And while underwriting the cost of a wind farm is laudable, it only addresses one kind of environmental impact, focused on one particular set of metrics. It doesn't address things like water usage, pollution from backup generators (which Microsoft, in a now-infamous 2012 incident, ran at full tilt at their Quincy, Washington, data center), supply chains for the rare earth minerals used in hardware, and the toxic materials involved in the production of this hardware. “The tech industry is really good at erasing its connections to these more mundane concerns like energy and electricity and maintenance,” Ensmenger noted, highlighting that Silicon Valley has 23 Superfund sites alone as a result of industrial-hardware production.
The impact of data centers—really, of computation in general—isn’t something that really galvanizes the public, partly because that impact typically happens at a remove from everyday life. The average amount of power to charge a phone or a laptop is negligible, but the amount of power required to stream a video or use an app on either device invokes services from data centers distributed across the globe, each of which uses energy to perform various processes that travel through the network to the device. One study (weirdly enough, sponsored by the American Coal Association, its purpose to enthuse about how great coal is for technology) estimated that a smartphone streaming an hour of video on a weekly basis uses more power annually than a new refrigerator.
Both Cook and Cantrell argued that if the energy used by a computational process is renewable, the energy consumed by that process isn’t that big of a deal. And shaming consumers for their Netflix binges doesn’t exactly mobilize a base, and at the end of the day companies have a lot more agency to make technology choices that could lessen their environmental impact. Still, it seems weird that most people—most engineers building the platforms people use every day, even—lack the basic comprehension that different online activities have different energy impacts, or that an individual’s online activities have energy impact at all beyond a laptop’s battery life.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t interest. Ensmenger’s research was largely spurred by introducing this topic to undergraduate students in an information-ethics course. While students weren’t particularly enthusiastic about issues of privacy and surveillance, they were extremely interested in the environmental issues, in part because they had local concerns—Bloomington, Indiana, is home to three Superfund sites related to hardware production. “Without question, it’s the most popular and engaging part of some of the courses that I teach,” Ensmenger said.
Contrary to a million thinkpiece ledes bemoaning a public that doesn't understand or care about the physical realities of The Cloud (some of which I am admittedly guilty of writing), there is an appetite for this material—but not, as Ensmenger put it to me, very much by way of nutritious food. If we want better, more sustainable technologies to be part of the future, these questions need to become part of the curricula taught to the people who will build them.