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1. Cristina Gratorp explores what she calls “the materiality of the cloud.”  After reading her piece, how would you describe the geology of the Internet?
2. The authors of the NYT article consider the growing energy requirements of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.  According to the authors, how many terawatt-hours of electricity does trading, creating, and spending Bitcoin consume annually?  Why is this form of currency so energy intensive?  Could the process be re-designed to require less electricity?  If so, how?  
3. What are the concerns about water use and data centers? Why does the author think water consumption may be a major factor in limiting the future growth and locations of data centers?

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 1 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

Bitcoin Uses More

Electricity Than Many

Countries. How Is That

Possible?

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 2 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

By Jon Huang, Claire O’Neill and Hiroko Tabuchi

Illustrations by Eliana Rodgers

Sept. 3, 2021

In 2009, you could mine one Bitcoin
using a setup like this in your living
room.

Amount of household electricity
required to mine one coin: a few
seconds’ worth. Bitcoin’s value:
basically nothing.

Today, you’d need a room full of
specialized machines, each costing
thousands of dollars.

Amount of household electricity
required: 9 years’ worth. (Put in
terms of a typical home electricity
bill: about $12,500.) Value of one
Bitcoin today: about $50,000.

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 3 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

Cryptocurrencies have emerged as one of the most captivating, yet

head-scratching, investments in the world. They soar in value.

They crash. They’ll change the world, their fans claim, by

displacing traditional currencies like the dollar, rupee or ruble.

They’re named after dog memes.

And in the process of simply existing, cryptocurrencies like

Bitcoin, one of the most popular, use astonishing amounts of

electricity.

We’ll explain how that works in a minute. But first, consider this:

The process of creating Bitcoin to spend or trade consumes around

91 terawatt-hours of electricity annually, more than is used by

Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million.

Bitcoin’s electricity usage compared with countries

Estimated electricity consumption (terawatt-hours, annualized). Shaded region
represents the range of possible values.

Netherlands

Sweden

Spain (2019)

https://dogecoin.com/

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 4 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

That usage, which is close to half-a-percent of all the electricity

consumed in the world, has increased about tenfold in just the past

five years.

The Bitcoin network uses about the same amount

of electricity as Washington State does yearly …

Source: EIA, Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index Country usage numbers are from 2019. Electricity cost
for miners is assumed to average $0.05 per kilowatt-hour. Upper, lower and best guess trends are estimated using the
research methodology behind the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index.

2017 2018 2019 2020 2021

·

Denmark

Finland

Netherlands

Chile

https://www.eia.gov/international/data/world/electricity/electricity-consumption

https://cbeci.org/cbeci/methodology

https://cbeci.org/cbeci/methodology

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 5 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

more than a third of what residential cooling in the

United States uses up …

and more than seven times as much electricity as

all of Google’s global operations.

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 6 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

So why is it so energy intensive?

For a long time, money has been thought of as something you can

hold in your hand — say, a dollar bill.

Currencies like these seem like such a simple, brilliant idea. A

government prints some paper and guarantees its value. Then we

swap it amongst ourselves for cars, candy bars and tube socks. We

can give it to whomever we want, or even destroy it.

On the internet, things can get more complicated.

Traditional kinds of money, such as those created by the United

States or other governments, aren’t entirely free to be used any

way you wish. Banks, credit-card networks and other middlemen

can exercise control over who can use their financial networks and

what they can be used for — often for good reason, to prevent

money laundering and other nefarious activities. But that could

also mean that if you transfer a big amount of money to someone,

your bank will report it to the government even if the transfer is

completely on the up-and-up.

So a group of free thinkers — or anarchists, depending on whom

you ask — started to wonder: What if there was a way to remove

controls like these?

In 2008, an unknown person or persons using the name Satoshi

Nakamoto published a proposal to create a cash-like electronic

payment system that would do exactly that: Cut out the

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 7 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

middlemen. That’s the origin of Bitcoin.

Bitcoin users wouldn’t have to trust a third party — a bank, a

government or whatever — Nakamoto said, because transactions

would be managed by a decentralized network of Bitcoin users. In

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 8 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

other words, no single person or entity could control it. All Bitcoin

transactions would be openly accounted for in a public ledger that

anyone could examine, and new Bitcoins would be created as a

reward to participants for helping to manage this vast, sprawling,

computerized ledger. But the ultimate supply of Bitcoins would be

limited. The idea was that growing demand over time would give

Bitcoins their value.

This concept took a while to catch on.

But today, a single Bitcoin is worth about $50,000, though that

could vary wildly by the time you read this, and no one can stop

you from sending it to whomever you like. (Of course, if someone is

caught buying illegal drugs or orchestrating ransomware attacks,

two of the many unsavory uses for which cryptocurrency has

proved attractive, they’d still be subject to the law of the land.)

However, as it happens, managing a digital currency of that value

with no central authority takes a whole lot of computing power.

1.

It starts with a transaction

Let’s say you want to buy something and pay with Bitcoin. The first

part is quick and easy: You’d open an account with a Bitcoin

exchange like Coinbase, which lets you purchase Bitcoin with

dollars.

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 9 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

You now have a “digital wallet” with some Bitcoin in it. To spend it,

you simply send Bitcoin into the digital wallet of the person you’re

buying something from. Easy as that.

But that transaction, or really any exchange of Bitcoin, must first

be validated by the Bitcoin network. In the simplest terms, this is

the process by which the seller can be assured that the Bitcoins he

or she is receiving are real.

This gets to the very heart of the whole Bitcoin bookkeeping

system: the maintenance of the vast Bitcoin public ledger. And this

is where much of the electrical energy gets consumed.

2.

A global guessing game begins

All around the world, companies and individuals known as Bitcoin

miners are competing to be the ones to validate transactions and

enter them into the public ledger of all Bitcoin transactions. They

basically play a guessing game, using powerful, and power-hungry,

computers to try to beat out others. Because if they are successful,

they’re rewarded with newly created Bitcoin, which of course is

worth a lot of money.

This competition for newly created Bitcoin is called “mining.”

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 10 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

You can think of it like a lottery, or a game of dice. This article

provides a good analogy: Imagine you’re at a casino and everyone

playing has a die with 500 sides. (More accurately, it would have

billions of billions of sides, but that’s hard to draw.) The winner is

the first person to roll a number under 10.

The more computer power you have, the more guesses you can

make quickly. So, unlike at the casino, where you have just one die

to roll at human speed, you can have many computers making

many, many guesses every second.

The Bitcoin network is designed to make the guessing game more

and more difficult as more miners participate, further putting a

premium on speedy, power-hungry computers. Specifically, it’s

designed so that it always takes an average of 10 minutes for

https://braiins.com/blog/bitcoin-mining-analogy-beginners-guide

https://braiins.com/blog/bitcoin-mining-analogy-beginners-guide

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 11 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

someone to win a round. In the dice game analogy, if more people

join the game and start winning faster, the game is recalibrated to

make it harder. For example: You now have to roll a number under

4, or you have to roll exactly a 1.

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 12 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

That’s why Bitcoin miners now have warehouses packed with

powerful computers, racing at top speed to guess big numbers and

using tremendous quantities of energy in the process.

3.

The winner reaps hundreds of thousands of

dollars in new Bitcoin.

The winner of the guessing game validates a standard “block” of

Bitcoin transactions, and is rewarded for doing so with 6.25 newly

minted Bitcoins, each worth about $50,000. So you can see why

people might flock into mining.

Why such a complicated and expensive guessing game? That’s

because simply recording the transactions in the ledger would be

trivially easy. So the challenge is to ensure that only “trustworthy”

computers do so.

A bad actor could wreak havoc on the system, stopping legitimate

transfers or scamming people with fake Bitcoin transactions. But

the way Bitcoin is designed means that a bad actor would need to

win the majority of the guessing games to have majority power

over the network, which would require a lot of money and a lot of

electricity.

In Nakamoto’s system, it would make more economic sense for a

hacker to spend the resources on mining Bitcoin and collecting the

rewards, rather than on attacking the system itself.

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 13 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

This is how Bitcoin mining turns electricity into security. It’s also

why the system wastes energy by design.

Bitcoin’s growing energy appetite

In the early days of Bitcoin, when it was less popular and worth

little, anyone with a computer could easily mine at home. Not so

much anymore.

Here’s a timeline showing how things have changed. You can see

how much electricity would have been used to mine one Bitcoin at

home (in terms of the average home electricity bill), assuming the

most energy-efficient devices available were used.

6

8

10

12 years

Bitcoin’s price
skyrockets. It

now takes years
of household
electricity to

mine one coin

Mining difficulty
peaks in May 2021.
At least 13 years of
typical household

electricity is
consumed per

mined coin.

Average years of household-equivalent electricity to mine one Bitcoin

Using the most efficient hardware available at the time

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 14 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

Today you need highly specialized machines, a lot of money, a big

space and enough cooling power to keep the constantly running

hardware from overheating. That’s why mining now happens in

giant data centers owned by companies or groups of people.

In fact, operations have consolidated so much that now, only seven

mining groups own nearly 80 percent of all computing power on

the network. (The aim behind “pooling” computing power like this

is to distribute income more evenly so participants get $10 per day

rather than $50,000 every 10 years, for example.)

Mining happens all over the world, often wherever there’s an

abundance of cheap energy. For years, much of the Bitcoin mining

has been in China, although recently, the country has started

cracking down. Researchers at the University of Cambridge who

EIA.gov, blockchain.com Actual electricity use would have been higher because of less efficient machines and the need
for cooling systems. Electrical usage is compared to the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility
customer in 2019 of 10,649 kilowatt-hours.

2

4

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021

A desktop computer
could mine with
little electricity.

Enthusiasts build
custom miners with

video gaming
hardware.

The only practical
way of mining is

now with
specialized

hardware (called
ASICs).

mine one coin
despite better

hardware.

·

https://btc.com/stats/pool

https://cbeci.org/mining_map

https://www.reuters.com/technology/cryptocurrencies-tumble-amid-china-crackdown-bitcoin-miners-2021-06-21/

https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=97&t=3

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 15 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

have been tracking Bitcoin mining said recently that China’s share

of global Bitcoin mining had fallen to 46 percent in April from 75

percent in late 2019. Meanwhile, the United States’ share of mining

grew to 16 percent from 4 percent during the same period.

Bitcoin mining means more than just emissions. Hardware piles

up, too. Everyone wants the newest, fastest machinery, which

causes high turnover and a new e-waste problem. Alex de Vries, a

Paris-based economist, estimates that every year and a half or so,

the computational power of mining hardware doubles, making

older machines obsolete. According to his calculations, at the start

of 2021, Bitcoin alone was generating more e-waste than many

midsize countries.

“Bitcoin miners are completely ignoring this issue, because they

don’t have a solution,” said Mr. de Vries, who runs Digiconomist, a

site that tracks the sustainability of cryptocurrencies. “These

machines are just dumped.”

Could it be greener?

What if Bitcoin could be mined using more sources of renewable

energy, like wind, solar or hydropower?

It’s tricky to figure out exactly how much of Bitcoin mining is

powered by renewables because of the very nature of Bitcoin: a

decentralized currency whose miners are largely anonymous.

Bitcoin Electronic Waste Monitor

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 16 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

Globally, estimates of Bitcoin’s use of renewables range from about

40 percent to almost 75 percent. But in general, experts say, using

renewable energy to power Bitcoin mining means it won’t be

available to power a home, a factory or an electric car.

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 17 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

A handful of miners are starting to experiment with harnessing

excess natural gas from oil and gas drilling sites, but examples like

that are still sparse and difficult to quantify. Plus, that practice

could eventually spur more drilling. Miners have also claimed to

tap the surplus hydropower generated during the rainy season in

places like southwest China. But if those miners operate through

the dry season, they would primarily be drawing on fossil fuels.

“As far as we can tell, it’s mostly baseload fossil fuels that are still

being used, but that varies seasonally, as well as country to

country,” said Benjamin A. Jones, an assistant professor in

economics at the University of New Mexico, whose research

involves the environmental impact of cryptomining. “That’s why

you get these wildly different estimates,” he said.

Could the way Bitcoin works be rewritten to use less energy? Some

other minor cryptocurrencies have promoted an alternate

bookkeeping system, where processing transactions is won not

through computational labor but by proving ownership of enough

coins. This would be more efficient. But it hasn’t been proven at

scale, and isn’t likely to take hold with Bitcoin because, among

other reasons, Bitcoin stakeholders have a powerful financial

incentive not to change, since they’ve already invested so much in

mining.

Some governments are as wary of Bitcoin as environmentalists

are. If they were to limit mining, that could theoretically reduce the

energy strain. But remember, this is a network designed to exist

without middlemen. Places like China are already creating

https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/oil-drillers-bitcoin-miners-bond-over-natural-gas-2021-05-21/

5/20/22, 6:24 AMBitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible? – The New York Times

Page 18 of 18https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/03/climate/bitcoin-carbon-footprint-electricity.html

restrictions around mining, but miners are reportedly moving to

coal-rich Kazakhstan and the cheap-but-troubled Texas electric

grid.

For the foreseeable future, Bitcoin’s energy consumption is likely to

remain volatile for as long as its price does.

Though Bitcoin mining might not involve pickaxes and hard hats,

it’s not a purely digital abstraction, either: It is connected to the

physical world of fossil fuels, power grids and emissions, and to the

climate crisis we’re in today. What was imagined as a forward-

thinking digital currency has already had real-world ramifications,

and those continue to mount.

Bitcoin historical data from blockchain.com. Energy estimates from Cambridge Bitcoin
Electricity Consumption Index. State-level, air-conditioning and total U.S. electricity
consumption data from EIA. Google electricity data from Google’s 2020 environmental report.

https://cbeci.org/

https://cbeci.org/

https://www.eia.gov/electricity/state/

https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/data/browser/#/?id=4-AEO2021%C2%AEion=0-0&cases=ref2021&start=2019&end=2050&f=A&linechart=~~~~ref2021-d113020a.22-4-AEO2021&map=&ctype=linechart&sourcekey=0

https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/data/browser/#/?id=4-AEO2021%C2%AEion=0-0&cases=ref2021&start=2019&end=2050&f=A&linechart=~~~~ref2021-d113020a.22-4-AEO2021&map=&ctype=linechart&sourcekey=0

https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/data/browser/#/?id=4-AEO2021%C2%AEion=0-0&cases=ref2021&start=2019&end=2050&f=A&linechart=~~~~ref2021-d113020a.22-4-AEO2021&map=&ctype=linechart&sourcekey=0

https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/data/browser/#/?id=2-AEO2021%C2%AEion=1-0&cases=ref2021&start=2019&end=2050&f=A&linechart=ref2021-d113020a.103-2-AEO2021.1-0&map=ref2021-d113020a.4-2-AEO2021.1-0&ctype=linechart&sourcekey=0

https://www.gstatic.com/gumdrop/sustainability/google-2020-environmental-report.pdf

5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

Page 1 of 16https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water/

The Secret Cost of Google’s Data Centers:
Billions of Gallons of Water to Cool

Servers

I

BY NIKITHA SATTIRAJU / BLOOMBERG

APRIL 2, 2020 1:29 AM EDT

n August 2019, the Arizona

Municipal Water Users

Association built a 16-foot pyramid

of jugs in its main entrance in

Google Vice President Majd Bakar speaks on-stage during the annual

Game Developers Conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco,

California on March 19, 2019. Josh Edelson–AFP/Getty Images

https://time.com/author/bloomberg/

https://time.com/

5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

Page 2 of 16https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water/

Phoenix. The goal was to show

residents of this desert region how

much water they each use a day—

120 gallons—and to encourage

conservation.

“We must continue to do our part

every day,” executive director

Warren Tenney wrote in a blog

post. “Some of us are still high-end

water users who could look for

more ways to use water a bit more

wisely.”

A few weeks earlier in nearby Mesa,

Google proposed a plan for a giant

data center among the cacti and

tumbleweeds. The town is a

founding member of the Arizona

Municipal Water Users Association,

but water conservation took a back

seat in the deal it struck with the

largest U.S. internet company.

Google is guaranteed 1 million

gallons a day to cool the data

center, and up to 4 million gallons

a day if it hits project milestones. If

that was a pyramid of water jugs, it

would tower thousands of feet into

Arizona’s cloudless sky.

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https://www.amwua.org/blog/how-does-your-water-use-stack-up

http://mesa.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3998203&GUID=FC6B9CE4-208A-4AC1-AB2A-40255C1E9F74

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5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

Page 3 of 16https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water/

Alphabet’s Google is building more

data centers across the U.S. to

power online searches, web

advertising and cloud services. The

company has boasted for years that

these huge computer-filled

warehouses are energy efficient

and environmentally friendly. But

there’s a cost that the company

tries to keep secret. These facilities

use billions of gallons of water,

sometimes in dry areas that are

struggling to conserve this limited

public resource.

“Data centers are expanding,

they’re going everywhere. They

need to be built in a way that

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5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

Page 4 of 16https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water/

ensures they are not taking critical

resources away from water-scarce

communities,” said Gary Cook,

global climate campaigns director

at Stand.earth, an environmental

advocacy group.

Google considers its water use a

proprietary trade secret and bars

even public officials from

disclosing the company’s

consumption. But information has

leaked out, sometimes through

legal battles with local utilities and

conservation groups. In 2019 alone,

Google requested, or was granted,

more than 2.3 billion gallons of

water for data centers in three

different states, according to public

records posted online and legal

filings.

Clashes over the company’s water

use may increase as it chases

Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft

Corp. in the booming cloud-

computing market. Google has 21

data center locations currently.

After pumping $13 billion into

offices and data centers in 2019, it

https://www.stand.earth/about-us

https://amazon.com/

https://www.google.com/about/datacenters/locations/

5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

Page 5 of 16https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water/

plans to spend another $10 billion

across the U.S. this year.

“The race for data centers to keep

up with it all is pretty frantic,” said

Kevin Kent, chief executive officer

of consulting firm Critical Facilities

Efficiency Solutions. “They can’t

always make the most

environmentally best choices.”

Google often puts data centers

close to large population hubs to

help its web services respond

quickly. Sometimes that means

building in hot and dry regions.

The processing units inside heat up

easily and water is needed to cool

them down.

“We strive to build sustainability

into everything we do,” said Gary

Demasi, senior director of energy

and location operations at Google.

“We’re proud that our data centers

are some of the most efficient in

the world, and we have worked to

reduce their environmental impact

even as demand for our products

has dramatically risen.”

https://blog.google/inside-google/company-announcements/continuing-grow-invest-across-america-2020/?fbclid=IwAR1vv-74kSIkjSCv2js27oDVuXxuCdi5XGTWsjSoS3Sd-b2KjvxaU0WYxeY

5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

Page 6 of 16https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water/

In Red Oak, Texas, a town about 20

miles south of Dallas, Google wants

as much as 1.46 billion gallons of

water a year for a new data center

by 2021, according to a legal filing.

Ellis County, which includes Red

Oak and roughly 20 other towns,

will need almost 15 billion gallons

this year for everything from

irrigation to residential use, data

from the Texas Water Development

Board show.

Many parts of Texas are already

seeing high water demand,

according to Venki Uddameri,

director of the water resources

center at Texas Tech University.

“With climate change, we are

expected to have more prolonged

droughts,” he said. “These kinds of

water-intensive operations add to

the local stress.”

Water-scarce cities have to make

trade-offs between conservation

and economic development, and

cash-rich Google is a big draw. “It’s

a constant battle in Texas because

of wanting both,” said Uddameri.

https://interchange.puc.texas.gov/Documents/49863_21_1037351.PDF

5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

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In August, Google filed a petition

with the Public Utility Commission

of Texas to strip a local utility in

Red Oak, Rockett Special Utility

District, of its federal right to be

the sole water supplier to the

property. Google said it filed the

petition after Rockett confirmed it

doesn’t have the capacity to meet

the company’s demands. If

approved, the petition would let

Google get water from another

provider.

Rockett contested this in a legal

response and said Google provided

little information on how the water

will be used, both in its application

to the utility and in “vague”

conversations involving company

representatives. Despite that,

Google made “incessant” requests

for the utility to assess if it can

meet the company’s water needs,

Rockett said in legal filings. Google

paid Rockett to do a report on

whether the utility could provide

enough water for the project. That

report has not been submitted and

the internet company has been

https://interchange.puc.texas.gov/Documents/49863_1_1039552.PDF

https://interchange.puc.texas.gov/Search/Documents?controlNumber=49863&itemNumber=21

5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

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pressing the utility to complete it,

according to Google.

Rockett brought a case against

Texas’ public utility commissioners

for refusing to dismiss Google’s

petition despite being aware of the

utility’s rights. A Google entity,

Alamo Mission LLC, is named as a

defendant in the case. Lawyers for

Rockett declined to comment on

the ongoing case. Google says it’s

not the only one looking for an

alternative to Rockett. Another

development in Red Oak is also

seeking an alternate water supply,

according to the company.

The planned data center in Red Oak

would be Google’s second in Texas.

It struck a deal with the city in July

2019. Red Oak officials told

residents about Google’s plans

ahead of time, according to Todd

Fuller, the city manager. There

wasn’t much concern about the

impact the data center could have

on local resources including water,

according to Fuller. “Our water

system is pretty robust,” he said,

5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

Page 9 of 16https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water/

adding that the city doesn’t use its

full water capacity.

Red Oak isn’t so laid back about

water use on its website, though.

On a page dedicated to water

conservation, the city says it gets

half its water supply from Dallas

and encourages residents to reduce

water use because Dallas’ six

reservoirs are 18% depleted.

Mandatory water restrictions will

kick in if those sources become 35%

depleted. Fuller did not respond to

requests for comment on the

matter.

Google said it doesn’t use all the

water it requests, but the company

must make sure enough is available

for periods of high demand, or

when the weather’s particularly

hot. That’s necessary to keep

internet services reliable, according

to the company.

Google’s data center water use

became a subject of controversy

last year in Berkeley County, South

Carolina. An environmental group

https://www.redoaktx.org/296/Voluntary-Water-Conservation

5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

Page 10 of 16https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water/

opposed the company’s request for

1.5 million gallons of groundwater

a day from what it said was a

“historically threatened” source.

The company has also worked with

Berkeley County Water &

Sanitation to get 5 million gallons

a day from the Charleston Water

system. Google said its share of this

supply is far less than 5 million

gallons a day, with the rest

available for the broader

community.

Google has been trying to secure

the 1.5 million gallons—triple the

daily amount it’s currently allowed

in Berkeley County—since 2016.

The Coastal Conservation League

took issue with Google’s refusal to

share information on how it will be

using the extra water. Despite the

opposition, the South Carolina

Department of Health and

Environmental Control granted

Google’s request, triggering a

backlash from some residents.

The conservation league called out

5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

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the DHEC for giving Google so

much water while asking a local

public utility, Mount Pleasant

Waterworks, to reduce its

withdrawal from the aquifer by 57%

over the next four years. The utility

exceeded its previous peak use

demand by 25% in May 2019, one of

the driest months last year in

Berkeley County, according to Clay

Duffie, general manager of Mount

Pleasant Waterworks.

“It’s unfair that the DHEC is asking

us to reduce our water withdrawal

while someone like Google can

come in and ask for three times

more than their original permit and

get it,” Duffie said.

Google eventually backed off its

groundwater request and reached

an agreement with the league to

only use it as a last resort. The deal

still lets the company withdraw

groundwater if there’s a shortfall,

when conducting maintenance, or

when demand exceeds available

potable or storm water supplies

during peak user activity.

https://www.scdhec.gov/sites/default/files/media/document/19-RFR-48%20Consent%20Agreement.pdf

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The Arizona town of Mesa, where

Google plans a 750,000 square-foot

data center, gets half its water from

the drought-prone Colorado River.

A contingency plan was signed into

law last year requiring states

dependent on the river to take

voluntary conservation measures.

Still, Mesa officials say they remain

confident about future supply while

continuing to remind residents to

limit their water consumption. “We

do not have any immediate

concerns,” said Kathy Macdonald, a

water resources planning adviser

with the city. In 2019, Mesa used 28

billion gallons of water, according

to Macdonald. City officials expect

that to reach 60 billion gallons a

year by 2040, a demand Mesa is

capable of meeting, she said.

Big companies like Google wouldn’t

locate to the city if it couldn’t meet

their water demands, Macdonald

said. Mesa passed an ordinance in

2019 to ensure sustainable water

use by large operations and fine

them if they exceed their

allowance.

https://medium.com/@HNRDems/the-colorado-river-drought-contingency-plan-dcp-is-officially-law-c793ba4b07fe

https://www.mesaaz.gov/home/showdocument?id=34772

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Google has toiled for years to

reduce the carbon footprint of data

centers. Today, the facilities churn

out a lot more computer power for

every watt of energy used. In its

2019 environmental report, the

company argued that reducing its

energy use also makes it more

water-efficient. “Generating

electricity requires water, so the

less energy we use to power our

data centers, the less water we use

as well,” it said.

However, data center experts say

there’s usually a trade-off between

water and energy use. “If the water

consumption goes down, energy

consumption goes up and vice

versa,” said Otto Van Geet, a

principal engineer at the National

Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Google relies on “evaporative

cooling,” which evaporates water to

cool the air around the processing

units stacked inside data centers,

according to its environmental

report. The most common systems,

known as computer room air

https://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/google_2019-environmental-report.pdf

5/20/22, 6:23 AMSecret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water | Time

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conditioners, are energy intensive.

Evaporative cooling uses less

energy, but the process requires

more water. Operators will often

embrace the thirstier approach

because it’s less expensive, said

Cook from Stand.earth.

“Water’s cheap. In many places, the

energy costs are much higher” he

added.

In a data center application the

company filed in Henderson,

Nevada, in 2018, Google’s

considerations included utility and

real estate costs, tax incentives and

availability of qualified workers.

Google has paid more attention to

water use in recent years. It relies

on recycled water or seawater

where it can to avoid using

drinking water or draining local

supplies. Google also says it saves

water by recirculating it through

cooling systems multiple times. In

Mesa, the company is working with

authorities on a water credits

program, but said it’s too early to

https://www.diversifynevada.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/5-C.-Design-LLC-Board-Packet.pdf

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Page 15 of 16https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water/

share more details.

From 2007 to 2012, Google used

regular drinking water to cool its

data center in Douglas County, just

outside Atlanta. After realizing the

water “didn’t need to be clean

enough to drink,” the company

shifted to recycled water to help

conserve the nearby Chattahoochee

River. It’s difficult to use similar

approaches for other data center

locations because the required

technology isn’t always available,

according to the company.

“The Chattahoochee provides

drinking water, public greenspace

and recreational activities for

millions of people,” the company

said in a blog post at the time.

“We’re glad to do our part in

creating an environmentally

sustainable economy along the

shores of the Hooch.”

–With assistance from Mark

Bergen.

CONTACT US AT [email protected]

https://green.googleblog.com/2012/03/helping-hooch-with-water-conservation.html

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5/20/22, 6:20 AMThe materiality of the cloud | Eurozine

Page 1 of 22https://www.eurozine.com/the-materiality-of-the-cloud/

The materiality of the cloud
On the hard conditions of soft digitization

Christina Gratorp
24 September 2020

FRONESIS
SWEDEN

#SOFTWARE #INTERNET

#TECHNOLOGY #POVERTY

#ECOLOGY #POLLUTION

PDF/PRINT

Overdue: The ecology of
humans
37 articles

North Sea oil voyage
Pieter Vermeulen

Careless mothers, sterile
goddesses and ungrateful
offspring
Adele Dipasquale

Of beasts and men
Julian Baggini

Outer Space, the next Wild West
Susmita Mohanty

The reality of ‘never again’
Sakshi

A European elephant in the room
Tim Flannery
Lore Gablier

Supply, demand or prayer

Although we often think about the Internet as
immaterial, storing the seemingly abstract ones and
zeros requires actual, mechanical work. Those who
provide the material means are continuously
underpaid, thus ‘growth’ and ‘development’ at the
centre result in energy depletion in the periphery.

In his 1992 essay ‘There is No Software’, literary scholar and
media theorist Friedrich Kittler argued that modern writing
is governed by commercial companies such as IBM.[1] By
buying computers with proprietary parts and programs
whose source code is hidden from view, we are only allowed
to create in ways that are already pre-determined.
Programming languages cannot exist independently of the
hardware and processors that interpret and run them. Since
virtually all writing today is done on computers, and the
hardware used to write is proprietary, software and the act of
writing itself have ceased to exist, according to Kittler. In
short, we can only write in ways allowed by technology
companies and market forces.[2]

Kittler’s insight that software is indistinguishable from the
hardware on which it is run is a crucial one. In addition to
limit how we write, this means that the software – which is
often referred to as weightless and intangible – like
everything else in our known universe is limited by its
material conditions.

In an economy based on growth, the palpable material
aspect of software is even more highlighted. When software
development is rushed, resulting in badly tested, unstable
code, it does not only break itself but also risk rendering its
hosting hardware useless. Anyone who has tried to upgrade
their smart phone knows that the new software might very
well occasion the purchase of a new phone, if it turns out

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Akgün İlhan

An ode to Marmara
Kaya Genç

A patch of moonlight
Ruth Padel

A just transformation?
Peter Wegenschimmel

$$ ## && ” ((

that the hardware is no longer compatible. This, of course, is
not unintentional.

In mainstream narrative, technology as a public good is the
political gospel of the day. Countless initiatives aim at
making industries, schools and homes more environmentally
friendly through the implementation of new technical
solutions. Digitization, with its hyper-accessible, paperless
society, represents the modern hope of an ever-accelerated
efficiency. All you need is an Internet connection – the rest is
in the cloud.

But what are the prerequisites of programmability and what
are its consequences? Kittler objected that the belief that the
universe could be represented in binary code was a
stupefying one, but there are also pressing environmental
and humanitarian aspects of today’s extensive use of
software. The software might make our surrounding world of
devices configurable, but how efficient is it really, and what
do we mean when we talk about efficiency?

Big bytes in small packages

A computer is a machine that processes data. Whereas
software enables a computer to perform operations,
hardware comprises things such as cables, housings, and
other physical components. Software is called soft because it
can be changed by rewriting code, while that which it in turn
manipulates is called hardware. The early computers,
constructed around the time for the second world war, were
big machines. “Colossus” and “Eniac”, built for war
purposes, weighed 5 and 27 tons respectively. Initially, the
size of the machines grew along with increasing computer
power, but with the new understanding of the element
silicon, the size of the computers started to shrink.

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The world’s first microprocessor, Intel 4004, was launched
in 1971. The prefix ‘micro’ indicates that it is an integrated
circuit, i.e. a self-contained installation on a single silicon
wafer. Although it was no bigger than a fingernail, it offered
the same computational power that thirty years earlier
required hardware filling an entire room. The
commercialization of this compact calculator paved the way
for a whole new type of consumer products. A few years
later, the microprocessor was joined by both random-access
memory and program memory on the same chip and the
microcontroller was born. One chip, one computer. With
this, everything could be controlled.

The microcontroller was soon built into all kinds of

Originally called CSIR Mk 1, this huge computer was among the

first five in the world and ran its first test program in 1949. It was

constructed by the Division of Radiophysics to the designs of

Trevor Pearcey and Maston Beard. Photo dated 1952. Photo by

CSIRO / CC BY via Wikimedia Commons.

Microcomputer learning kit LC80 ( Lerncomputer 80; VEB

Mikroelektronik “Karl Marx” Erfurt, 1984) Photo by pontacko /

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

5/20/22, 6:20 AMThe materiality of the cloud | Eurozine

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consumer goods. Its small size meant that it could fit in all

sorts of products, from phones, tools and toys to watches
and headphones. Electrical appliances soon became
electronic, with electrical circuits that could be manipulated.
Thanks to the microcontroller and the development of the
Internet, our homes and workplaces have become
programmable. Things that previously only had two settings
(‘on’ and ‘off’) now offer countless possibilities for
configuration and connection. A modern lamp and dimmer,
for example, allows for control of the brightness of the light
and its colour, and functions such as a timer can be managed
remotely with a mobile phone.

The development has been rapid, and the number of
products containing a microcontroller has become virtually
uncountable. According to the Internet Foundation in
Sweden (IIS), over the past decade the number of computers
outpaced the number of people in Swedish households.[3]

But despite the fact that we are now surrounded by a
programmable environment, we rarely think about this
amount of configuration possibilities from a resource
allocation view. In her collection of essays Simians, Cyborgs,
and Women, Donna Haraway describes how our experience
of technology changes with its miniaturization and how the
spectral materiality of technology obscures its relationship to
power and politics.[4]

The minuscule size of the discreet unit diverts the mind from
the gigantic industry that consumes vast amounts of
material resources, and the working conditions of the labour
force supplying the industry with these resources.

Configuration and code

A configuration is a compilation of possible outcomes. Let’s
use a coffee maker as an example. It has two basic categories
(temperature and strength), and each category consists of
two modes (warm or hot for temperature; weak or strong for
strength). Each configuration is the combination of these
modes, which means that four different configurations are
possible. The coffee maker’s simple functions are carried out
by hardware such as wires and actuators.

5/20/22, 6:20 AMThe materiality of the cloud | Eurozine

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However, in a more complicated device such as a mobile
phone, the number of possible configurations are no longer
achievable without a programmable unit. An
electromechanical phone would require a room or even an
entire house full of levers, buttons and wires. New features
would need to be added by hand. And the same applies for
the coffee maker.

But with a built-in microcontroller, new configurations can
be implemented with a simple firmware upgrade via the
manufacturer’s website. A microcontroller built into the
coffee

maker could allow new temperatures and strengths without
tampering with the hardware.[5] Is this, then, a simple code
upgrade, one that is efficient and intangible? Before we
consider such questions, let’s backtrack a few steps and look
closer at the code – the soft craftmanship of the digital
sphere – to clarify what precedes such software purchases.

Code is instructions for processors – a combinational logic of
the machine. Computers operate in the binary numbering
system, where the smallest unit of information is a bit
(usually one or zero). The first computers were programmed
with specific machine code, i.e. long lines of ones and zeros.
In an 8-bit system, entering the character ‘A’ could be done

An old classic, ‘Krémkávé Expressz’ espresso machine

photographed in Budapest back in 1958. In these machines, hot

water was pressed through the coffee grounds manually. Photo by

Sándor Bauer from Fortepan.

5/20/22, 6:20 AMThe materiality of the cloud | Eurozine

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with the sequence 01000001. To simplify the input, various
high-level languages were gradually developed, serving as
representations for the underlying machine code. Syntactic
symbols, signifier to signified.[6]

Instead of entering the bit sequences digit by digit, for
example, the sequences for reading data from memory,
moving it to a register for addition, adding it to the value in
another register and finally placing the sum in a third
register, a more readable code could be used to achieve the
same final operation. Ten lines of binary code were replaced
with the single line c = a + b. As of today, this is the syntax in
all high-level languages, such as C, Java or Python. However,
even though the alphabetical character ‘A’ is represented by
the keyboard symbol ‘A’, the binary sequence of ones and
zeros inevitably has to be stored in the memory. Under the
bonnet, the original bit shuffling is still taking place.

Similarly, modern computer programmes translate binary
code into characters that are legible to human beings — be
they letters, sounds or images. Kittler compares today’s
plethora of software to a postmodern Tower of Babel,
extending from machine code, whose linguistic extension is a
hardware configuration, via assembler to high-level
languages, which, after processing by command-line
interpreters, compilers and linkers, turn into machine code
yet again.[7] From representations of natural languages,
sounds and images to binary suites and back again in a
continuous, never-ending process.

The difference, Kittler stresses, is that a natural language is
its own meta-language and therefore carries the ability to
somehow explain itself, whereas the connections between
the different layers of formal programming languages are
constructed with mathematical logic.

The firmware upgrade of the coffee maker is dependent on
this constant, but obscured, transformation. Thus, the
simple firmware upgrade is part of a resource intensive
infrastructure that provides highways for information.

New trade routes

Like all commodities, the configuration needs a trade route.
Just as railroads created new trade routes during the

5/20/22, 6:20 AMThe materiality of the cloud | Eurozine

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Industrial Revolution, the Internet-as-infrastructure has

created new trade routes for the distribution of software, and
commodities in general. The predecessor of the Internet, the
military research project Arpanet, began development in the
United States during the Cold War. A pivotal idea was to
create a decentralized network in which nodes related non-
hierarchically to each other. Today, however, this concept
has been replaced by centralized business models, and the
network is dominated by a few large companies.

Physically, the Internet consists of local networks, municipal
networks and wide area networks, linked by national and
global connections. Households are connected to
neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods to cities, and cities to
countries and continents. The world’s seabeds are traversed
by cables. Approximately 400 submarine cables, with an
estimated total length of 1.2 million kilometres, connect the
continents of the world.[8] Giant companies like Microsoft
and Facebook have been joined by many others in setting up
their own world-sea connections.[9] These are the trade
routes of our time, crucial to the global economy and the way
we communicate.

At the other end of the network we find our consumer
products, things such as coffee makers, personal computers,
tablets and televisions. The list comprises essentially
everything with built-in electronics, Bluetooth, WIFI or
RFID, which allows for the exchange of data over a network.
With an estimated 30 billion devices connected to the
Internet, the so-called ‘Internet of things’ has been the
entrepreneurial dream of the last twenty years,[10] and the
figure is predicted to double in five years.[11]

This infrastructure does not only consume huge amounts of
energy, but also require great amounts of labour power. In
2017, software developer was the tenth most common
profession in Sweden, just ahead of preschool teacher.[12]

What makes this development possible?

Machines matter (and so does energy)

The history of technological development is also the history
of capital and energy flows. Just like the railroads and
industrialization, digital infrastructure requires extensive

5/20/22, 6:20 AMThe materiality of the cloud | Eurozine

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resources in terms of building materials and labour, let alone

energy. Digital technology also promotes the exchange of
raw materials for profit.

At its most fundamental, a machine converts energy, and
according to the first principle of thermodynamics, energy
can neither be created nor destroyed, but transferred from
one form to another. However, this process of
transformation yields unusable energy, usually in the form of
heat. As a result, a commodity’s available energy is gradually
used up, which explains why we haven’t been able to create
perpetual motion machines.

Based on these unavoidable fundamentals of physics, the
human ecologist Alf Hornborg has shown how assemblies of
technological machinery in the world’s industrial ‘core’ rely
on a net import of useful energy from the industrial
‘periphery’.[13] It is easy to think of electronic machines as
operating without physically moving parts, but storing the
seemingly abstract ones and zeros requires actual,
mechanical work. The bits are stored in memory cells,
metaphorically resembling small switches, called flip-flops.
In one state, the flip-flop signifies one, in the other state
zero. And just as software is essentially constructed of logical
ones and zeros, at the bottom of the material chain of
exchange we arrive at the physical relationship between
matter and energy. Information storage requires energy and
energy is material; there really is no cloud.

At the micro level of the machine, the principle of energy
means that components cannot be written and read forever
without being worn out just like any material. In other
words, software consumes its hardware. Thus, there is a
direct physical relationship between the inherent amount of
energy in the silicon brought up from the mining pits of the
world, and the amount of energy consumed by the software-
driven coffee maker each morning.

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However, as Hornborg points out, a commodity generally
increases in price the more it is refined. For every cycle of
transformation of raw material on its way to becoming a
commodity, the principle of energy means that useful energy
is lost, while the price rises for each cycle. This results in a
continuous underpayment of the energy of natural
resources, leading to what we call ‘growth’ and ‘development’
at the core of the system, and energy depletion in the
periphery.

The accumulation of money and time gained by certain
people in certain places has consequences for different
people in different places. The railways of nineteenth-
century England serve as example: the higher the speed of
the steam locomotives, the greater the distances that could
be traversed. The economic geographer David Harvey refers
to this phenomenon of modernity as time-space
compression[14] and Hornborg proposes approaching the
concept from a distributive perspective, in which time and
space are understood as resources available for human
exchange.

A question of time

In the construction of the railway, large amounts of
labour/time and nature/space were sacrificed by some for
the gain (of time) of others. From a materialist perspective,
the time spent on building the railways (its locomotives, rails
and wagons) and the space used to manufacture them
(timber, iron, coal and steel) must be juxtaposed with

The seconds saved on the brewing are paid for dearly by those who

make it possible. Photo by tyukin.photo from Freepix.

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shortened travel time. In addition, Hornborg describes the

consumption of space to maintain productivity in an
industrialized country as ‘ghost acreage’, and he uses the
importation of cotton into England in 1850 as an example.

The textile goods which required 394 million hours of work,
mainly slave labour, and 1.1 million hectares of arable land in
the USA, required only half of the working time and a
sixtieth of the land area in England in order to be refined
into the final products.[15] Hence, the railway’s time-saving
effect for English travellers is linked to the spatial area of the
cotton fields, the working hours of weavers and the direct
consumption of human life, as slaves were degraded from
human status.[16]

We must remember that the term efficiency, when attributed
to modern technology (e.g. transport as well as a processor),
is an economic rather than a physical matter. Technological
development suggests a kind of natural progression in the
same manner as biological evolution, but the former is
simply an expression of this redistribution of resources, one
that, in the context of our present consideration, maintains
the use and design of the Internet. In other words,
technological development should not be seen as a force in
itself, but as something which presupposes ‘the global
exchange relations that allow privileged groups which
command purchasing power to invest in and incessantly
afford to maintain [machines] and supply them with fuel’.
[17]

The global social divide and the unequal energy flows are
prerequisites for the network’s expansion and utilization.
This ‘digital inequality’ can be visualized by placing maps of
national GDP on top of digital access. Countries with GDP
below the world average and those in which a low share of
the population has digital access overlap to a large extent.
[18] These regions, such as southern Africa and South
America, also coincide with the world’s largest deposits of
the raw materials necessary for the construction of digital
infrastructure.

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If we examine the Internet on a macro level, we can
investigate more closely the unequal flows that not only
create monetary profits, but also create profits in the factors
of time and space in the core and exploitation in the
periphery. As access to the Internet increases, so, too, does
time-space compression and the size of ghost acreages. From
a contemporary perspective, a comparison must be made
between the labour/time of mine workers in, for example,
China and Brazil, and the extracted nature/space of these
regions on the one hand, and the time gained by groups in
the system ‘core’ with digital access on the other. Silicon and
other rare minerals are today what steel was during the
Industrial Revolution. In 2018, 6.7 million tons of silicon
were produced globally,[19] leaving vast landscapes
uninhabitable.[20]

The metals extracted from conflict minerals, such as tin,
tungsten, tantalum, and gold ore, are vital raw materials for
the production of electronic appliances and are crucial for
the hardware, and thus software, industries. Tantalum is
found in capacitors; tin is used as soldering material;
tungsten makes devices vibrate; and gold is necessary in a
quantity of components. Cobalt, which is used in many types
of lithium-ion batteries, is not yet on the United States’
official list of conflict minerals (although some suggest it
should be).[21] Digitization would not be possible without
these raw materials.

Graphic by Stefano De Sabbata and Mark Graham / CC BY

via Wikimedia Commons.

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These metals are largely extracted under inhumane
conditions, with the profits serving to finance ongoing
political conflicts. Cobalt, for example, is mainly mined in
the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to the EU,
the amount of recycled cobalt available to manufacturers is
zero percent.[22]

Alongside large corporations, mining is carried out, with
neither supervision nor control, by a vast range of small
companies. Organizations such as Amnesty International
regularly report on human rights violations and child labour
in small-scale mining, which has experienced explosive
growth in recent years due to the rise in mineral prices and
the increasing difficulty of earning a living from agriculture.
[23] This, in turn, is linked to water shortages caused by
climate change as well as agriculture for industry and
manufacturing crowding out agricultural for food.

As digital infrastructure grows, so, too, does the technomass
now competing with humans and other biomass for living
space on a planet with finite space.[24] As energy in the form
of raw material is imported to the world’s industrial cores,
there is an opposite shift of environmental quality in the
system peripheries, including export of obsolete, toxic
technomass to countries such as Nigeria, Afghanistan and
Syria.[25]

Coltane mine in Rubaya, photo by MONUSCO Photos / CC BY-SA

via Wikimedia Commons.

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A thirst for power

The Internet also requires fuel to operate. Whether
streaming a film, shopping online, or sending e-mails, the
lowest-level transmission of information consists of ones
and zeros sent with electrical or optical signals via the
numerous nodes that make up the network. It is estimated
that the Internet alone accounts for ten percent of the
world’s electricity consumption.[26] An overlapping of the
topographies of the Internet in the United States with its
power grids reveals an ‘acute dependency’ between digital
access and electrical power.

Figures for the total energy consumption of the Internet
vary, but a conservative estimate indicates a yearly
consumption rate of 1230 terawatt-hours.[27] In more
digestible figures, this means that the energy consumed in
one hour corresponds to the consumption of 5,000
residential Swedish households over the course of a year.
[28] Other research suggest an even higher consumption
rate (but still argue it is conservative), which indicates that
the total energy consumed by Internet could provide
electricity, hearing, and transportation for the equivalent of
four Sweden.[29]

If we use the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s per capita
energy use as an index, then the energy consumed each year
when powering the Internet would be enough for the entire
population of earth.[30] Just browsing the web without
downloading anything has been suggested to consume 3,000
litres of water during a year, which is comparable to the

The Internet of Trash. Photo by Alex Proimos from Flickr.

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annual water consumption of a household in a country with

water scarcity.[31] The Internet’s carbon dioxide emissions
alone are now estimated to be on par with the global aviation
industry.[32]

What is this energy used for?

Streaming video is now responsible for 75 percent of all
transmitted data,[33] with companies such as Netflix and
YouTube as the main drivers of this development. The porn
industry is also a big contributor, accounting for an
estimated 10-15 percent of all online searches.[34] Google
and Facebook drive 80 percent of all Internet traffic.[35] If
printed, the code run by Google’s online services alone
would comprise 36 million pages; the stack of paper would
reach the highest layers in the troposphere.[36]

These companies base their entire business model on the
collection of personal data, which is then stored, threshed by
algorithmic software, and presented to users in the form of
advertising. Just these two companies alone drive
continuous flows of interaction, involving reinterpretation,
representation, ad clicks, data collection, new algorithmic
analysis, new ads, etc., in a seemingly endless loop of data.

When seen from this perspective, the Internet seems more
like a giant amusement park for certain consumer groups,
targeted by multinational energy, technology, and
information companies, which is at odds with its perceived
environmentally friendliness and energy efficiency.

Materiality. Photo by Torkild Retvedt from Flickr.

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Software’s potential

We sometimes refer to the ecological footprint of nations,
but they vary greatly depending on which aspects of time-
space compression and ghost acreages that are included in
the calculations. As long as we continue on our current
course, any increases in sustainability will only result in
maintaining the status quo rather than achieving genuine
sustainability.[37]

Once extracted, raw materials cannot be put back into the
earth. A discussion about sustainability beyond the limits of
the capitalist relations of production must therefore be
willing to ask questions about why we develop technology.
What functionality justifies consuming the earth’s resources?

A trademark of innovation, often linked to the discussion of
digitization, is to not offer new functions — only new
implementations of pre-existing ones. This type of
innovation is seen as an opportunity for endless growth. As
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee write:

When businesses are based on bits instead of atoms, then
each new product adds to the set of building blocks
available to the next entrepreneur instead of depleting the
stock of ideas the way minerals or farmlands are depleted
in the physical world. […] We are in no danger of running
out of new combinations to try. Even if technology froze
today, we have more possible ways of configuring the
different applications, machines, tasks, and distribution
channels to create new processes and products than we
could ever exhaust.[38]

But what from an economic perspective seems like a
cornucopia of growth has no equivalent in the real physical
world. Software in its very essence ‘deplete the physical
world’, since bits presuppose atoms. Still, if we coded better,
conducted more rigorous testing and recycled more, it would
not, even bringing matters to a head, be physically possible
not to consume matter and energy. Today, our extensive use
of limited resources has well started to show in the forms of
climbing global temperatures, raging wild fires, melting
polar ices and increasing amounts of climate refugees.[39]

What value is actually added by the extensive configuration

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capabilities offered by modern software technology?

Ultimately, returning to our previous example, the coffee
maker brews the same kind of coffee as it would without the
microcontroller, simply necessitating the manual regulation
of the dose of powder. The few seconds gained by this
‘reconfiguration’ have not been conjured from thin air and
the functionality is not new. The price we pay for a perpetual
increase in the number of configurations is not least
reflected in the diminishing lifespan of electronics, partly
due to the fragility arising from miniaturization in
combination with consumerism and planned obsolescence.

The laws of physics cannot be altered and, no matter the
shape of the business model, software production cannot be
separated from the material world. But perhaps there is a
way to disseminate information via software without
reproducing and furthering inequality.

From a Marxist perspective, Alf Hornborg argues that
dividing the economic sphere into several spheres could be a
way forward. In such an economy, labour hours in the mines
of Congo are no longer traded within the same sphere as a
Netflix subscription, and thus any work cannot be compared
with any other.

In terms of hardware and software, it would mean trading in
different, unexchangeable currencies, where hardware does
not come as cheap. This could trigger a different approach to
software development. In their book A History of the World
in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, too,

An inverted cloud: a 20 meters deep, deserted mining tunnel for

cobalt ore in the Congo. Photo by Fairphone – CC BY-NC-SA.

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argue that nature and labour power is too cheap, elaborating

on cheapness as something more than low cost; it is rather a
capitalist strategy.[40]

The questions of why we develop technology, for what
purposes and for whose consumerist pleasures, must
therefore be asked to underline technology’s political
dimension. We are in pressing need of egalitarian answers,
and actions, regarding the world ecology and forms of
human labour. Given today’s production system, however, it
seems that Kittler was right about the software. There is no
cloud, only other people’s computers.

[1] Friedrich Kittler, ‘There Is No Software’, Stanford
Literature Review, no. 9 (Spring 1992): p. 147-155.

[2] Friedrich Kittler, Literature, Media, Information
Systems, ed. John Johnston (Amsterdam: GB Arts
International, 1997).

[3] Olle Findahl, ‘Svenskarna och Internet 2011’, p. 10.

[4] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The
Reinvention of Nature (Routledge: New York,1991), p.153.

[5] Given the hardware is constructed to allow this.

[6] The relationship between signifier and signified is the
relationship between the name of a thing (its expression)
and the thing (its content).

[7] Kittler, ‘There Is No Software’, p. 148.

[8] See, for example, TeleGeography’s website Submarine
Cable Frequently Asked Questions.

[9] Elizabeth Weise, ‘Microsoft, Facebook to lay massive
undersea cable’, USA Today, 30 May 2016.

[10] See Statista’s website: Internet of Things (IoT)
connected devices installed base worldwide from 2015 to
2025, 27 November 2016.

[11] Philip N. Howard, ‘Sketching out the Internet of Things
trendline’, 9 June 2015.

[12] See Statistics Sweden (SCB).

https://internetstiftelsen.se/docs/SOI2011.pdf

https://www2.telegeography.com/submarine-cable-faqs-frequently-asked-questions

https://www.usatoday.com/story/experience/2016/05/26/microsoft-facebook-undersea-cable-google-marea-amazon/84984882/

https://www.statista.com/statistics/471264/iot-number-of-connected-devices-worldwide/

Sketching out the Internet of Things trendline

https://www.scb.se/contentassets/1fe7f957920f4eaf97bddcc0270553f2/am0208_2017a01_sm_am33sm1901.pdf

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[13] Alf Hornborg, Myten om Maskinen:Essäer om makt,
modernitetochmiljö (Publisher: Place, 2012), p. 42. Here
‘core’ and ‘periphery’ are used analytically and not
geographically.

[14] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. An
Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford
[England]; Cambridge, Mass., USA : Blackwell, 1990).

[15] Hornborg, Myten om Maskinen, p. 144.

[16] Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World
in Seven Cheap Things. A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and

the Future of the Planet (Oakland (USA); University of
California Press, 2017), p. 180–201.

[17] Ibid., p. 51. [I have translated Hornborg’s text from
Swedish to English.]

[18] The statistics are taken from the International
Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) ‘Percentage of individuals
using the Internet’ and the IMF’s ‘GDP ranked by country
2019’.

[19] M. Garside, ‘Silicon – Statistics & Facts’, 4 September
2020.

[20] Ashutosh Mishra, ‘Impact of Silica Mining on
Environment’, Journal of Geography and Regional
Planning, no. 8 (2015): pp. 150-156.

[21] Swedish Riksdag, bill 2017/18:3370

[22] See Geological Survey of Sweden (SGU), ‘Kobolt – en
konfliktfylld metall’, 22 January 2018.

[23] Global trends in Artisanal and Small-scale Mining
(ASM): A review of key numbers and issues, 2017, The
International Institute for Sustainable Development,
Published by the International Institute for Sustainable
Development, Morgane Fritz, James McQuilken, Nina
Collins and FitsumWeldegiorgis.

[24] Alf Hornborg, ‘Machine fetishism and the consumer’s
burden’, Anthropology Today, no. 24 (October 2008): pp. 4-
5.

https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx

http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/countries-by-gdp/

https://www.statista.com/topics/1959/silicon/

https://www.sgu.se/om-sgu/nyheter/2018/januari/kobolt–en-konfliktfylld-metall/

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[25] See Swedish Environmental Protection Agency
(Naturvårdsverket), ‘Avfall vid illegalagränsöverskridande
transporter (2015)’.

[26] See ‘Internet drar 10% av världens elanvändning – och
andelen stiger’, 14 February 2019.

[27] David Costenaro and Anthony Duer, ‘The Megawatts
behind Your Megabytes: Going from Data-Center to
Desktop’, 2012.

[28] See Statistikmyndigheten SCB, ‘Kommuner i siffror –
tabeller och fördjupning’. The calculation is based on 25,000
kWh/year for a residential household in Sweden.

[29] Peter Corcoran and Anders S.G. ‘Andrae, Emerging
Trends in Electricity Consumption for Consumer ICT’, 2013.
Conservative estimate of 1982 TWh per year.

Reference used: 565 TWh supplied for Sweden during 2017.
‘Energiläget 2019’, Swedish Energy Agency
(Energimyndigheten), ET 2019:2 (2019).

[30] This is based on 200 kWh/capita and year. This is
however not aiming to suggest that this rate of energy
consumption is enough, only serving as comparison.

[31] See Energyguide.be, ‘Do I emit CO2 when I surf the
internet?’. Reference used: 3180 litres of water per
household per year in Congo 2008. Wikipedia.

[32] Statistics reported since at least 2007 by, for example,
Gartner, Inc.

[33] See the ‘Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and
Trends, 2017-2022 White Paper’.

[34] Julie Ruvolo, ‘How Much of the Internet is Actually for
Porn’, Forbes, 7 September 2011

[35] Martin Armstrong, ‘Referral Traffic – Google or
Facebook?’, 24 May 2017.

[36] Jeff Desjardins, ‘How many millions of lines of code
does it take?’, Visual Capitalist, 8 February 2017.

[37] Thanks to sociologist Tobias Olofsson (University of

https://cornucopia.cornubot.se/2019/02/internet-drar-10-av-varldens.html

https://www.aceee.org/files/proceedings/2012/data/papers/0193-000409.pdf

https://www.scb.se/hitta-statistik/sverige-i-siffror/kommuner-i-siffror/#?region1=0662&region2=

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/255923829_Emerging_Trends_in_Electricity_Consumption_for_Consumer_ICT

https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.ELEC.KH.PC?locations=CG

https://www.energuide.be/en/questions-answers/do-i-emit-co2-when-i-surf-the-internet/69/

https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/service-provider/visual-networking-index-vni/white-paper-c11-741490.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/julieruvolo/2011/09/07/how-much-of-the-internet-is-actually-for-porn/#47bfa4a45d16

https://www.statista.com/chart/9555/referral-traffic—google-or-facebook/

How Many Millions of Lines of Code Does It Take?

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Uppsala) for this observation.

[38] Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Race Against
the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating

Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly

Transforming Employment and the Economy (Lexington,
Massachusetts: Digital Frontier Press, 2011), p. 38.

[39] See Naturskyddsföreningen

[40] Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World
in Seven Cheap Things, p. 22.

Published 24 September 2020
Original in English
First published by Fronesis 64-
65 (2020)

Contributed by Fronesis ©
Christina Gratorp / Fronesis
/Eurozine

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There is now a need to readdress
urban commons through the lens of
the digital commons, writes Dubravka
Sekulic. The lessons to be drawn from
the free software community and its
resistance to the enclosure of code will
likely prove particularly valuable
where participation and regulation are
concerned.

Dubravka Sekulic
4 November 2015

ratings and likes, public service
broadcasters are moving complex and
quality content to online only. As the
example of Germany’s Westdeutsche
Rundfunk shows, this fragments
audiences, thereby undermining a
core principle of public service.
Robert Krieg
1 October 2021

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5/20/22, 6:20 AMThe materiality of the cloud | Eurozine

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