You gave a talk at SXSW called “The Paradox of the Cloud.” Can you sum up the paradox for us?
We are exponentially growing our computing power and we’re filling it up with our videos, texts and tweets. All of our digital lifestyles have a physical presence out there and that physical presence has to be powered by non-renewable energy resources.
The paradox is that the more efficient you make it to communicate with people and to send things, the more you’re going to do it. So instead of consuming less you actually consume more.
A key part of this is something called “the rebound effect,” whereby you have a lower carbon technology but you actually have a higher C02 output, simply because you’re using it more.
An email is 1/60th the carbon footprint of a letter, but when was the last time you sent a letter?
The prevailing wisdom is that because digital doesn’t kill trees and because content is stored in the intangible “cloud,” our environmental footprint is lighter than it was in the print age. Are you saying that because we’re actually producing and consuming more, it ultimately evens out?
I think the cloud actually is a more “environmentally friendly” way of communicating, we’re just doing it on a massive scale. One of the big questions is, after five, ten or 30 years, what do you do with all this data? Do you let it gracefully decompose over time? That’s why things like snapchat are pretty interesting.
Facebook has built five data centres in the last two and a half years and people are sharing 300 million photos a day on Facebook. A year ago, it was 200 million. This boggles the mind. And that’s just Facebook.
You’ve called data centres the “factories of the information age.” Can you describe them?
Think of a massive warehouse. That’s basically what they are. They’re just a giant room with columns and columns of servers. The other half of them are made up of cooling towers and cooling pipes in order to draw away all the heat from those servers.
They are basically the size of three Walmarts and they can have a draw power of anywhere upwards of 40 to 50 megawatts, which is basically the amount of power needed to run a small town.
They are sited at places where land is cheap and energy is cheap. They tend to be former industrial areas, or economically depressed areas, or farmland out in Western North Carolina, Oregon, Iowa and Oklahoma.
Dublin has become a giant European hub, and it’s because they have cheap energy – 84 percent of their electrical grid is from fossil fuels. Microsoft has got centres over there, HP, Dell, and a few other cloud servers are over there too. Amazon’s got a data centre in Dublin as well.
Globally, it’s been estimated that there are 500,000 data centres and obviously they’re not all these warehouse-sized ones. It’s mixed, Google has been estimated to have about 36.
Why the lack of information and transparency about how many data centres are out there?
The basic lack of transparency is from the competitive-edge standpoint.
If you were to divulge your amount of C02 and I know where you get your power from, then I know how much power you’re drawing in, and from that I can estimate how many servers you’re running, and how big your business is.
Some technology companies are making an effort to harness renewable energy sources like solar to power their data centres. Which companies are at the forefront of that?
Google is on the forefront as far as sourcing and renewable energy for data centres goes. They’ve been a huge investor in sustainable energy projects. They say they’ve invested over a billion dollars into it.
What they’ve done is purchased two 20-year power purchase agreements from two Iowa wind farms. It’s good for the wind farms because they’ve got that baseline purchase agreement for the next 20 years, which stabilizes the price.
There was a lot of backlash against Apple in mid-2012 from Greenpeace over a giant billion-dollar data centre in North Carolina. Since then, they’ve built two 20-megawatt solar panel farms, each the size of 76 football fields, or 100 acres.
HP is doing it as well. GreenQloud is in Iceland and Iceland’s electricity grid is powered 100 percent by green energy.
I think there’s a certain advantage in purchasing renewable energy as opposed to non-renewable energy. The amount of data out there is growing so fast that they have to build these huge facilities and green energy is a stable energy source.
With natural gas and coal you’re going to get more fluctuation in the price over time. You’re going to have a land grab, basically, for this power, so it’s more of a stable energy source for the very long term.
Do you think there’s just too much content, too much data, being generated? Is the problem one of production or consumption?
I think what’s really curious is that we used to express ourselves through consumption, in the clothes we wear and the things we buy.
Now I think we’re in an age where we self-actualize through the likes and through producing content. I put something out there and then in order for me to get affirmation from it, people also have to produce a like.
So basically that content now is literally the history of people’s communication. It’s the cataloguing of that. And it just grows and grows and grows.
We’re so used to hearing all this “engagement” and “interaction” by what Jay Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience” framed as a positive thing. But it’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it?
It’s a paradox on many levels. The Information Diet by Clay Johnson came out last year and he writes about how the information you get from sources like OK! Magazine or content farms is fast-food garbage, as opposed to carefully curated, edited content.
We’re becoming content fiends. But what point do you stop? You snack here, you snack there, and before you know it, an hour is left. What are you getting out of it?
You’ve created a site called Tweet Farts, which tracks the carbon footprint of hashtags, and you’ve also created the concept app, Canary, that lets people monitor and compare their digital carbon footprints. How can design help us move forward?
There a lot of behavioural concepts we use, and a lot of it has to do with psychology tricks, things like defaults. As a designer you can take some of these “tricks” and you can bake that into a design or a user experience to nudge a user in a certain direction.
With Canary, the idea is to raise awareness of the problem and then give people a tool that enables them to either increase or decrease their online interactions and set benchmarks.
So users can personally offset their carbon footprint by supporting renewable energy projects or limit their interactions with cloud-based services that are sourcing their energy from non-renewable resources.
In the physical world, whether we choose to recycle something or throw it away, we’re typically so far removed from the process that we don’t see the consequences of our actions.
There’s something very unique about being able to see the immediate consequence of a digital interaction, no matter how small.
Title image adapted from bigstockphoto.com
In his own words
David Bellona on the mysterious global fleet of data centers: