Internet Waste: The Material Side of Digital

Rows of Computers[tweetmeme source=”intercongreen”]Ten years into the new millennium the internet has become an extension of our consciousness, another bodily system we tap into through screens and keyboards that provides a level of connectivity as an ever expanding silo of information. Our proficiency with putting more content online can create the impression that the internet is infinite—a boundless expanse of ether that exists in the non-material plane holding a limitless volume of information in zero space. A black hole. But the truth is that our somewhat careless path of constant expansion online has physical repercussions that require large amounts of energy and take up space that is very real.

My friend and fellow architect Brandon Specketer recently raised an interesting point when it comes to how we use the internet. “I look at am image like the one posted in New York Times Magazine and I wonder about our current rate of consumption regarding technology. What are the real environmental impacts of our online collections, images forgotten, and the virtual waste?” Speck has a point.

For most common consumers, digital space has become a bountiful, low cost commodity. Given that most of us have much more than we need, the storage space can easily be perceived as endless. How many people have actually maxed out the thousands of megabytes of space on a Gmail account? I have used about 1.7% of the three gigabytes wordpress offers for this blog and there is plenty more where that came from. So what is the problem with stretching out and using that elbow room? Speck explains:

“To use my photo site as an example, the image stared as a photo on an iPhone and now exists as a jpeg somewhere in the US on the Flickr servers, duplicated and optimized as a series of various image files. This image also exists as an automatically duplicated file on my Tumblr website. One original image uploaded from my iPhone now exists as 7 unique .jpg files on three separate hard drives (not to mention any backups that exists). This doesn’t seem like much, but the issue becomes compounded when you look services like Tumblr and the explosion of reblogging.”

The internet holds a vast amount of knowledge. As of 2009 digital content was estimated at close to 500 billion gigabytes. According to one article, “If the world’s rapidly expanding digital content were printed and bound into books it would form a stack that would stretch from Earth to Pluto 10 times.” While all those ones and zeroes may not take up quite that much space, it still ends in warehouse rows of server racks housed in data centers.

Data centers are not small facilities that fit in basements, but large buildings filled with computers. The amount of land swallowed by new data center construction is increasing every day. Apples new facility in North Carolina encompasses 500,000 square feet and cost nearly $1 billion. Yahoo’s site in Lockport, New York set aside 30 acres for new data center construction that was most likely forest beforehand.

The Material Side of Digital

The data center marketplace was estimated at around $40 billion 2009 with a rapid pace of growth that shows little signs of ebbing anytime soon. As content quality and sophistication continues to rise with things like HD video and multi-channel, lossless sound the amount of available storage space will have to grow in kind.

These complexes carry an equally large energy requirement. A recent article on earth2tech by Katie Fehrenbacher pegs our global energy use for servers at 123 billion kwh in 2005 (about the same amount of power usage as over 10 million American homes). That number is estimated to rise 75% by the end of 2010. All of this power is used to not only hold and transfer information, but keep the hardware cool. Google notes that the energy required to cool these spaces can be anywhere from 30-70% of the overhead energy use.

Greening the Hardware Side

Like anything else, there is a more efficient way to build internet components. A recent report from Pike Research estimates that green data centers will make up 28% of the market place by 2015 at $41.4 billion from its current $7.5 billion today. Google prides itself on its 36 worldwide data centers, claiming they are among the most efficient in existence. By combining high-efficiency servers, cooling towers with onsite water recycling, Google has managed to create some of the greenest data centers in the world, but the bar can be set even higher.

Even if cooling towers can dissipate heat efficiently, it is still wasted energy that is being released carelessly into the air rather than being utilized. I was impressed and encouraged to find an article on World Changing: Bright Green that showcased a new 2MW data center being brought online in Helsinki, Finland by the Academia company. This facility will use water to soak up the excess heat from its servers and use it to heat 500 local homes before being recycled back for reuse again. A drastically more efficient system.

375 Pearl Street

Verizon switching tower overlooking the East River

Beyond the engineering, in order for this technology to be worthwhile new data centers need to be located near spaces that can use the heat produced rather than miles outside of civilization where land is cheap. Committing to these higher levels of efficiency may ultimately raise location costs, but make a large energy difference in the long run. Ironically, such buildings could draw a parallel to the old switching towers that still mark the skylines of cities like New York. Once used as switching stations for landline calling, skyscrapers like Verizon’s tower at 375 Pearl Street are looking for new uses as cellular calling has minimized the use of landline phones. Nearly devoid of windows, the tall floors held what is now an archaic form of technology to connect people. Our new data centers could realize a similar likeness that could produce steam for the city, or be integrated as heating systems for new high rise residential or commercial buildings.

Even then, there have to be opportunities for people that know much more about web programming than I do to come up with new means of organization that can be more mindful of curbing this idea of infinite space. As Specketer first pointed out, these vehicles of infinite space carry very finite lifespans and eWaste continues to grow around the globe, with most of it ending up in Asia where it is sorted through by families looking to harvest scant amounts of precious metals. The future of server technology has to include components that can be recycled or, better yet, upcycled (what’s the difference?).


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