Compute This!

data center
Data centers like this one are always on -- and always using massive amounts of energy. Can they be cleaned up?

I should have seen this one coming. There had been warnings after all. Shots across our collective bows. For me it started two years ago when I taught a class at a conference with the writer Jannise Ray, a much more committed and purebred environmentalist than myself. One day Jannise started to talk to the students about something that seemed straight out of a dark fairy tale. She described these awful power-sucking buildings called data centers, giant energy draining castles that fueled all of our computer habits, anonymous warehouses full of data storage hidden in the ratty outer urban rings of our cities. The students nodded earnestly while she spoke, but I wanted to jam my fingers in my ears and sing "La-La-La" as loudly as I could. After the conference I forgot about data centers. Forcefully. Like you, I had enough to worry about.

Then two years later there they were again, those evil castles of fantasy, slapped right on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. And the article, written by James Glanz, confirmed everything that Janise had whispered as myth that long ago day. These buildings ran around the clock, fueled both by enough electricity to power a small town (literally) and by the constant fear of crashing and losing data (and, worse, customers). By the time the article reached its end so had my illusions that our sleek modern tools were really so much better than our smoke-belching old-fashioned ones. It’s just that now the smoke belches farther away from us.

Like I said, I should have seen it coming. We all should have. If you are over 40 and lived before everything we did came in bytes, it can be truly astounding to step back and think of how much of our lives, including our jobs and credit cards, we have willingly transferred into the virtual world. Not long ago, for instance, I visited the spacious offices of my publisher, a small press that has done much to preserve the book in all its dignity. It was a beautiful place to work, with a few private offices and also artfully designed work corners that rose above the notion of cubicles. But as I waited to talk to my editor, I noticed how, soon after everyone arrived, they quickly hooked themselves up to their computers, which they then proceeded to stare at while typing frantically. I joked out loud in a voice that carried through the office: "This is like The Matrix. You are all hooked up to the central machine." My editor, who had been typing away, laughed out loud and admitted that when they communicated with each other during the day they were more likely to send e-mails than walk a few feet. I am not above this, nor is anyone else in the current American workplace. For the last few years I have done the same when I get to work, hooking myself up and staring down the machine for at least the first few hours of my day.

And now it turns out, surprise, surprise, that there is an environmental price to pay for all this. Of course we knew this, deep down … knew we couldn’t get all this something for nothing. But directly facing the reality, I feel some of the familiar culpability, and impotence, that I often feel when I consider the world’s -- and my own -- reliance on cars. 

The good news is that the situation is not quite automobile dire. That is not a knock on Mr. Glanz’s article, which performed the function of effective muckracking and will likely help lead to more efficient data centers. It’s just that in this case, vast improvement is within our reach. (For just one promising example, read "How Cool Is That?")  On the TimesRoom for Debate page, Gary Cook of Greenpeace rips the data centers’ general reliance on the coal-fired power grid, but then adds: "Thankfully, we are starting to see a shift. Google is making large investments in clean energy and signing long-term contracts for renewable energy to power its data centers. Even more significantly, many I.T. companies like Facebook are recognizing that their influence and market power give them the opportunity and responsibility to demand clean energy investments from their providers." They had better. As Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, the authors of Greening the Media, point out: "residential electricity needed to power digital culture will rise to 30 percent of global demand by 2022, and 45 percent by 2030."

Is it really such a surprise that there is an actual cost for our virtual lives? As a society, we like to cheat at math, never quite understanding that there are consequences for not balancing our ledger sheets. But now it turns out that all those little bytes we love, those old pictures and videos and millions of e-mails we file away, are not floating happily in the ether somewhere. They are sitting in a warehouse.

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