Invisible, immaterial Internet not what it seems

Some people live their ideas. Katie Singer is one of them. She writes about the energy, extractions, toxic waste and greenhouse gases involved in manufacturing computers, telecom infrastructure, electric vehicles and other electronic technologies.

“I read from Greenpeace once that the Internet is the largest thing that humanity has built,” Katie says. “And so its electricity use, and its energy use, greenhouse gases, toxins emitted, extractions required, worker hazards, all of that would be in proportion to it being the largest thing we have built.”

The Internet has a lot of impact but its impact is hidden in so many ways. The very first moment I came across the Internet and the Web back around 1994, I thought it would change the world. I also thought that its impact would be very positive. I am less optimistic today.

Digital is physical. Digital is electrical. The Internet can only be accessed through physical devices (smartphones, laptops, routers, switches, servers) and all those devices have a major impact on our planet’s climate and on humans and all forms of life. “I think what’s very gripping for me is how rarely people know that,” Katie states. “We’re not noticing how much these technologies impact us. The impacts remain invisible to most of us. And we continue to build them without awareness of their impacts. And that’s a big problem.”

“There is much harmful stuff going on, even in this very podcast,” Katie explains. “First, we start with everyone having a device, and that device has to be manufactured, and that is called embodied energy or embedded energy. And then manufacturing each part for the infrastructure that makes the machine-to-machine communication possible. Then we need access networks. Mobile access networks use about ten times more energy than wired access networks. Then we have data centers where the recording of this podcast will be stored…

“The design of a laptop is very intensive. The computers used to design these products use a lot of energy. Then there’s extraction of the raw materials, smelting of the raw materials, transporting the raw materials, usually between continents. Manufacturing the transistors – major energy intensive. 81% of the energy used by this laptop in its whole lifetime – 81% will be consumed before the end user turns it on for the first time. That’s embodied energy.”

Whenever energy issues are brought up in the tech world, the instant reply is that everything is becoming so much more energy efficient every year. Yet any historian of energy will immediately tell you that no improvement in energy efficiency has ever led to the use of less energy, but rather has resulted in even more energy being used. A doubling in energy efficiency leads to a trebling in energy use. “Energy efficiency increases use of energy and use of raw materials,” Katie states. “There’s no way around it.”

And even the energy efficiency of modern devices isn’t always greater than older devices. For example, a one-hour phone call between two people using an old-fashioned analog wired fixed-line device results in about 3.6 MB of data. The same audio call using a VOIP system like Skype would result in about 27 MB of data. So, VOIP is still about eight times less efficient at making audio calls than an analog phone.

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Reduce our Internet footprint

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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