Monday, January 26, 2009

7 Grams

It's amazing how much easier it is to be taken seriously if your name happens to be prefaced by the words 'Harvard' or 'physicist', let alone both. Thus earlier this month Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross managed to get the British Sunday Times to repeat his claim that a typical Internet search generates about 7 grams of CO2, a little less than half the amount produced when you boil a kettle of water. In its first incarnation, the article was subtly entitled 'Google and you'll damage the planet', later revised, once it transpired that the claim was - how shall I put it? - a little overstated, into the somewhat softer 'Revealed: the environmental impact of Google searches'. It turns out that the average Google search generates only 0.2 grams of CO2, which is one 35th of the original claim, and one 75th of the emissions released by boiling a kettle of water. Google took polite exception, and offered on its official blog the above more reasoned estimate, later accepted by the Times in an update to the original article.

Case closed, then? Storm in a teapot? I would say not quite, but regardless of that I find the story interesting for a number of different reasons. Firstly, there is the initial headline of the article. Think about it: Google and you'll damage the planet. It says so much about the poverty of the public discourse over technology, doesn't it? Go back to the inaugural post of this blog (go on, you know you want to) and you'll find that it was sparked by an almost identical alarmist phrase: 'The Trouble Started with a Google Search'.

It's not just that it's daft to equate Internet searches with one of the search engine companies (Google probably doesn't mind that, in spite of their claims to the contrary). It's equating the act of searching for information, or parsing the results of such a search, with the medium on which the search is conducted that is misleading. It's not so much 'Google and you'll damage the planet', as 'search for information and you'll damage the planet'. Going to the library or consulting in person a public archive instead of using your home computer is likely to produce quite a bit of CO2. And books, ah, making books releases a lot of CO2 and destroys trees to boot. Best avoided altogether.

Besides: why not 'Make tea and you'll damage the planet?' Is it because we are already wise to the evils of kettle-boiling? And I'd like to know a little more, while we're at it. How big is this kettle? Are the hobs gas or electric? How was the energy produced and transported? So on the one hand it's basically the same ridiculous feeling I associate with using horse power as a unit of measurement: nobody is going to convince me that in a race between a Ferrari 360 Modena and a cart pulled by four hundred and one horses, the cart is favoured to win. But in this case we're not even remotely comparing like for like. Pit a search engine versus looking for the same kind of information offline, and I might be more inclined to listen.

But we knew all this before, didn't we? Put Facebook, Google, Beebo into your average media outlet search facility, and it's like fashioning your own generator of random alarmist headlines, or of sweeping and unwarranted leaps of metaphor. La Repubblica claims the top entry today with the headline 'A rischio sul web la memoria globale' (The World's Memory at Risk on the Web), rehashing the always popular - and dismayingly reductionist - identification of the sum of online content with the collective memory of humankind. We're all familiar with this sort of thing.

But perhaps the work of Professor Wissner-Gross, in spite of the out-of-whackness of the initial claim and the enduring conflict of interest (as Jason Kincaid notes, he co-founded this company, which helps websites reduce their carbon footprint) deserves to be looked at again. For taking a Google search as the unit of activity on the Net is not unreasonable, and measuring its environmental impact is not without its practical and conceptual benefits.

Because let's face it, when it gets to the kinds of technology that manipulate symbols - as opposed to boiling water, or transporting your body somewhere - it's easy to lose sight of the material side. Your computer is a solid chunk of stuff including, but not limited to, acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, silica, quite a bit of gold and a number of known poisons. It uses energy at work and even at rest - something that the many people who keep their machines on at night seem to be either unaware or dismissive of. But the experience of using it is so out-of-bodily at times that we (I'm making assumptions here) forget about the chunk of stuff altogether, as well as the whizzing electrons and the underground cables and the service personnel and your power bill and the greenhouse emissions and the economy that sustains the whole thing etcetera, etcetera. We get lost in the seduction and the abstraction.

But using a computer makes things happen, not only locally but also remotely. Operating a Google search fires up simultaneously a number of Google servers in different, undisclosed locations. That's what your average 0.2 seconds and 0.2 grams of CO2 buys you, and it's before you've even clicked onto one of the results. Multiply that for your daily activity, then multiply that by the number of computer users on the planet, and it's bound to amount to quite a few KWs (kettle-worths). Just how many? The best current estimate is that the IT industry has the same impact on the environment as the commercial aviation industry. It's not a net impact, of course, we're still faced with the impossible task of subtracting the activities that we'd be carrying out without computers, including no doubt fewer, but individually far costlier, searches for information. But it is something real nonetheless, a thing with weight, as are the cathedrals of discarded computers leeching hazardous substances that dot the planet.

It pays in so many ways to be aware. There are people out there who are seriously entertaining the notion of a digital afterlife, the transfer of mental life onto the machine. Next time one of these witnesses knocks on your door, sit them down at the kitchen table and ask them to account for the cost of maintenance of the electronic heavens. Demand figures and projections. But it's not just about nagging others - as I do weekly in this space - but also gaining a sharper sense of our own entanglements and interdependencies, and of the some time measurable weight, down to the gram, of our habitual actions. Or, as John Ryan and Alan Durning put it in their excellent Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, it's about learning to manage your wake.

But for now I'm going to kindly ask you to hold this thought until the next instalment of this most slow-going series on the ecology of memory. I promise to fail to get to the point then too.

Bonus Track
My Life with Legumes
An occasional series*
1. That One Time When I Was Woken Up by Chickpeas

The following really happened to me two weeks or so ago. I was in bed, around midnight, when I was woken up by a click-clickety noise coming from the kitchen. I got up to investigate, but couldn't locate the source of the noise. Nobody seemed to be trying to force the back door. Could it be a mouse or rat inside the wall? Nah: the noise was much too crisp, like when you pop the bubbles on that irresistible packaging plastic.

It took me half an hour to work it out, by which time I had been driven halfway round the bend: the sound came from a bowl of chickpeas that Justine had left to soak in water. Slowly their skins were starting to crack open.

(*) inspired by the fact that so many people find this blog while searching for information about beans.