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Against Extinction II: energy-consuming data centres

Where danger is, deliverance too will grow? The human factor is obviously an issue.

Iain Galbraith
15 February 2020
Data centre, 2019.
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Flickr/ Rosa Menkman. Some rights reserved.

We were preparing a celebratory reading for the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin's 250th birthday when a nark arose. There were tweets to twitter, bottles to buy, but one of us would be out of the country until the day before our event on March 20: the day in 1770 of Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin's birth in Lauffen on the Neckar. "But where danger is, deliverance too will grow", the culprit quipped, citing the German bard. "Deliverance" wouldn't just arrive here, however, not without fewer hands carrying heavier burdens.

Stimulated by Hölderlin's quasi-Hegelian proposition, the discussion wandered to more difficult dangers from which we might require deliverance, one of them invisibly staring us in the face now: the connectivity carbon footprint. I add that I am writing this in a place where there is no internet connection and from which, if I wished to check any facts and figures that follow, I would need to walk through a snow-storm to a nearby town that is lucky to have retained its public library amid nationwide cuts to this essential public service.

You, on the other hand, with access to the web, sitting, I hope, in a warm dry room, can easily and digitally check anything I say against information offered by a host of competing versions of the truth. In fact I beg you to do so, lest you think me guilty of wild contentions – always bearing in mind, of course, that about 17 searches use the energy required to boil up a cup of tea, and that at 3.45 billion Google searches per day (according to Google), quite a few kettles could be boiling.

About 17 searches use the energy required to boil up a cup of tea... at 3.45 billion Google searches per day (according to Google), quite a few kettles could be boiling.

When I say, "invisibly staring us in the face", what I mean is something that I, for one, only began to consider recently. It appears the worldwide web and its various uses (e.g. the screen in front of you) already have a carbon footprint greater than that of global air traffic. It appears too that internet-related emissions are set to double within the next 10 years, and that data centres in the city of Frankfurt alone require more energy and have a more hostile impact on the climate today than Frankfurt Airport.

While digital connectivity and the internet are therefore drivers of the climate emergency, they are also promoted by the most powerful lobby ever known to mankind: not just Google, Netflix, Amazon and the CIA, but pretty-well every corporation, government, organization, association and indeed person has a stake in immediate and comprehensive internet use.

Judging by the growing volume of conflicting data, climate number-crunching itself threatens to become a significant emissions producer. Energy analysts George Kamiya and Oskar Kvarnström tell us the worldwide energy consumption of data centres (which everybody agrees are the big burners) has been flat since 2015, while global internet traffic tripled and data centre "workloads" (a measure of service demand) more than doubled (Cisco, 2018). Energy consumption in this sector can indeed be reduced by various means, including recycling heat from data centre coolers, geographic concentration of centres, the use of sustainable energy sources and intelligent surveillance of energy demand. According to a report in Climate Home News, however, artificial intelligence and the "internet of things" (IoT) could increase data-related energy consumption to 20% of the worldwide energy demand by 2025, with communications technology by 2040 accounting for 14% of global emissions.

Artificial intelligence and the "internet of things" (IoT) could increase data-related energy consumption to 20% of the worldwide energy demand by 2025, with communications technology by 2040 accounting for 14% of global emissions.

But what is this mysterious "internet of things" when it's at home? Flash forward to future kitchens. Our domestic robot has been programmed to perform a range of services using the appliances available. But the market (or its ownership) can only survive if it is continually replacing products by newly attractive or useful "things", while each new appliance comes equipped with software capable of educating cybernetic partners in use and safety. While the function of the "internet of things" is apparently to provide for our needs, its rationale as a self-regulating and self-perpetuating system facilitating a permanent revolution in AI-agency and technology is equally evident.

If the internet's carbon footprint is already a cause of climate disaster, how shall the revolution proceed without solving the contradiction deriving from its gradual destruction of the very basis and need for its emergence? Or shall this revolution unleash its potential to a burning planet, negating negation by adapting design solely to its own survival in the flames?

The human factor is obviously an issue. Could it be that humans need to develop and adapt if they are to achieve what Aaron Bastani has called Fully Automated Luxury Communism (Verso, 2019). To think any further is to see how that might happen in different ways, not all of them as comfortable as the notion of cybernetically-regulated sustainability. "But where danger is", we might hope that "deliverance too will grow."

This piece was originally published in the February edition of Splinters.

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