The environmental impact of servers: missing the point?

A glitzy report by Global Action Plan claims that servers do as much environmental damge as SUVs. At least they dont take up parking spaces.

The report summary says:
– There are more than one billion computers on the planet, and the worldwide ICT sector is responsible for around 2% of man made CO2 each year – a similar figure to the global airline industry. In the UK, there are an estimated 10 million office PCs; and ICT equipment
accounts for roughly 10% of the UK’s total electricity consumption.
– The ICT sector is growing at a faster rate than the aviation industry. In 2006, 48% more data storage capacity was sold than in the previous year, compared to a 3% increase in UK air travel passengers in the same period
– A medium-sized server has a similar carbon footprint to an SUV achieving 15 miles to the gallon. Servers also require as much energy to cool them as they directly consume.

Theres the official Green line, then, put out as a big .pdf file. (The full report is a tubby 3.2 MB to cover 20 pages of swirling green background and pretty diagrams. By comparison, the pdf of ExxonMobils 2006 annual report gets 52 pages of information into 3.8 MB.)

The argument would be more meaningful if they discounted the savings – eg the number of business meetings that now take place over teleconferences rather than involving travel; the amount of energy saved when I book a flight online rather than going to a travel agent in his heated office to have him book it for me by telephoning an airline clerk in another heated office. A few years ago we used to physically send reports to our US clients by Fedex, now we email them. And so on.

I still think the downside of misundertanding the ecology of data will not be CO2 or whatever, but the misuse of our time and attention. The more data there is, the more we have to pay attention to it. (See this posting).

(And the more glitzy a report is, the longer each server spends handling it, the more time I waste downloading it, and the more difficult it is to sort out the information from the presentation. )

A second problem is suggested by a recent (if somewhat exaggerated?) story on Techcrunch claims that Google is taking away choice from its advertisers because “At Google, the algorithm rules. Don’t question the algorithm. It knows what you want better than you do. …. apparently when an advertiser picks which sites to advertise on, those ads don’t get clicked on as much as ads picked by the AdSense computers. ”

It will always be very tempting to beleive that a machine which has read all the data knows better than a human who hasnt, and that the algorithm is right. After all, thats why you spent so much building it.

But of course all data is historical; our evolution has depended largely on our ability to do something different from time to time. One of the biggest dnagers, to me, is that we will no longer dare to trust our intuitions.

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