Climate Change: Known Unknowns of the Digital Age

KnownUnknownsEnergy conversation was never one of my strong points.

At work my boss gave me a set of fine computers for my R&D.

My team were proud.

We had state of the art.

I never switched them off.

That was an old computer engineer’s trick.

You got far more problems from switching off and on, than from letting the things just run.

So I never switched my computers off.

And I banned my staff from doing so.

Unless the office cleaning person who used to bring me traditional Spanish cakes and deserts accidentally unplugged my computers.

This used to piss me off.

But I never was angry with the cleaner.

How could I reasonably be?

After all, within her world view, losing a few minutes of code generation was nothing, not even a couple of grains of sand in the dessert.

With hindsight maybe we would be in a better place if she had pulled the plug on more kit.

I never used to switch off my home computer.

The television was invariably on in the day-time.

Usually as background noise; movement, colour and sound.

A German music channel, MTV and Ozzy.

The kettle was never unplugged. I’m Welsh.

We like lots of cups of tea. It’s a cliché. And it’s also true.

And I never disconnected the Wi-Fi router.

Even if I wasn’t using any of these items.

My idea of saving energy was to put appliances into standby mode.

That was when I remembered to do it.

But over time my attitude changed.

“After all”, I was reminded, “even a standby light requires electricity”.

And every little helps. Right?

So I started to disconnect appliances from the power supply when they weren’t actually in use.

Doing my bit for the environment.

I used to think of the energy and the digital revolution only in terms of advantages.

Then one day, I started to ponder the possible down-side of progress.

I remember the time when the IBM compatible PC suddenly became the Microsoft Windows compatible PC.

That the paradigm changed from a PC needing an operating system, to Windows requiring a hardware platform, and the rush to meet that demand.

This prompted me to consider the notion that digital artefacts (laptops, smartphones, mp3 players, digital cameras, and a large list of similar items) are actually energy artefacts, energy consumers.

The ultimate link in the powerful energy value chain.

So, I started to ask myself other questions:

Was there anything about the rise of digital that wasn’t being highlighted?

Was the big revolution in digital or was the real transformation in the way we had moved to the next-generation of energy use?

Were we failing to address the known unknowns of digital?

Who really benefits from the digital revolution?

In the old days of amateur photography we didn’t take so many photographs.

It wasn’t a cheap hobby, and the results weren’t immediately available.

It was a hobby though.

It wasn’t just something we did.

Like a natural and everyday occurrence.

You didn’t typically take photos of just about anything.

We were more conservative because we were limited.

If I remember rightly, even the most advanced photo film rolls could only store a maximum of 30 to 40 photos, analogically.

You had to take a film for processing, and that would take some time.

And of course, you had to pay for each photo.

Photos had a tangible price.

But we then would have physical artefacts from the process.

Photos. Images printed on high quality photographic paper.

Which we would place in albums or boxes, and then forget about.

And that’s what we did.

Then it came to me.

What do we do these days?

All those photos we make and exchange. All the films, books and sound we store and access. In our own ‘libraries’. So much!

A veritable explosion of content.

I used to have a box full of photos.

Now I have more than 50,000 photos that I have taken, which are on a couple of disks.

This is replicated across the world. In some places more, in others, less.

Consider. All that energy that needs to be generated so that we have access to unlimited digital options.

Text now!

Take a call now!

Make a call now!

Photograph now!

Record now!

Video now!

Interact now!

Communicate now!

Everything, now!

The common denominator is energy, and energy use.

And the driver is the need for energy, wherever we are.

It is funny isn’t it?

We can easily accept that a big jet liner uses energy. Or a cruise liner uses energy. But we don’t connect the dots when we are talking about smaller uses of energy.

Like the gadgets we have. Smart phones, tablets, social networks, and all that jazz.

Yes, social networks are also consumers of energy. And search engines are also consumers of energy.

Who knows how much energy the internet uses? Just in sexist porn content. To name one aspect.

So, I thought again.

The digital industry encourages us to pile the cake higher.

Fair enough, that’s their business.

We need more data, much more data.

We need to process faster and better.

We need to ensure fail-safe operational environments.

We need to secure the ongoing protection of the maximisation of revenue meme.

That’s expanding the market consumption and use.

Then I saw the elephant in the room.

Okay, that’s a cliché, but you get the idea. Right?

It was an epiphany… sorry. I did it again.

But both ideas convey important ideas.

Cliché or not.

Most of my work is in IT.

Most of my work in IT is with programme management, data management and data governance.

As a fully signed-up member of an IT elite I was actively encouraging people to use more and more data.

I knew that less is more, and it is a principle that I absolutely believe in.

It’s not an easy principle to follow.

Actually applying the principle of less is more is hard.

It needs creativity, knowledge, experience and hard work.

And in some instances I didn’t apply it.

Then it dawned on me.

What am I doing?


More and more data means more and more storage.

More and more storage means more and more energy.

More and more access means more and more demand for energy.

More availability means more gerbils needed to drive the wheels of energy generation.

Massive processor farms.

Mega storage farms.

All pervasive and mega-thick bandwidth networking.

An army of people to keep the plates spinning in the air.

On, all of the time.

The commoditisation of IT artefacts has pushed IT businesses to sell volume rather than quality solutions.

Disks are cheap, so in order to stay in the game it is necessary to sell lots of them.

Far more than before.

But before it was much more focussed.

And far less brute force and ignorance.

A couple of years back I was managing an Enterprise Data Warehouse project.

The organisation I was working for had bought massive amounts of expensive hardware in anticipation of the build.

The hardware was installed and set-up.

A major 24x7x52 configuration.

A massive array of disks, always turning.

Trouble was, there was no data on them. 18 months passed…

In the end we had petabytes of storage and we had only managed to secure a few gigabytes of data.

So, 18 months of energy use for nothing.

Processors, storage, controllers, network and ‘standby led’.

We may as well have switched it off and used a couple of cheap servers.

But we didn’t. Because we are men. And we are tough and resolute. Capable of making and taking tough decisions.

Tough, macho and stupid decisions.


So the questions I now myself are these

Are we creating a digital baby that we can’t give back?

Are we creating a digital baby hooked on energy crack?

Are we fucking up the climate as we care about the world on our iPhones, on twitter or Facebook?

Is the baby us?

Is this baby our new Leviathan?

But more importantly in the short term, is the massively frivolous use of ‘digital’ contributing to avoidable Climate Change?

Just like the flashing led on the TV, taken to incomprehensible levels of profligacy?

Thank you for reading my piece on this blog. It is appreciated. And please try and save the planet for all of humanity. It is our duty, and it is a duty that will honour us if we react in the right way, for the right reasons and in time.


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