“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” So declared John Perry Barlow, a one-time Grateful Dead lyricist turned tech evangelist, in his 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”.
Today, five minutes on the hell site known as Twitter disabuses most of us of any illusions about the internet as utopia. Yet a key assumption underpinning Barlow’s cyberlibertarian fantasy still lingers. Barlow’s manifesto insists the old concepts of “property, expression, identity, movement, and context” do not apply online. “They are all based on matter,” he declares, “and there is no matter here.”
In The Dark Cloud: How the Digital World is Costing the Earth, Guillaume Pitron exposes the supposed immateriality of the internet as one of the more pernicious of tech bro delusions. Fun fact: globally, digital technology consumes an estimated 10 per cent of all generated electricity. It also releases nearly 4 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide, almost twice the amount associated with the aviation industry. The manufacturers of your two-kilogram laptop used, among other materials, 22 kilograms of chemicals, 240 kilograms of fuel and 1.5 tonnes of clean water. Each kilogram of silicon generates about 280 kilograms of chemical waste, and a single integrated circuit depends upon the labour of thousands of subcontractors working across dozens of different countries.
These facts matter, since so many supposed climate “solutions” rest on a Barlow-style juxtaposition between an old industrial world and a new green technology apparently fuelled by pixie dust.
“By burying our heads in the sand of an allegedly ethereal world free of all physical shackles,” Pitron says, “we are evading the reality that will eventually catch up with us: a dematerialised world will always be a more materialist world.” To illustrate, he introduces the concept of MIPS, or “material input per service unit”, a technique for quantifying all resources marshalled, displaced or destroyed in the creation of a particular object or the provision of a given service. The MIPS of driving a car for a kilometre equates to a kilogram of resources – and the MIPS of watching television for an hour amounts to twice that.
The concept allows us to attribute weights to everyday actions we’d otherwise imagine as entirely immaterial. Every text message you send, for instance, depends on 0.632 kilograms of resources.
In some respects, this might seem utterly obvious. Clearly somebody made all our digital devices. But, as Pitron demonstrates, the illusion of detachment arises almost inevitably from a technology that to most people may as well be wizardry. A smartphone, for instance, depends on a witches’ brew of about 50 raw materials, including lithium, gold, magnesium, silicon and bromine. Pitron tells us our digital tech absorbs 15 per cent of the planet’s annual output of palladium, 40 per cent of the tantalum, 80 per cent of the gallium, 80 per cent of the germanium and 75 per cent of the eye of newt.
Okay, your phone doesn’t really require newts’ eyes. But the point still stands: most of us have no idea about what it takes to create and sustain the digital tech we use daily. We grasp intuitively that our cars emit greenhouse gas; we remain oblivious about the equivalent consequences of our online lives. “An email produces,” Pitron says, “a minimum of 0.5 grams [of emissions] and as much as 20 grams if there is an attachment – the equivalent of a light bulb switched on for one hour.”
He describes the electricity devoted to Psy’s “Gangnam Style” as equivalent to the annual consumption of a European city with 60,000 people. Furthermore, that data we generate keeps increasing exponentially. One expert tells Pitron that if we converted into paper the rate at which the production of data is increasing, you’d have a pile shooting up in the sky “faster than a rocket at take off”.
All that information requires physical hardware, much of it surprisingly old-fashioned. The vast majority of internet traffic travels not through the air but via cables along the bottom of the sea. Pitron watches a team laying one such cable on a beach in France. He records the protest of an old man passing by: “How about they clean the sea instead of throwing junk into it? … All that for a load of online twaddle and porn!” It’s a fair point.
The Dark Cloud shows that, rather than saving us from the destructive tendencies of capitalism, the digital realm intensifies them, with the tech companies committed to exponential, unplanned growth irrespective of the environmental consequences. According to some estimates, by 2028 the burgeoning data centres in Ireland will consume an astonishing 29 per cent of that country’s electricity.
Pitron doesn’t offer much by way of solutions, other than a few behavioural tips. Watching movies in low rather than high definition consumes, he tells us, between four and 10 times less electricity. Which is nice – but if you think individual choices affect the fundamental dynamic of capital accumulation, I’ve got a bridge of weary flesh and steel to sell you.
Nevertheless, his book demonstrates convincingly that we can’t flee from our messed-up analogue world into some digital alternative. Our problems are material – and they require material solutions.
Scribe, 304pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "The Dark Cloud: How the Digital World is Costing the Earth".
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