tisdag 8 oktober 2013

On the (un)sustainability of unlimited & free Internet services

A few weeks ago (mid-September), I wrote about our use of a boardgame, "Carbonopoly/GaSuCo", in my 4th year course about Sustainability and Media Technology. As the course progresses, we have weekly seminars and each student is asked to contribute with one question to each seminar. A few of these questions might make it into the next edition of the boardgame!

Last week's seminar took a closer look at the connection between energy use and our daily computing/social media habits. The students prepared for the seminar by reading texts on the energy consumption/carbon footprint of Google searches, of spam email, of online avatars and of Bitcoin. They were then asked to think of  a question of their own (based on the readings), or to take the following two questions as their starting point:

- Is it sustainable to have free Internet services (mail, twitter, facebook)? Can/should/will such services (by all means include Google searches, calendar services, YouTube etc.) continue to be free?
- From an environmental point of view, what are the pros and cons of Facebook building a huge server hall in northern Sweden?

Based on the question each student formulated, they also had to write a short "position paper" (200-600 words), or, the causality could be reversed and their position paper could instead lead up to their seminar question. I thought I would share some of the great questions my students came up with here.

Below is a selection of 20 questions - culled from a much larger number of questions (≈60) that my students came up with last week. Do note that I (already before the seminar) rewrote quite a few of the questions for clarity, brevity etc., but that the core of each question has been formulated by one of my students. There are many good questions worth thinking about below. It was unfortunately hard to stay on topic during the actual seminars and we only had time to discuss a small subset of these (selected) questions - a pity!


- Let’s say we could measure Internet consumption the same way we measure electricity consumption in our homes. How exactly would that work?

- If we imagine that free Internet services are not an option in the future, should we have different taxes for different kinds of Internet services depending on how "important" they are? (Is Google Scholar more important than Twitter?)

- If Internet traffic was taxed, exactly what and who would be taxed? Companies or private persons? Google searches, ”unnecessary” homepages or everything? Or should there be a general tax on broadband/web traffic?

- Imagine a future where every Google search will cost you money. How and to what extent would we use it as opposed to today?

Is it possible to decrease (only) ”unnecessary” use of ICT? How?

- How much of your own personal daily routines are you prepared to change if you knew that it would "make a difference"?

- To what extent could we “easily” cut down our use of Internet-based services and still be as productive (or more productive considering the notion of procrastination) as we are today?

- Is the internet really as effective (energy/sustainability-wise) as we might think? Is it really more efficient to do a quick Google search than to ask your colleague in the next room? Is it really more efficient to contact someone via email than sending a regular letter?

- Will society demand a change in our computing/Internet behavior, like it has done (or should do) in regards to driving cars? When will (could) this happen and how would it play out?

- Is the never-ending almost perfect virtual world that many of us live in today preventing us from living more sustainably in the real world?

- How could Earth hour (or other organizations) team up with companies like Google to make people more aware of energy consumption every day and not just for one hour?

- The energy and CO2 costs for using ICT are negligible compared to driving a car and flying. So should we care about the environmental effects of using ICT, or, should we focus on other things first?

- Is it reasonable to compare the CO2 footprint of using a a car vs a computer and say that one is big and the other is small? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to compare with how much it cost to do these things in the past instead?

- Smart grids can have negative consequences in terms of power and surveillance, but do we have time to take this in consideration or should it be seen as a secondary problem at this point in time?

- One of our guest lecturers talked about making good and bad everyday choices. Is there really space for choices, or do we actually need to be "steered"?

- Despite the negative effects of ICT, computers and internet, they for sure have more positive than negative impact on CO2 emissions in the long run, right?

- Could a more decentralized ICT structure (i.e. smaller and more local ICT networks and server halls) have sustainability benefits?

- What would happen if all of the computer chip manufacturer agreed on skipping trying to chase Moore’s law and cram more transistors/computing power into a chip each year and instead invested all their efforts at making their future chips more sustainable in terms of materials and energy consumption?

- Google introduced a computer without a hard drive, Chromebook, some time ago. Is that a good or a bad idea from a sustainability point of view?

- Could we make the internet more sustainable by reducing the power of personal computers and offloading computation to the cloud?

- Why the gloomy outlook? Why don’t we have higher hopes for the benefits of future technology?


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