“Imagine a society where we will have more connected devices than people living on the planet. In the immediate future year 2025, more than 24.9 billion Internet of Things (IoT) connections are forecasted compared to the estimated human population of 8.1 billion people.” [quote from Ericsson]
In a society like this, physical meetings can easily be replaced by a convenient digital alternative. As we’ve all been experiencing the past few weeks, we might be able to escape infection, but not class as long as the virus does not go digital, too. Saved by technology again, pretty great, huh? For those of us with the highly useful skill of multitasking and an average ownership of three connected devices, we can even attend multiple classes at once. This improved time management leaves us only three clicks (instead of three subway stops) away from trading the lecture series for the Netflix series.
Our extensive digital consumption is only interrupted when the food supply is running low. Paranoid hoarders can find some comfort in the fact that even though an unlimited supply of food is unrealistic, Netflix promises us an unlimited supply of movies and series; Spotify an unlimited amount of music; Wikipedia an unlimited amount of knowledge and our teachers an unlimited amount of digital homework assignments.
Can we take uprising tech giants’ word on offering anything to infinity? Limitless availability stands in striking contrast to our understanding of other finite physical resources. As a typical environmentally conscious university student, it is easy to notice and make an effort to decrease our consumption of tangible things: less shopping, less plastic, less meat, you know about it. Among the overwhelming importance of reducing our footprint, the invisible energy cost of digital services manages to escape the actionable list.
Perhaps the energy consumed by cloud services has itself been clouded by a focus on their benefits globally. On the one hand, we are experiencing an exponential rise in cloud services (i.e. storage, IoT, browsing, streaming) and computation which has revealed a vast space of opportunity. On the other hand, this all comes at an energy cost which is hidden from the consumer. What is this invisible cost and why can’t we see it?
The 0.2 seconds required for your Google search hardly leaves time to consider how much energy was just spent. Take some time, let’s say 10 seconds, and guess how much. Or if you’d like, make the appropriate Google search to find out. Energetically, the two options are equivalent, take your pick. The 0.3 Wh that a person uses in 10 seconds are also demanded by the hungry Google algorithms [numbers from Google].
Luckily, there’s no need to take the long flight across the pond to Silicon Valley to witness the energy costs of going high tech. We need not look further than to our own campus. Those of us who have seen the casing of the PDC supercomputer at KTH may find it is Pretty Damn Cool, but what it really stands for is Parallel Dator Centrum and it needs a whole lot of energy to remain cool.
In order to combat both the energy and monetary costs of running the supercomputer, a pilot project a few years back attempted to build up infrastructure to capture the otherwise lost energy. It showed promising results, however, the project was never realized because of implementation difficulties. The not-so-cool computer may not be the greenest as it continues heating up its surroundings, but maintaining its status as Stockholm’s fastest, it has useful computing power ready to be harnessed by researchers.
The benefits of technological development need not be pointed out, but consideration should be given to the cumulative effect that one of the fastest growing energy consumers can have. Whether it’s access to computing power or to unlimited movies that is appealing, all of us should realize that it requires energy, the supply of which is limited. We are aware that there are both pros and cons of the plastic bag of chips that goes along with the Netflix series, but the same is true for the data centers enabling the streaming.
This article is not a suggested ticket back to the technological stone age, nor an encouragement to write your assignments without the internet. Not intending to cause too much Netflix Shame, we wish to leave you with a word of advice from our interview partner, Prof. Dr. Michael Hanke: “Just like any resource, use it responsibly.”
For more information about Netflix Shame, check out our article “OL on the Streets.”