When we think about environment problems, we naturally imagine huge smokestacks turning the sky dark and coating the trees with soot. But glitzy high tech stuff like cloud computing and cryptocurrency use a lot of energy too.
Cloud computing, where we use computing resources via the internet without installing and maintaining them, is a huge energy hog we never see:
The music video for “Despacito” set an Internet record in April 2018 when it became the first video to hit five billion views on YouTube. In the process, “Despacito” reached a less celebrated milestone: it burned as much energy as 40,000 U.S. homes use in a year.Naomi Xu Elegant, “The Internet Cloud Has a Dirty Secret” at Fortune (September 18, 2019)
We tend to think of the internet as immaterial but that’s mainly because the material stuff is mostly not where we live:
If you live your life online, both in terms of browsing and storage, it’s easy to feel a kind of digital weightlessness. It’s not often that we consider how many servers are actually propping up our wireless lifestyles. The cloud is not a memory palace to retrieve your data from. The cloud is a physical storage facility that has a burden on the world.
In the US, streaming music services dump between 25,000 and 40,000 tons of CO2 into the air every year. Data centres take large amounts of energy to power and need to be on 24 hours a day to ensure that access to data never drops. So aren’t data centres the hottest places on earth? Well, not really, as they need to be cooled. That takes a lot of energy.Mark White, “Is cloud computing bad for the environment?” at TopBusinessTech (June 13, 2019)
Amazon Web Services (AWS), one of the biggest cloud providers, is trying to move toward powering its servers with 100% renewable energy. But that will involve a lot of infrastructure investment, not just pre-COVID-style group hugs.
As Mark White “puts it, “The cloud is a vague place that none of us even think about. We’re happy to dump our data there provided we remember the password.”
It’s the same with cryptocurrency. As programmer Jonathan Bartlett notes, “ the energy costs associated with having a “trustless” system such as Bitcoin is immense, with Bitcoin transactions generally costing 400,000 times as much energy as a single transaction on the Visa network. According to the BBC, the Bitcoin network – which, again, very few people are regularly transacting in – now consumes more energy than the entire country of Argentina.” (Mind Matters News, March 15, 2021) If “green” companies like Tesla are embracing Bitcoin, as he says, we need to ask them some questions. Perhaps it is relevant that “Tesla apparently profited more on the Bitcoin investment than in the entire last year of selling cars” that are supposed to be “green.”
Philosopher of technology George Gilder warns that cloud computing is reaching its limits. The “cloud” isn’t something ethereal “up there,” Gilder reminds us; it is giant factory floors of computers. He sees blockchain (currently used to produce cryptocurrencies) as replacing cloud computing, but that doesn’t solve the energy problem.
Thoughts are immaterial and the human brain, while itself material, exceeds the most powerful computers in efficiency. But once we seek to turn our thoughts into actions, energy issues arise. The energy always goes somewhere and does something. Digital lifestyles don’t change that. No one has repealed the Laws of Thermodynamics.
So maybe our first step is to recognize how much energy our digital lifestyle really uses, even though we imagine that those digital documents are somehow immaterial. They’re not. They just belong to an energy budget not directly associated with ourselves.
You may also wish to read: Could carbon computing make computers more environment friendly? As a key component of life forms, carbon is abundant and energy efficient. Carbon-based computing uses vastly less energy than silicon-based, just as a human brain, with as many connections as the internet, uses much less energy.