Electronic Decluttering: Online Footprint

(Part 1 of a 2-part post)

One of the more knowledgeable, longtime participants in the Riot for Austerity recently brought up the topic of online footprint. She pointed out that the energy cost of video streaming, cloud storage, high-data-usage platforms like Facebook, and so on is far more than people realize.

She rightfully questioned why we were sitting around, ONLINE, discussing the pros and cons of replacing old refrigerators, while ignoring the footprint of our internet use.

The electricity required to charge and power our laptop computers and mobile devices is just a drop in the bucket. Most of the footprint of our internet usage is invisible to us as end-users. For example, there’s the constant maintenance and replacement of server equipment, the air-conditioning required to cool those vast banks of servers, and of course the electricity used by the equipment itself. Calculating one’s individual contribution to the total footprint of the internet is a bit tricky, but surely not impossible.

And, from an environmental standpoint, the matter is quite urgent: Data-center web servers, such as those used by Google and Facebook, contribute just about as much to greenhouse-gas emissions as air travel, the Guardian reports. The data-center sector and air travel each generate about 2% of the total volume of greenhouse gases.

And, IT as a whole now accounts for 10% of electricity use worldwide, according to this article in the Register. “Although charging up a single tablet or smart phone requires a negligible amount of electricity, using either to watch an hour of video weekly consumes annually more electricity in the remote networks than two new refrigerators use in a year.”

Yikes! Can it really be true that my one-hour video chat with a friend in faraway Tokyo consumed as much electricity as two refrigerators use in a year? Sounds crazy but it could be true. What’s not in dispute is that we ordinary people have, as the article puts it, “very little idea of the exact footprint our habit for lolcats, frequent emails, brand new fondleslabs and streaming video takes up.”

Since the data-center industry as a whole has such a large footprint, any reductions that sector can make would obviously be very helpful. Data Center Knowledge published this article offering suggestions for greening the industry. The suggestions include identifying inefficiencies in existing power and cooling systems; utilizing free outside air and water sources for cooling whenever possible; and targeting “zombie servers” — servers that run even when it’s not required. These zombie servers are a little-known source of waste, which can account for up to 30% of all servers! Data Center Knowledge also suggests the industry take various steps to optimize usage of network assets.

Now, what about us as individuals? How can we get a handle on that “habit for lolcats, frequent emails, brand new fondleslabs and streaming video”? It actually might not be as hard as it seems, since a lot of people these days are noticing the personal costs of online addiction and are voluntarily limiting their usage via “internet Sabbaths,” self-imposed hour-per-day limits, and so on.

In Part 2 of this 2-part post, I’ll share some options for measuring one’s personal online footprint, and reducing it.

Further Exploration:

• (Added March 1, 2022) “What I Learned During My Three Days Offline” (David at Raptitude). One of my favorite bloggers recounts his experiment that brought great benefits and led to some lasting changes.