The Staggering Ecological Impacts of Computation and the Cloud


Anthropologist Steven Gonzalez Monserrate draws on 5 years of research in server farms to illustrate some of the diverse environmental impacts of data storage.

While in technical parlance the “Cloud” might refer to the pooling of computing resources over a network, in popular culture, “Cloud” has come to signify and encompass the full gamut of infrastructures that make online activity possible, everything from Instagram to Hulu to Google Drive. Like a puffy cumulus drifting across a clear blue sky, refusing to maintain a solid shape or form, the Cloud of the digital is elusive, its inner workings largely mysterious to the wider public, an example of what MIT cybernetician Norbert Weiner once called a “black box.” But just as the clouds above us, however formless or ethereal they may appear to be, are in fact made of matter, the Cloud of the digital is also relentlessly material.

To get at the matter of the Cloud we must unravel the coils of coaxial cables, fiber optic tubes, cellular towers, air conditioners, power distribution units, transformers, water pipes, computer servers, and more. We must attend to its material flows of electricity, water, air, heat, metals, minerals, and rare earth elements that undergird our digital lives. In this way, the Cloud is not only material, but is also an ecological force. As it continues to expand, its environmental impact increases, even as the engineers, technicians, and executives behind its infrastructures strive to balance profitability with sustainability. Nowhere is this dilemma more visible than in the walls of the infrastructures where the content of the Cloud lives: the factory-libraries where data is stored and computational power is pooled to keep our cloud applications afloat.

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