Cloud computing is the new buzzword. For the last two or three years, major firms like Amazon and Google have been offering services (S3 and Docs respectively) where not only documents but the software to open and edit them are held on remote servers. They are the tip of an iceberg. These consumer services are paralleled by an industry providing off-site storage for commerce and finance. Behind them is a more shadowy realm of banking and military outfits running their own servers for secure data.
The technology dates back to the 1960s, but only took off in the post dot.com crash era of Web 2.0. Now more and more people back-up, store and share their documents in online environments. New netbook computers — lighter, cheaper, always connected — are easier to produce, have less memory and storage, and leave out expensive extras like CD-DVD drives. Everything they need is stored in the cloud. The new thin clients, perpetually linked to online servers, have considerably less materials in them, and use less power. All to the good then?
Perhaps not. We are beginning to believe our own propaganda: that the net is weightless, that information is immaterial, that telecommuting is better than the environmental costs of transport. Sadly, this is not the case. According to one Mckinsey report  the server industry is responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions, equal to the airline industry, and is headed for 3% by 2020.
There are no accurate estimates of how many servers there are in the cloud, and even less of how many there are in the Internet, but the figure undoubtedly runs into the millions. And is equally undoubtedly growing. The International Telecommunications Union 2009 report Measuring the Information Society shows global growth of between 36 and 38 per cent. Another commercial aggregate data supplier  sees Africa, for instance, with only 5% penetration of the population but growth of over 1000%, while Asia with 17% penetration is growing even faster.
Google and AT&T are involved in a project called O3b (Other 3 billion) that aims to provide a 16-satellite network allowing wireless access to the Internet for the whole of Africa. For Google, the more people online, the more money they can make. But what will that mean for the environmental impact of the Internet?
There is deep controversy over not only the scale but also the energy use of server farms like Google’s. One claim, published in Harper’s Bazaar , was that a single Colorado plant used over 100 megawatts. To be fair, Google have invested heavily in minimising the energy use and heat production of their servers, to the extent that they took out patents in 2007 for wave-powered offshore servers. Microsoft are reported to have built a major farm in Siberia, which will at least cut the cooling bills (think how hot your computer and its power adapter get, then multiply by the hundreds).
Mining increasingly scarce raw materials, manufacturing in offshore sweatshops, and the export of high-tech trash are beginning to figure in calculations of Internet use. Powering office-based computers in the USA is said to require nearly 2% of national power supply. Domestic use — involving multimedia file sharing and streaming media — is often heavier.
Once upon a time we thought the oceans were an infinite resource. Until very recently, at least some economists thought economic growth was a process without limits. We still cling to the belief that the Internet can keep getting bigger and bigger without consequence. It may be time to begin thinking small in our electronic worlds as well as the rest of our lives.
Sean Cubitt ([email protected]) teaches at the University of Melbourne.
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