The Efficiency and Resiliency of the Internet

Reaching Elm. Source: woodlywonderworks via Flickr.

Reaching Elm. Source: woodlywonderworks via Flickr.

We’ve heard the statistics — the rapid growth of the Internet, the cloud, data centers and computing in general is taking a huge and growing toll on our energy reserves and the climate, by sucking up an ever-increasing amount of electricity to keep going. Even doing a simple Google search takes as much energy as boiling a pot of tea. And–shockingly–using your iPhone blows as much electricity as your refrigerator, when you take wireless connections, data use an battery charging into account.

Except it’s not true. According to a fascinating expose by Joe Romm on Climate Progress, claims that the Internet is an energy hog can be traced almost entirely to reports written by Mark Mills for the coal industry–presumably to promote the idea without coal, the all the phones would die and we would have to go back to using paper dictionaries.

Romm and colleague Jonathan Koomey have spent years debunking these claims; Koomey recently posted a list of documents summarizing the controversy. As he writes in the post,

Mr. Mills has made so many incorrect claims that he simply shouldn’t be treated as a serious participant in discussions about electricity used by information technology (IT) equipment.

In fact, Koomey and Romm argue, the Internet and computing at best use a few percent of total electricity consumption. But they save much more by allowing for “dematerialization” of things like music and movies. A recent study suggested that even in the worst case, downloading an album rather than buying a CD causes 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In the best case, downloading reduces the footprint by 80 percent.

Not only do streaming movies or buying songs online save energy overall compared to shipping DVDs or driving to Blockbuster; because they rely on electricity rather than burning oil, they can become more efficient over time, as renewables power an ever-greater percentage of electrical consumption.

Furthermore, information technology allows for all manner of innovation that can make consumption far more efficient–from smart-grids to Zipcars to behavior change decision-making tools like Opower.

This is all good as far as it goes. It seems intuitive that dematerializing things (exchanging “atoms” for “bits”) that are essentially information anyway would save energy; it’s nice to know that’s true.

But there is another, deeper transformation happening as well, as new ways of collaborating and transferring information get translated into the physical world.

The most obvious is the emergence of maker culture, in which a combination of peer-to-peer, open source design combines with new low-cost tools for fabrication (CNC machines, 3-D printers) threatens the entire two-century old model of centralized, industrial production itself.

Maker culture. Image by plural, via Flickr.

Maker culture. Image by plural, via Flickr.

What happens when we can custom create exactly what we need locally for less than it costs to make and ship the mass-produced equivalent across the world? More importantly, what happens when the ability to share information changes the nature and scale of tools themselves?

A recent article by Cara Parks in The Magazine, highlights what I mean. The piece profiles diverse, small-scale farm innovators who are making new kinds of tools like the “Quick Greens Harvester” to enable low-cost, small-scale production.

But it would be a mistake to view such distributed innovation without taking note of the new social and cultural paradigms that are emerging amidst and along with it — what social media and culture theorist Venessa Miemis calls the “Next Edge” ecosystem. (For a sampling of what this next edge might look like and the people and organizations creating it, check out Venessa’s excellent list).

Are we on the verge of a revolution in which knowledge, information and design finally overturn the subsidized, energy-intensive and environmentally destructive economies of scale that defined the 19th and 20th century? To put it another way–are we finally at the point where small can really be beautiful even as the big is falling apart?

5 thoughts on “The Efficiency and Resiliency of the Internet

  1. You might find it interesting: Peer production & desktop manufacturing

  2. [...] idea that the Internet is a huge energy hog is a myth. Claims that it is can be traced almost entirely to reports written by Mark Mills for the coal [...]

  3. [...] idea that the Internet is a huge energy hog is a myth. Claims that it is can be traced almost entirely to reports written by Mark Mills for the coal [...]

  4. Not that convincing-
    what about the embodied energy in computer manufacturing (plus factories & pollution…now mainly outsourced to China, server maintenance, spare partes, and so on ? Its not only the energy needs for the actua internet…its the whole infrastructure associated with internet use, and especially the hardware and its origin, that makes internet a highly efficient, but NOT resilient, tool…

    • Hi Holger,

      The total energy use of computers and the Internet is an interesting one. Barath Raghavan et al, estimate the total emergy (embodied energy) of the Internet is 1-2 percent of total global energy use.

      Raghavan points out that if the Internet made it possible to replace 1 out of 4 air trips with a video conference, it would save that much energy.

      So I guess my answer is: yes, it uses a tremendous amount of energy and resources, but not relative to the vast infrastructure it could replace.

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