“Assuming that information has indeed mass, it works out that in the not-so-distant future, half the mass of the planet will be made up of digital bits,” physicist Melvin Vopson states. “Okay? This is how scary it is.” Since 1970, humans have changed from being consumers of the Earth to being devourers of the Earth. We have entered into an era of frenetic consumption and production of everything from information to four-ton electric SUVs. We are now part of a growth death cult.
When it comes to information and data, we have been sold the lie that it’s all in the Cloud, that it’s ethereal and immaterial. Digital is physical. Storing the current amount of data we have requires about 70 million servers. Each server caused between one and two tons of CO2 to manufacture, before we even consider the massive quantities of energy to run them, and the even more massive quantities of water to cool them.
We are only at the beginning of the Big Bang of Big Data. “Today, the mass of all the information we have created in total—not in one year—in total, everything created in the past and up to this point, it’s only the mass of about one E. coli bacteria,” Melvin explains. “It’s thousands of billions smaller than a gram. It’s a bacteria, the mass of a bacteria. That is the mass of all the information on the planet today. But with the growth of information we are predicting, it will reach some incredible levels that will make up up to half the mass of the planet.”
What about the cost of managing and storing all this data? “I call this the Invisible Crisis,” Melvin states. “In terms of the moment of reckoning, I think it’s already happening. I want to tell you a story. At the University of Portsmouth, a lot of our teaching materials are kept on an online platform. I’m serving in a number of committees. One of them is the Ethics Committee. The last meeting we had there was a discussion about all the ethics forms and ethics applications, and all the reviews that we are doing and everything that is happening. They’re being stored on this online platform, and guess what, it’s run by Google. And we’ve been told that we can no longer store indefinitely this data because there are caps and limits now to the amounts of information we can store. It’s simply too much, and Google is already imposing some kind of limits. You now have to pay something extra in order to add content.”
When you tell some technologists about the data crisis, they just shrug. Moore’s Law, they say, that’ll solve it. Or we’ll invent some new technology. The history of the modern technology industry is one of ignoring, dismissing and deliberately downplaying the negative physical impacts of the devices it creates. These devices have massive impacts when it comes to the mining of the raw materials, the manufacturing of them, and their use. Recycling rates are worse than appalling. Only about 5% of the materials in a typical electronics device get reused. The other 95% are toxic waste that pollutes water, land and air.
We can’t keep pretending that the deep problems with the technology industry don’t exist. The Cloud is on the ground.
Dr. Melvin Vopson podcast: The environmental weight of data
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
Listen to episodes