Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Your Childhood, Our Coal

clement asked today how much energy do we use just for the bandwidth on the Internet. I started by finding the biggest, blackest picture of coal I could find.

It is often claimed that it takes a pound of coal to deal with every 2 megabytes of data. This includes creating the data, moving it around, and storing it.
This comes from a 1999 study called "The Internet Begins With Coal" (which I can't seem to find on the Internet), but was revised in 2002 by Johnthan Koomey and associates down to maybe 10 or 20 megabytes. Unfortunately, that number is also five years and millions of new computers old as well. Since this is the best data I can find my answer is same the as Jack Nicholson's in A Few Good Men - I don't have the first damn clue.

I'll tell you what I do know; everyone has a worldview on how much energy use is ok, and a lot of people start with the worldview of their childhood. Here's what I remember; three hour trips in the car on Sunday for no purpose except to drive around; throwing out everything in big black bags; setting army soldiers on fire with gallons of leaded gasoline just for the fun of it. Energy was plentiful and free. And when that green army man plastic melted it smelled cool too, like war.

And so it is with computers now. We live the high life with all this so-called free IT; three year cycles, mass emailing movies, animated screensavers, leaving our machines on 24/7. Except, as Nick Carr points out, that it's not free anymore. Really, aren't we just living out the giddy, vicarious thrills of wasting that we learned in childhood? So when we hear that each computer uses 1.8 tons of raw materials, it's a bummer. When we hear that Avery Lovins reported on energy efficient computing in 1993, we don't care. And when we hear that the Chinese recycle copper wires by pouring gasoline on them to burn away the insulation, we think good for them. Because we are reminded of our childhood. Because melting plastic is cool. And, as Robert Duvall said in Apocalypse Now, it smells like victory.

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