Is cyberspace infinite?
Of all the things we now take for granted, cyberspace is near the top of the list. The promise of the Internet for the twenty-first century is to make everything always available to everyone everywhere. All of human culture and achievement, the great and the not so great, may, one day soon, be just a click away.
When one is online, cyberspace can seem a lot like outer space or, to use the latest jargon, 'the cloud'. It appears infinite and ethereal. The information is simply out there. If, instead, we thought more about the real-world energy and the real estate that the Internet uses, we would start to realize that things are not so simple. Cyberspace is in fact physical space. And the longer it takes us to change our concept of the Internet—to see quite clearly its physical there-ness—the closer we'll get to blogging our way to oblivion.
Now, everything that we upload—all the Facebook photos, all the Youtube videos—is always available on demand to everyone. What does it take to keep up that commitment? It takes many huge buildings, with square footage in the hundreds of thousands of feet, called data centers or, more appropriately given the Internet's relentless growth, server farms.
In order to maintain total, ubiquitous availability, as today's Internet users have come to expect, a lot of things have to be happening simultaneously. The millions of hard disc drives that store the Internet's contents have to be powered up and spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute, not just in one place but at backup mirror sites elsewhere. Air conditioning keeps the whirring servers cool. Real estate has to be acquired and developed to house it all. Electrical grids have to be extended to the sites. And lots of electricity has to be generated, which means lots of carbon dioxide gets produced.
How much? According to some experts, the cloud already consumes 1 to 2 percent of the world's electricity. That is what it takes to maintain Facebook's reported 15 billion photos, entertain Microsoft's 20 million Xbox Live subscribers, and host all the other always-on content that we use. But at what cost?
The economics of cyberspace and server farms provides no automatic curb to their growth. The key questions for business are how to get energy cheaply and how to keep transmission times in the low milliseconds. Revenues for services like Facebook and Youtube do not come from costs to users. From a naive user's perspective, cyberspace is infinite, free, and clean. As long as people perceive no cost in uploading their photos and videos, they will do so—and their content will stay there without expiring. Free video is like free petrol or free air conditioning: anyone not paying the bill for a resource will use it without restraint. And that is exactly what is happening in cyberspace.
If no one is watching your Youtube video, does it need to be occupying physical space on multiple, electrically-powered hard drives around the world? On a deeper level, our inexorable drive to create an eternal, all-encompassing memory demonstrates our fear of forgetting. But is forgetting so awful that we must drive the planet closer to the abyss in order to avoid losing any scrap of information, no matter how trivial? Can we let go before we are killed by the need to preserve all of our experience?
Am I suggesting that we stop using the Internet? No, of course not. I wrote this for a blog after all. We invented the Internet because we need to communicate, to share, to learn, to exchange goods and ideas. That is what makes us human. Hence the pathos of our dilemma: that gorgeous, insatiable yearning we have to communicate across all distances, literal and otherwise, is also driving us towards our destruction. If we turn the system off and turn our backs on the dream of global communication, then we may as well die off for we will have sacrificed our common human dream. This is the heightened drama of existence in the twenty-first century: the grandeur of our brave, new world comes at a cost. We can at least face it honestly.
How can we make a better cyberspace?
So what can we do? We can mitigate the Internet's emissions by finding alternative energy sources, but its galloping growth will wipe out whatever improved efficiencies we can discover. Can we evolve the new models of business and government that we need fast enough to head off global warming's tipping point? Probably not. We have not done it yet despite all that we know. Recent efforts to achieve something as simple as health insurance for all Americans do not inspire confidence.
Cyberspace is one place where our own actions can make a big difference. Those 15 billion Facebook photos and who-knows-how-many Youtube videos were not posted by the petrol companies. We posted them. We, the users, have the power to slow the Internet's planet-choking growth. We have to see the externalities—the CO2 emissions produced by our online activities—as internal costs to the planet. We can start by raising consciousness about the problem, restricting our uploads, and even pulling down some. Instead of 1000 CO2-emitting photos on Facebook, just keep your 200 best. If no one watches your karaoke video on Youtube, delete it. At least store on it on something that does not need to stay plugged in.
What if consciousness-raising and voluntary self-discipline are not enough? Despite the cyberpunk mantra that 'Information wants to be free', real estate does not. With that truth in mind, here comes my modest proposal. This will be a very unpopular thing to say, but it needs to be said: there ought to be a cost for sharing too much information about oneself, i.e., an uploading tax. That is the only way that most people will stop uploading huge files to cyberspace—they need to pay for the real energy and space that they are using. Information can still be free to take. What I am proposing is that information should not necessarily be free to distribute by occupying space on Internet servers. If you want to post more than a certain amount, you should have to pay rent for the physical space that your megabytes and gigabytes occupy. If uploaders had to pay, many of the photos and videos that no one looks at would come down a lot faster, and Internet-associated CO2 emissions from server farms would start to decline. The money from the rents can go towards development of alternative energy sources, or whatever.
Cyberspace's future has a cost
We need to get our heads out of the cloud and back on solid ground where we know that renting someone else's space costs money. The proliferating server farms that create the illusion of cyberspace will swallow more and more land and spit out more and more heat-trapping gases. If the life experience that we are preserving online comes at the cost of life itself, then we would be better off entrusting it to the imperfect, ephemeral storage space known as the human brain and taking our chances. We have lost most of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. I think we will still be alright if we lose the video of Kevin crushing the beer can against his head and chugging marinara sauce. The question is, should the Kevins of the world be allowed to colonize our land and use up our energy without paying for it? Maybe we should make Kevin pay for the privilege…
Or maybe we should embrace an old fashioned solution for the waste of cyber space on various posting sites, that is still used by that archaic form of communication, television. When only a few people watch a show, it gets canceled. If no one is looking at a You Tube (or similar sites) posting, it should be canceled by the provider.
What about freedom of speech?
And some say that energy-wise, the consumption of the internet is trivial, and is probably more than compensated by the high level of global awareness of energy issues that has been generated through use of the Web.
What do you think?