Calling it the “cloud” invokes a light, airy space where nothing really exists except as water vapor. In fact, the industrial and electronic infrastructure that houses the cloud, where individual Internet users as well as public and private institutions increasingly store their files, including photos, video, music, documents, and metadata, is a physical infrastructure of enormous servers and physical cable network that consumes vast quantities of mined precious hard metals, consumes and pollutes water, and runs on on- and off-grid electricity produced by coal, natural gas, and green methods like solar and wind. Beyond the private servers that private and public institutions use to store their files, the proliferation of data is driving companies to invest in bigger, faster, and more environmentally damaging server farms. And although these environmental costs have been covered in The New York Times and The Atlantic, most Internet users are blissfully unaware of the actual workings behind our daily Internet habits. I doubt these practices will change until users know enough about them to demand sustainable power for our favorite apps.
For example, Facebook now runs 30,000 servers — 20,000 of them purchased or built since 2008. As computing power improves, more companies enter the market with business models that can basically be described as “More people, use more data!” Snapchat recently hit 6 billion daily video views on its platform, rivalling Facebook, an achievement powered by Google’s corporate cloud servers. Google and Amazon both offer increasingly inexpensive corporate cloud access that is expanding into hosting data for medical and genomics research. The era of social media and big data is only increasing our society’s demands for servers . Meanwhile, data collection by government agencies by the NSA expands the carbon footprint of personal data by replicating and storing it. A new NSA server farm in Utah uses as much power as nearby Salt Lake City. While many companies are pushing towards greener servers, the scale of our data use, and our power needs, continues to expand.
Besides using electricity, which is still largely powered by coal, servers also draw on fresh water supplies, pollute air and water, and depend on mining hard minerals.
(I figured out how generators work while researching this post. Basically something has to make a copper coil spin really fast through a magnetized space, which generates electricity. The spinning can come from water or wind turning physical blades, or from an engine combusting coal or natural gas to boil water into steam which then turns a turbine which spins the coil.)
Sometimes I think of this environmental toll when I scroll through my tumblr feed, which looks like this
and sometimes like this
all while the TV show I am streaming on my laptop plays commercials. When I’m done scrolling and watching, I go plug my laptop and my phone into their chargers, where they draw more electricity from the grid which, where I live, PG&E claims draws half of its power from green sources.
But beyond the environmental impacts of using electricity, I think what is most obscured to us as Western technology users is the reality that every piece of electronics we use is made out of rare earth minerals that are largely hacked out of the earth by hand. That these incredible technological products keep getting better and faster (thus enabling them to draw more electricity and receive data from more servers) even as they remain affordable to us global consumers is a result of exploitation at every level of the chain of production. For me to be able to afford a new tablet and for that tablet’s manufacturer’s stock to also rise by collecting profit on the sale, the miners need to not be paid enough; the factory workers need to not be paid enough; the transport workers who ship the pieces around need to not be paid enough; and the parts themselves need to not be priced highly enough. High enough for what? For all parties involved in producing the tablet to retain enough of its value to afford the damn thing, just like I can.
Incredible amounts of rare earth minerals are pulled from the earth in infinitesimal quantities on an unfathomable human scale every day. Tin is mined out of mudpits in Indonesia. Coltan, which is used in almost all smartphones, cell phones, and laptops for its unique ability to hold an electric charge, is mined by hand in the Congo and increasingly mined in Columbia and Venezuela; it is described as a “conflict mineral” and a “strategic mineral,” which means–it causes war? It is worth war? People not in the Congo and Columbia are so obsessed with it that they will accept eternal war as a condition of receiving their coltan?
Did you guys read this New Yorker piece about how Peruvian miners chip gold by the flake out of the Andes in Peru? (It was really good.) Appreciating the preciousness of precious metals really underscores the grossness of Frank Gehry’s ugly aluminum buildings.
And then, on top of everything else, when our insatiable desire for new things and investors’ insatiable desire for stock prices to go up demands that hardware manufacturers push out new products that replace the old ones, we throw them away, and create e-waste that fills landfills or, when incinerated, dirties our air.
Sometimes when I spend too long scrolling through Facebook or Tumblr I feel gross because I know I don’t need to know more about what outfit Rihanna wore when she left her New York apartment yesterday. But in fact, there is a deeper ethical reality behind the metallic taste in my mouth: these new media habits of ours, which have supplanted the more sustainable habit of picking up a dictionary with the electronic choice of asking MerriamWebster.com, actually waste electricity, waste water, waste air, and waste people’s lives. There is actual environmental value in playing the guitar, reading a book, going for a walk, or continuing to argue about something instead of Googling it. Because, to put it concisely, your Tumblr feed burns coal, and the teens who mined the minerals in your smartphone were paid even less than the twentysomethings who assembled it.