Cloud computing (1) has the attractive quality of making the nitty gritty tasks associated with running computers someone else’s problem. This leaves you, a busy technologist, free to worry about the specifics of problems that you actually want to spend time solving. This convenient offshoring, often entailing literal geographic offshoring, also creates the illusion that the computers we use continuously have evaporated into the atmospheric vapour of the cloud.
Ecology reminds us however that, there is no away, no place without connections or the laws of cause and effect. The problems inherent in running computers still exist, they’re just ‘over there’ or ‘over here’ depending on where you’re standing. Media infrastructure researchers re-materialise the cloud and the internet by, for example, tracing undersea cables (2) and reminding us that the internet has to live somewhere (3).
Internet cable landing, Guam © Nicole Starosielski
Google data centre, Dalles, Oregon © The Centre for Land Use Interpretation (4)
Environmental concerns related to cloud computing aren’t just about their visibility, issues of centralisation and control also emerge. Increasingly, cloud computing is centralising to a few large corporations: Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google’s Cloud Platform. Consequently, environmental challenges, solutions, and leadership related to cloud computing is falling disproportionately on the shoulders of a few. This includes the ability to restrict access to cloud-based services. In June 2020, the industry’s stance on selling facial recognition technology to police underwent a “sea change” (5).
Amazon (6), Microsoft (7), and Google (8) all frame their environmental approaches in terms of sustainability. A term popularised in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (9). This well-intentioned term has been subject to heavy criticism on its usefulness by environmental philosopher Val Plumwood.
The often-invoked term ‘sustainability’ tends to obscure the seriousness of the situation; clearly no culture which sets in motion massive processes of biospheric degradation which it has normalised, and which it cannot respond to or correct can hope to survive for very long (10). And: the concept of sustainable development expresses and even encourages a reduced sense of urgency. Getting some sort of parity with future generations sounds like a nice but unnecessary virtue we can put off learning just about forever (11).
Seriously and Urgently
What does a big green compute which takes environmental issues seriously and urgently look like? Wired Magazine’s 2019 report card (12) measured greenness in the dimension of climate change by focussing on total energy usage, energy efficiency, and sources of energy for cloud data centres, environmental data transparency, and continued support for fossil fuel industries. The results were underwhelming with Google receiving the highest grade of a B+.
Being green requires more than paying increased attention to carbon use. Nathan Ensmenger likens the provision of computer power to any form of industrial activity – “necessarily resource-intensive, pollution-producing, and potentially damaging to the environment” and hopes for the “development of a new environmental ethic of design in information technology” (13). Ensmenger doesn’t attempt to articulate what such an ethic might look like. An easier approach may be sketching the outcomes that a green ethic would be expected to produce:
- Increasing energy efficiency,
- Increasing uses of renewable energy,
- Supporting the development of renewable energy,
- Decreasing and halting extractive activities,
- Decreasing and halting polluting activities,
- Increasing protection of natural environments and non-human species,
- Increasing restoration of degraded environments,
- Supporting the developing of new structures and methods for interacting with the environment and non-human species outside the monetary frame,
- Increasing community fairness and respect.
Addressing these dimensions of greenness, seriously and urgently, would facilitate the development of the environmental culture argued for by Plumwood back in 2002. In 2020, environmental pressures have only increased, now requiring ‘‘transformative change’’ (14) and the emergence and dominance of big compute means big green compute has a large role to play in the development of a rational, environmental, and sustainable culture.
iNaturalist https://www.inaturalist.org (15)
- Ko, R. K. (2010). Cloud computing in plain english. XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students, 16(3), 5-6.Â https://xrds.acm.org/article.cfm?aid=1734163
- Starosielski, N. (2015). The undersea network. Duke University Press.
- Holt, J., & Vonderau, P. (2015). Where the internet lives: Data centers as cloud infrastructure. Signal traffic: Critical studies of media infrastructures, 71-93.
- The Centre for Land Use Interpretation. https://www.clui.org/ludb/site/google-dalles-data-center
- CNN, Tech companies push for nationwide facial recognition law. Now comes the hard part. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/13/tech/facial-recognition-policy/index.html
- Amazon. https://www.aboutamazon.com/sustainability
- Microsoft. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/corporate-responsibility/sustainability
- Google. https://sustainability.google
- WCED, Our Common Future. (1987). http://un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf
- Plumwood, V. (2002). Environmental culture: The ecological crisis of reason. Routledge.
- Plumwood, V. (2003, May). Sustainable what?. In Draft Notes, Humanities and Sustainability Workshop(Vol. 13).
- Wired. (2019). Amazon, Google, Microsoft: Here’s Who Has the Greenest Cloud. https://www.wired.com/story/amazon-google-microsoft-green-clouds-and-hyperscale-data-centers/
- Ensmenger, N. (2018). The environmental history of computing. Technology and culture, 59(4), S7-S33.
- IPBES. Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ (2019). https://ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment
- Microsoft (2018). Like taking a whole scientific team with you on a walk: iNaturalist helps spawn a generation of citizen scientists. https://news.microsoft.com/features/like-taking-a-whole-scientific-team-with-you-on-a-walk-inaturalist-helps-spawn-a-generation-of-citizen-scientists/