The Power of Electricity

By: Yeun Au
On: September 13, 2011
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About Yeun Au
Born in The Netherlands and raised with Confucianist values, Dutch education and Western thought. After studying multimedia design in Breda, I am currently pursuing my master's degree in New Media.

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Every month 2.5 billion pictures are being uploaded on Facebook by their users. The social networking website is referring to itself as the ‘largest photo-sharing site’ on the web. The instant access of information and data means that servers containing this information always need to be up and running for people to retrieve whatever they desire. This includes pictures on Facebook, video’s on YouTube, movies, music, games and software as downloads. And even when people decide not to host a file anymore, there will be a big chance that it will forever float around in the cloud of archives.

This cloud is more tangible than the word presumes; it is located in the numerous server farms around the world. These farms save all the data we put on the internet on a daily basis and commonly consist of entire buildings, requesting energy to run the servers and keep them cooled. According to Facebook, they serve more than 750 million active users, a milestone achieved in July 2011. The amount of servers is very rarely publicly discussed. In 2009 Facebook was estimated to have 60.000 servers. Google is presumably using around 900.000 servers.

The needed energy has to be obtained from locations with varying degrees of effects for the environment, and it is up to the companies to make this decision. A 2010 Greenpeace report ‘Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change‘ stated that Facebook opened a new data center in Oregon. This center obtains their energy from ‘coal-fired power stations’, which contributes heavily on the total of greenhouse gas emissions. More environmental friendly-decisions were made by Yahoo!, whose data centers in Buffalo, New York are being powered by hydroelectricity.

What stands out is the growing influence of internet companies like Facebook and Google on our environment, considering their decisions which are likely made out of economical reasons. This may lead to a bigger carbon footprint, the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions by a person or (in this case) a company. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact carbon footprint of the web, because many computer services occur offline. In 2010 The Guardian estimated the number of CO2 around 300 million tons; similar to more than half of the coal, oil and gas buring in the United Kingdom. Considering the growing ubiquity of the internet, this trend will most likely continue to increase.

Being aware of these statistics is one thing, but pointing a finger at the major internet companies is perhaps a bit unfair. Although Facebook can definitely improve on their energy extraction, the main solution of reducing our carbon footprint is not simply turning off our computers and stop using their services. The internet gives us many opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint in other areas. Working at home will save car emissions and gasoline usage. Online business meetings will reduce airplane emissions. E-books and newspapers will save printing and transportation. It is debatable whether we are seeing an increase or just a shift in our energy use, especially since we are still lacking data on this subject.

So as the major internet companies are continuing in (perhaps unwillingly) increasing their influence on our environment, this also shows their dependency on electricity. But as electricity is more and more serving as an essential commodity, it can ultimately lead to questions about power (political power, that is) and control. Through making ourselves increasingly dependable on the services of Google and Facebook, we make ourselves dependable on the same energy as well. The possible shift in energy use as mentioned earlier will only continue this process. It could well mean another dimension in the struggle for power on the internet: an attempt to control through the interface as described earlier by authors like Lev Manovich; or in the protocol as described by Alexander Galloway.

The game of power and control is currently still being played in the quest for gasoline. This was very much visible for The Netherlands throughout the twentieth century. It faced problems concerning the shortage of gas, which resulted in several ‘car free Sundays’. Obviously, the extraction of oil is bound to geographical locations, while the production of electricity is not. But for now, the demand for electricity in the future is still obscure. There have been cases of Dutch websites being ‘closed’ on Sunday, leaving merely a message that they will return the next day. While this might point to a religious matter, it reminded me of the ‘car free Sundays’ and the awareness of our daily electronic consumption. It remains interesting to consider the effects of our internet usage and what happens on the ‘other side’ of the modem.

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