The Footprint Of Our Data-Driven Lives

New-Dark-Age-1050-5927870a2b206657f6b87133d3f776c4.jpgThanks to John Harris, writing in the Guardian, for “Our phones and gadgets are now endangering the planet,” an opinion essay that doubles as a review of the book to the right:

It was just another moment in this long, increasingly strange summer. I was on a train home from Paddington station, and the carriage’s air-conditioning was just about fighting off the heat outside. Most people seemed to be staring at their phones – in many cases, they were trying to stream a World Cup match, as the 4G signal came and went, and Great Western Railway’s onboard wifi proved to be maddeningly erratic. The trebly chatter of headphone leakage was constant. And thousands of miles and a few time zones away in Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the world’s largest concentrations of computing power was playing its part in keeping everything I saw ticking over, as data from around the world passed back and forth from its vast buildings.

Most of us communicate with this small and wealthy corner of the US every day. Thanks to a combination of factors – its proximity to Washington DC, competitive electricity prices, and its low susceptibility to natural disasters – the county is the home of data centres used by about 3,000 tech companies: huge agglomerations of circuitry, cables and cooling systems that sit in corners of the world most of us rarely see, but that are now at the core of how we live. About 70% of the world’s online traffic is reckoned to pass through Loudoun County.

But there is a big problem, centred on a power company called Dominion, which supplies the vast majority of Loudoun County’s electricity. According to a 2017 Greenpeace report, only 1% of Dominion’s total electricity comes from credibly renewable sources: 2% originates in hydroelectric plants, and the rest is split evenly between coal, gas and nuclear power. Dominion is also in the middle of a huge regional controversy about a proposed pipeline that will carry fracked gas to its power plants, which it says is partly driven by data centres’ insatiable appetite for electricity. Clearly, then, the video streams, digital photographs and messaging that pour out of all those servers come with a price.

I was reminded of all this by the recently published book New Dark Age, by the British writer James Bridle. He cites a study in Japan that suggests that by 2030, the power requirements of digital services will outstrip the nation’s entire current generation capacity. He quotes an American report from 2013 – ironically enough, commissioned by coal industry lobbyists – that pointed out that using either a tablet or smartphone to wirelessly watch an hour of video a week used roughly the same amount of electricity (largely consumed at the data-centre end of the process) as two new domestic fridges.

If you worry about climate change and a cause celebre such as the expansion of Heathrow airport, it is worth considering that data centres are set to soon have a bigger carbon footprint than the entire aviation industry. Yet as Bridle points out, even that statistic doesn’t quite do justice to some huge potential problems. He mentions the vast amounts of electricity consumed by the operations of the online currency Bitcoin – which, at the height of the speculative frenzies earlier this year, was set to produce an annual amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to 1m transatlantic flights. And he’s anxious about what will happen next: “In response to vast increases in data storage and computational capacity in the last decade, the amount of energy used by data centres has doubled every four years, and is expected to triple in the next 10 years.”…

Read the whole op-ed here.

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