Environmental costs of going digital

Director of the Media and Communications Program at the University of Melbourne Professor Sean Cubitt asks: what is the weight of the internet, is it green, clean and immaterial with no environmental costs? The answer is a scary and resounding no.

Let's start with what we know: the amount of paper used in publishing is huge, and the environmental costs are better known in Australia than perhaps anywhere else. Though readers of Artlink are geared towards the editorial content, we should not forget that fundamentally, in a capitalist economy, print is an advertising medium. Let’s look at some statistics: 'Businesses in North America spend $65+ billion per year on print media advertising. The average office worker generates 2 pounds of paper waste per day. Paper and printing related expenditures typically represent 15 to 30 percent of every corporate dollar spent, exclusive of labor’ according to the Institute for Sustainable Communication (http://www.sustainablecommunication.org/).
Statistics are the stock in trade of environmental politics, but they are poor guides when it comes to taking action, not least because of the problem of comparing unlike things. Like digital and analogue media. Despite everything, we still believe with at least half our brains that digital media are fundamentally weightless. One calculation suggests that when you add the number of electrons travelling through it: ‘The weight of the Internet adds up to just about 0.2 millionths of an ounce’. That is certainly one way of looking at it. Another would be to add together the weight of all the computers, servers, mobiles, cables, satellites and routers that make up the technical infrastructure. That is a lot of oil-derived plastic. It’s also a lot of metals.

Only minute quantities of minerals are required to build a single chip, but when chip manufacture soars into the billions, the amounts become significant. Perhaps the most infamous is coltan, a vital component for mobile phone chips, mined extensively in war-ravaged eastern Congo and Rwanda, where impoverished miners have taken to hunting for bush meat in order to survive: that’s mountain gorillas. Or lanthanides, the rare earths required for both LCD screens and the batteries for hybrid cars. China, whose public strategy for recovery from the global financial crisis includes moves into high-tech and eco-friendly product manufacture, recently secured significant shares in Arafura, an Australian mining company, to help bolster its global dominance in the rare earths field (Australian, ‘China builds rare-earth metal monopoly’, March 9, 2009). Then there are sapphires, slivers of which are the favoured base for LEDs, which provide not only large screens but the backlights for laptops. Madagascar recently overtook Australia as the main source, and though retrieving them is considerably less dangerous than other developing world mining operations, they are treated as conflict gems because of the ongoing civil war in the country, and are tied to the international criminal economy.

The mercury-tainted tailings from gold mines, another element vital to digital devices, is only part of the story. The number of toxic materials needed to make the 220 billion silicon chips manufactured annually is staggering: highly corrosive hydrochloric acid; metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead; volatile solvents like methyl chloroform, benzene, acetone, and trichloroethylene (TCE); and a number of super toxic gases.

And then there are the workers. In the sweatshops of the US-Mexican border where many of our computers and mobiles are assembled, ‘Under NAFTA, maquiladora employment increased by 54% in Ciudad Juárez, spurring significant population growth. Yet Juárez still has no waste treatment facility to treat sewage produced by the 1.3 million people who now live there.’ (http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=1528). The relation between environmental and human exploitation and degradation extends to manufacturing.

At the point of consumption, the power use of the internet is intense. Researchers at Stanford found that total power used by servers represented about 1.2% of total US energy use in 2005. Earlier figures from 2000 indicated that office network equipment consumed a further 2%, a figure which is likely to have risen dramatically from the total of 74 terawatt hours over the intervening decade. Globally, the figures can roughly be multiplied by ten. This doesn’t include such eminently ‘doh’ moments as Google’s construction of a server farm 250 miles from the nearest hydro plant, with the associated dramatic wastage of power between generator and use. Nor does it include the significant domestic uses of internet, where most of the media-rich files are downloaded and played back.

And then there is the problem of recycling. The Basel Action Network, which monitors infringements of the Basel protocols on the export of hazardous waste, reported in 2005 that of 500 40-foot containers shipped to Lagos each month, as much as 75% of the imports were ‘junk’ and not economically repairable or marketable (http://www.ban.org/BANreports/10-24-05/).

In the recycling villages of southern Guandong province, child cancer rates are among the highest in the world. The source isn’t clear, because of the range of culprits. The glass from cathode ray tubes, now being dumped in huge quantities as they are replaced with groovier LCD and plasma screens, are coated in phosphors, but no-one knows what they have become over their thousands of hours of high-energy irradiation. Likewise the ionised plasma gases in phosphor- coated cells which illuminate plasma screens are a totally unknown quantity. Certainly the plastic coating from wires, typically burnt off to retrieve the valuable metals, contain toxic and climate-changing PCBs. And on. And on.

The idea of a clean, weightless, immaterial digital realm is entirely bogus. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes.

For art publishing, there are also some aesthetic problems with the shift to digital, especially when it comes to illustrations. Computer screens typically have a colour gamut - the range of colours they can display – of around 40% of the visible spectrum. In order to squeeze the full spectrum into this restricted palette while keeping the vital colour differences intact, colour management software pushes the colours towards the wavelengths that can be displayed, but does so unevenly across the spectrum. The results are notoriously difficult to predict: different manufacturers use different colour gamuts, so the end result can be radically different when viewed in Windows, Linux or Mac OS.

There’s another strategy involved too. Since the colour differences on a display are smaller than they would be in the original artwork, one technical solution has been to boost the illumination available. In the case of professional screens like Apple’s Studio Display monitors, the backlighting exceeds 400 candelas per square metre, where a candela is (loosely) the light radiating from a square centimetre of white-hot platinum. Because the combination of LCDs and LEDs in these displays is very energy-efficient, they don’t actually melt. But the illumination, which gives the illusion of high resolution and sharply distinct colours, merely foxes the eye, and sacrifices accuracy (print-oriented users turn the brightness control to its lowest setting to get some idea of the likely colours of inks in ordinary light). These anomalies might give some idea of why digital reproductions can be so acid on the eye, or indeed so muddy.

For a journal of record like Artlink there have to be some archival issues too. Partly this has to do with colour reproduction, but it is also an issue of storage. There are two problems here. One is that computers are the first machines since Detroit gas-guzzlers to exploit the marketing idea of built-in obsolescence. Each new software release loses backward compatibility (.docx files won’t open in the older versions of Word), eventually you have to upgrade to stay in contact ... And each upgrade ups the demand for processing power, while old technologies like floppy discs and even classic CD-ROMs no longer play on new machines. Archives also archive machines so they can access the old content, but the viability of conserving them fades with each passing year. Unlike paper and ink, machines need replacement parts and maintenance. Today’s archive all too soon becomes tomorrow’s folder full of unopenable files.

In the grander scale of things, storage is becoming a huge problem. A report from 2008 commissioned by network consultancy EMC estimates that the total amount of information created, captured and replicated in what they call the digital universe (including cameras, X-rays, PVRs and so forth) would grow tenfold between 2006 and 2011, from 180 to 1,800 exabytes (ten to the power of 18 bytes). More intriguingly, the report suggests that, in 2007, the amount of information generated would for the first time outstrip the total available storage, and that that trend would continue for the foreseeable future.

In itself this is not a problem: we mostly do not want our mobile phone calls, e-mails and SMSs filed away for future use. I once worked out that if the entire population of Australia devoted itself exclusively to watching TV, it would only just complete watching the total world output in a year before it had to start all over again. Billions of hours of film and video, billions of files. Electronic repositories of state and public service files will soon be overwhelmed. Cloud computing – which depends on massive server farms and massive energy use to store and cool – is a symptom, not a cure. Information soon will be produced in such quantities that an ever increasing proportion of it will have no home at all.

The choices Artlink and other art publishers face are stark. They involve the aesthetic of the printed magazine and of digital displays, the requirement to record and preserve the contemporary art scene for posterity in an era of increasingly ephemeral media, and hard choices about the share publishers have to take in the ecological and sociological circuits of capital and environmental change. These decisions occur in planet-spanning networks of policy, regulation, governance, standardisation, trade, property, toxicology and ecology and involve us in however distant a way with the great themes of poverty and environmental degradation. Whatever solution we go for, it will have to involve a great deal less of something. ?


1 Stephen Cass (2007) ‘How Much Does The Internet Weigh?’, Discover June, http://discovermagazine.com/2007/jun/how-much-does-the-internet-weigh.

2 Jonathan G. Koomey (2007), ‘Estimating Power Consumption by Servers in the US and the World’, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Stanford University, Stanford, February. http://enterprise.amd.com/Downloads/svrpwrusecompletefinal.pdf

3 John Gantz (project director) (2008), The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe, IDC White Paper, IDC, Framingham MA, March. http://www.emc.com/collateral/analyst-reports/diverse-exploding-digital-universe.pdf


Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.