology, according to IDG News Service.

"Physical security and IT security are stating to come together," said Julie Donahue, vice president of security and privacy services with IBM. "A lot of the guys I'm meeting on the IT side are just starting to get involved on the physical side."

When the S3 system is deployed in the Beijing Olympic Games, it will scan video images of city streets looking for everything from troublemakers to terrorists. The S3 uses analytic tools to index digital video recordings and then issue real-time alerts when certain patterns are detected.

It can be used to warn security guards when someone has entered a restricted area.
Perhaps now we can see a big reason why the US is projected to require a dozen new power plants just to keep up with the growth of the server industry into 2011. The exponential growth in data handling and storage is also an exponential growth in the power of the elite class. No longer content with police records and prisons to track its mortal enemy the poor, excluded and working classes, the elite have embarked on a massive expansion of their power under the guise of supposedly neutral technology. Lacking an analysis of the class power of technology and blinded by elite arguments about "connectivity" and "family and friends" calling plans, nearly everyone has missed this massive accumulation of power in the hands of a very small elite. And all made possible by computer technology.

But it's not just security applications, of course, that are sucking up energy and pumping CO2 into the air. Indeed, we have the capitalists who perhaps are most enthusiastic about the coming Age of Omniscient Capitalism. The tech vanguard of Google and Facebook have both made headlines recently for their perhaps overzealous (for now) attempts to accumulate and harness the vast amounts of data that circulate on the internet about each of us. Not aberrations, as some liberals and libertarians might claim, these stockpiles of information are the direct result of the technology itself.

Indeed, one shocking innovation the personal computer has brought to us all is a massive increase in our ability to suck up not just data but actual resources. The globalization and consumerism we all now take for granted (whether we like it or not) is a direct result of computerization. Likewise, the growth of the Internet has opened opportunities for virtual accumulation that has increased the cost to the real world, not least in terms of ecological destruction.

Over at Rough Type there was an interesting analysis of the energy consumption of avatars in popular social networking world of Second Life. Crunching some numbers reveals that an avatar -- a virtual, often quite wishful thinking version of a real participant -- consumes more energy as an actual person in most Third World countries. In fact, one avatar uses as much power as a real Brazilian.

The vast amount of data and the demands to transmit that data (and the energy necessary to do it) that are required as part and parcel of the Internet and operations like Second Life seem to offer proof that we can take the effects of the technology on our environment as a direct result of the technology itself, not an exception to the rule. In that case, isn't it fair to ask the question: is the Internet killing the planet?

According to BLDGBLOG, the answer would seem to be maybe, but it doesn't have to be that way. S/he situates the locus of the archival instinct in ourselves, not in the technology, although s/he questions its utility in the long run. Thus, s/he thinks we could perhaps just record less data and thus avoid our dismal fate. However, in the process, s/he asks some great questions.
However, couldn't we also just store less information, save two or three – or four – hundred fewer emails, stop being mouse potatoes and go outside for a walk, leaving our servers turned off in the darkness?

Sure – or we could build our server farms in Iceland, where geothermal and hydroelectric power is easy enough to find.

In any case, I can't help but wonder if the ecological effects of this archival instinct to preserve the past at any cost – whether we store something inside air conditioned warehouses full of books that no one wants, or in the well-lit galleries of potentially unnecessary new museums, or even out on server farms somewhere in the rainy hills of Oregon – are really worth it.

And I can't help but suggest that they're not – even if that means I'll no longer have a place to save BLDGBLOG.

But we are making the earth unearthly, through the knock-on effects of global climate change, in order that we might hold onto the human past for another generation – reading old books, preserving films, saving emails.

So is the anthropological project of preserving ourselves really worth its environmental effects?

Are we saying that the planet may soon become unrecognizable, even uninhabitable, because of runaway climate change, and yet at least it'll have lots of really great archives...?

Is this the long-term historical irony of humanism – with its museums and libraries, its institutionalized nostalgia – that all these air conditioned warehouses and rural server farms don't represent the indefinite continuation of the humanist project but, rather, that project's future ecological demise?
Interesting, but there is a cost inherent in the technological mode of data storage that is not similarly built into other methods, not least of which, from the perspective of the elite class, is the ability to access it on a whim -- to cross reference it and to track and modify it according to new information. Similarly, whatever the cost to the environment of making the books and warehouse in the first place, a warehouse full of books does not need to be replaced every few years to keep up with the pace of data storage and transmission.

As we continue to speed towards the Age of Omniscient Capitalism, propelled as it is by two main forces, the elite's desire for control and the technology's capacity for storage and transmission, we will increasingly find ourselves facing the answer to this question. Can we divorce our increasingly critical ecological situation, not to mention the ever more tenuous state of what the liberals and libertarians wistfully lament as our "lost civil liberties," from the technology that delivered it to us?


***UPDATE***

Speaking of massive stockpiles of data, consider this Wired article on DARPA's plan to record, store and analyze everything we do, from emails to what you read to where you go to grab breakfast.
"The Pentagon is about to embark on a stunningly ambitious research project designed to gather every conceivable bit of information about a person's life, index all the information and make it searchable."
Of course, while they'll certainly assure us that it's for our own good, you have to wonder: could that amount of data be used for anything OTHER than nefarious ends?


Read it:
A Spy Machine of DARPA's Dreams

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

who wrote this?? there are references to other articles but no author name. this is good analysis.

Fri Feb 01, 08:05:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

All articles on this site, excepting cited references and quotations, are by me.

Sat Feb 02, 01:25:00 PM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I haven't read your weblog in a while. This is important news!

Sun Jun 08, 03:02:00 PM 2008  

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