In Liz Danzico’s Thesis Presentation class, we had to present an overview of our purpose statement with (gasp!) no slides. The following is a transcript of what I presented to the class and visiting critics:
I’m investigating the environmental effects of our overfed data diets, in particular the disconnect that we as producers and consumers of digital content have with the physical infrastructure of the computing cloud. To frame my hypothesis, I asked the question. “Does demonstrating the correlation of cloud-based computing with carbon dioxide emissions lead to a decrease in digital consumption?”
What I’m talking about is the environmental impact of your data, specifically, the carbon footprint of bytes (KB, MB, GB) which requires infrastructure and energy to transmit and store. These bytes exist in large data centers, some powered in part by renewable resources with energy efficient architecture, while many others receive all their energy from non-renewable resources. Globally, data centers accounted for 1.5% of total electricity use and 2.2% of energy use in the US in 2010. These figures increased 36% (globally) and 56% (US) from 2005; research estimated in 2011 that global electricity use of data centers increased by 19%.
I’m not the first to look into the environmental effects of cloud-based computing (thankfully). The work of Mike Berners-Lee, author of the Carbon Footprint of Everything, has – without being too esoteric – actually calculated the carbon dioxide emissions (CO2e) of a text message, google search, email, and the worlds data centers, which weigh in at a staggering 130 million tons of CO2e. Google has also calculated the carbon footprint of a search request at 0.2g CO2e. The amount is seemingly small, but with an estimated 200 million to 500 million search queries per day, 1.3 million tons of CO2e are produced per year just from Google searches.
Notwithstanding my explanations of environmental consequences, many people I’ve explained my thesis to claim the issue minute – “a drop of water in a sea of larger issues”. Individually, yes. But on a collective level, we encounter a phenomenon called the rebound effect: as technology allows faster and easier access to a resource, the faster that resource is used. The consequence is a low-carbon interaction resulting in a high-carbon lifestyle simply because we do it more.
More notably is the cloud computing phenomenon. As users, we are comfortable with not knowing the systems that house our data, specifically how much data we actually have amassed, where it is actually physically located, and that the government can access our data regardless of 4th amendment protections. As we produce and consume mass amounts of digital content, it seems that the cloud has become a digital attic for our quickly forgotten information and past interactions.
As the semester progresses, I will be proposing a set of tools and design interventions for the moment of production and consumption of digital content. Goals for my thesis include: conscious production and consumption of digital content, a higher awareness of the environmental effects and societal issues around cloud-based computing, an understanding of the systems behind cloud-based computing and digital content production/creation, and initiate a dialogue around theses topics.
Berners-Lee, Mike. How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Vancouver: Greystone, 2011.
Jonathan G. Koomey, Ph.D., “Growth in Data Center Electricity Use 2005 to 2010,” Analytics Press, August 1, 2011.
Urs Hölzle, “Powering a Google Search,” Google Blog, January 11, 2009. accessed December 3, 2011. link