Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, September 24, 2012

The original sin of the information industry

Do you ever worry about a possible worldwide meltdown? I have always had tendencies in that direction, but especially since reading Cormac McCarthy’s small masterpiece The Road. Our lives in the United States are so extraordinarily comfortable and we take so much for granted. Sometimes when I am cooking with my various pots and pans I think about refugees in various trouble spots who consider themselves lucky to have any pot at all. I wonder how elderly, sick, and disabled people can possibly function in refugee camps or in disaster zones.

These thoughts came as I read the major front page story by James Glanz in The New York Times on Sunday, September 23. It took a year to research, and it is a blockbuster. Its title is “Power, Pollution, and the Internet.” The jist of it is that data centers use—and waste—an almost unbelievable amount of energy, and even people in the information industry are blind to this, or just aren’t telling. “This is an industry dirty secret, and no one wants to be the first to say mea culpa,” said a senior executive who asked not to be identified. “If we were a manufacturing industry, we’d be out of business straightaway.”

Most of us live according to Internet mythology, whereby everything is “virtual” and in the “cloud” so that there isn’t any need for actual physical infrastructure. But storing something in the “cloud” doesn’t mean that we don’t need disc drives. It just means that the disc drives are somewhere else, using up staggering amounts of energy.
Theologically and ethically, there are implications here. The article even tells of the industry’s “original sin” (that’s an actual quotation), namely, the decision to run the systems all the time, even as consumers were being encouraged to turn their computers off. That’s a classic example of the principalities and powers at work.

Consumers today—that’s you and me—fully expect the companies to keep on doing this. “That’s what’s driving that massive growth [in the use of power]—the end-user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere,” said a managing vice president of Gartner, the technology research firm. “We’re what’s causing the problem.”