The Dirty Internet


01 Dec 2012

Every revolution has its dissenters. And the more interesting the revolution, the more strident the dissent. More than 150 years ago, John Ruskin elected himself Queen Victoria’s moralist and orotundly condemned the railways and every other fruit of mechanical industry. Metal, pistons and steam, in his unblinking view, threatened the existence of civilisation itself. A railway engine promised not an easier commute on velour seats, but a terrible one-way, non-stop journey into inhuman depravity from which the only escape was death or the asylum.
In 2012, we have dissenters of our own. The New York Times has elected itself a moral and practical critic of the electronic revolution that pings so oppressively around us. Never mind that the Grey Lady, so-called because of its preference for dense, text-heavy stories, is dangerously threatened by rapidly improving online content and comment, the paper (and how quaint a term that already sounds!) has published an astonishing attack on the technology that powers Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Google. James Glanz spent, in tribute to the Grey Lady’s pitiless thoroughness, a year researching a series of five articles which appeared in September. His fact-checked thesis, although he did not put it quite like this, was this: the internet is the work of the Devil. With the help of a report commissioned from the influential McKinsey consultancy, Glanz argued that internet business is dirty and wasteful. Vast resources are employed in pursuit of rubbish. Godless profligacy is endemic in the web. Jeff Bezos is Mephistopheles. The suggestion was, cue echoes of Ruskin’s booming Old Testament cadences, that it threatens the existence of civilisation itself.

Google’s data centre in Hamina, Finland.
Google’s data centre in Hamina, Finland.

The reaction from the nerd ’n’ geek community was so ferocious that it sounded very much like protesting too much, the guilty being inclined to flee where the New York Times pursueth. One blogger called Glanz’s meticulously researched articles ‘half guesses, contradictions and flat-out incorrect information’. Another ‘an artful, fact-laden job of telling half a story’. It was left to the laid-back New York magazine to establish a sensible balance: ‘the idea that Facebook is destroying the environment in order to give you 24-7…. access to stupid cat videos is simply too pat’. Where you stand in the debate I am about to explain describes not just your attitude to computers — which are no more intrinsically interesting than a pencil — but to the thrust and dynamic of our culture.

There is, Glanz rightly suggested, a generalised misunderstanding that the internet is clean, free and efficient with energy. Your brand-new, glistening, vitreous, Platonically-inspired tablet encourages this happy delusion. How could something so physically perfect be supported by any flawed infrastructure? Yes, with a few touchscreen clicks you have immediate frictionless access to the world’s information and, if you hold on for guaranteed next-day delivery, very rapid access to its goods as well. This must be good!

But this miracle has a dirty secret that is not so little. All high-traffic internet businesses depend on vast server farms which are the filthy coal mines of our day. That brilliant ‘free’ information Google brings you is bought at a cost. At any moment of night or day, Google has a continuous draw-down of 260 million watts. ‘The Cloud’ makes it sound soft, fluffy, clean and virtuous. The reality of The Cloud is acres of vast sheds full of very hot computers which suck power from the grid and, additionally, demand continuous cooling. Which sucks yet more power out of the grid.

Citi Data Centre, Frankfurt
Citi Data Centre, Frankfurt

And so twitched are the robber barons of the digital era by the damage to their reputations that a power outage and down-time would cause, that they have gigantic diesel generators as back-up. The only cloud you will see around, say, the Microsoft server farm at Quincy, Washington, is a cumulus of burnt diesel and carcinogenic particulates. Worse, according to The New York Times/McKinsey information, these server farms are only doing useful work for 6-12 per cent of the time, but are kept running to feed the global addiction to rapid response. Even worse, in one instance, and to avoid a $210,000 penalty for under-estimating its power requirements, Microsoft deliberately wasted millions of watts of electricity. It actually burnt its fine. Imagine this and an image comes to mind that’s a metaphor for modern cupidity and sin: in a windowless box, on desecrated agricultural land, a sinister webocracy wilfully destroys resources to save a few wretched dollars. As sin goes, it might not be original, but it is nonetheless impressive.

But since the Devil has the best iTunes, the countervailing argument is a powerful one: of course the web needs power, but its abuse is wildly exaggerated. Besides, it’s a dynamic technology and new solutions will readily be found to, for example, the problem of cooling server farms. Moreoever, total appetite for energy from all the web businesses combined is less than 2 per cent of what’s available and this is disproportionately small if you consider their economic impact. In any case, the argument continues, when you click at home and the message goes to the Amazon warehouse at Marston Gate, near Brogborough, Bedfordshire, you are excluding a wasteful old bookshop or hardware store and, all grossed-up, have saved resources rather than squandered them. You can feel good about this. You can feel even better that, if Amazon gets its way and we all have Kindle readers embedded at birth, we will soon do without paper altogether. Once, the printing press was an agent of change. Now, its destruction has assumed the same role.

These arguments are finely balanced : it’s a classic case study of progress and reaction, of revolution and dissent. While the environmental depravity of server farms may have been overstated, so too have the democratic benefits of the businesses they support. Far from being communes of zoned-out, salad-munching hippies, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon (‘notoriously opaque’, according to the Financial Times) all tend towards the manipulative behaviour established by Carnegie and Vanderbilt and perfected by General Motors and Dow Chemical. For example, Google and Amazon are not democratising literature, they are acquiring a sinister monopoly. Right now, Amazon is buying markets and makes very modest profits. That will change when it dominates global distribution and its prices rise.

Even Apple, everyone’s favourite business, is not immune to criticism. Tim Cook, the new CEO, is not a luminescent world-improving visionary, but a hard-calculating supply-chain manager. Supply-chain is to us what a production line was to them. And while only the dullest person would not be excited by Apple’s beautiful and useful products, are not the new product announcements, made ever more frequent by greedy investors elbowing for  volume, identical to the planned obsolescence of the old industrial culture?

They used to call it Detroit Machiavellismus when General Motors introduced a new product every year… whether it was needed or not. Market-leader Chevrolet’s factories were surrounded by sulphurous smokestacks and poisoned rivers. But the customers were happy. Sometimes, I think we have not experienced a revolution. Sometimes, I think nothing has changed.