There is a scene in a popular 90s science fiction film in which Keanu Reeves wakes up, splashing around in his pod full of slime, and is faced with the immense towers of machinery that have been powering his dream world. Similarly, in present-day reality, there are unfortunate engineers – the Oompa-Loompas of the Interweb chocolate factory – who, through their work, are denied the purely ethereal online experience enjoyed by everyone else. For them, behind each Google search, each tweet and Spotify playlist is a terrible vastitude of air-conditioned warehouses filled with miles of humming, blinking machines and endless cable spaghetti.
The anti-green credentials of the Internet are partly due to good old fashioned human extravagance. Resources are poured into the fabrication of silicon and the production of over packaged machines that, once installed, appear to do little more than turn electrical energy into heat, and then require industrial-scale cooling to keep them happy. But the machines don’t make themselves and the social demand for technical infrastructure is not slowing down.
During his talk at LSE last week Jaron Lanier described the heavy industry of the Internet as “profoundly wasteful“. His point, mainly in support of a universal micropayment system, was that current usage patterns are hugely inefficient, particularly with regard to file sharing and the endless duplication this entails. The anarchic nature of the Internet, while being one of its greatest strengths, has contributed to this. Although the actual percentage of total bandwidth sucked up by peer-to-peer networks is up for debate the fact remains that a fresh approach to digital rights management and payment could help. Currently legal file distribution remains in the grip of what Lanier refers to as “walled gardens”, such as iTunes and Amazon Kindle, whereby a perennial cycle of physical gadgets must be produced in order to make money out of intangible things.
Interestingly, the worst recession since records began has failed to stifle society’s insatiable appetite for digital content and services, with Internet traffic growth continuing on a skyward trajectory. Ofcom research reveals that even in a frosty economic climate, many people would forgo other luxuries before considering cutting their spending on broadband. It seems the UK has a new essential utility. In this environment of growth, social and economic changes will accomplish more than what can be achieved with just more efficient hardware.