Digital this, digital everything: where’s the power coming from?

The world seems to have been so caught up in moving everything to the digital way of life that only a few people have paused to ask where the energy is going to come from. Take smartphones for instance; it used to be that phone batteries lasted for days and now they’re a day or two tops. It’s not that the battery capacities have stayed the same, it’s that the phones consume so much power because they’re basically miniaturized laptops that the technology can’t really keep up. So, we’ve gone to a situation where we now need more power to feed the smartphone and tablet usage.

In India, the government has committed itself to building a Digital India. To go digital, you need compute (servers), networking (to move data), data centers (storage); all this takes power, more power than we’re currently using. And, you need power to cool the “machines” that are providing the infrastructure for going digital.

Then, consider the Internet of Things (IoT); you are basically looking at connecting millions of devices to the Internet to enable them to talk to each other, for applications to use, etc. More power needed.

The whole thing is one giant power sucking machine that gets hungrier and hungrier. Just take a look at this Wikimedia graph: World Energy Consumption Chart and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s been increasing and will continue to increase. Right now, less than 7% of the world’s power is met by renewables (see this tool). A BP projection says “The share of renewables in the US fuel mix grows to 13% in 2035.

While you keep hearing about renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) and biofuels (still polluting, by the way), the growth isn’t fast enough to meet the energy demands. So, where is the power going to come from? A significant portion of our energy wants (not needs) will still come from coal, oil, natural gas, etc., often lumped together as fossil fuels. (I think they should be called buried-CO2-releasing fuels but that’s just me.)

So, you still need fossil fuels and all this talk of renewables and smarter technologies are not going to help unless the power consumption levels out. I’ve seen no sign that this is going to happen anytime soon.

This talk of digital this and that makes me weary and circumspect because it is so easy to get swept away by the hype and the utopian promises. If you think about more digital in terms of more energy consumption, it’s not such an attractive proposition anymore.

As is the case with such posts, I have to say that I’m not a Luddite and that I realize that this is being written inside a browser, stored in a data center, and published on a server. Not to mention the broadband, the laptop, and all the accoutrements.

I get the allure of technology and i get that it has improved things. But, ultimately I think that the path that we are going down is not worth it because what it is leading to is the destruction of the natural world. My fear is in knowing that I am in the minuscule minority of people who think like this.

I want to end with a paragraph of Paul Kingsnorth’s essay Dark Ecology (which, if you haven’t read, you must):

There is always change, as a neo-environmentalist would happily tell you; but there are different qualities of change. There is human-scale change, and there is industrial-scale change; there is change led by the needs of complex systems, and change led by the needs of individual humans. There is a manageable rate of evolution, and there is a chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine, flashing and scrolling like sirens in the gathering dusk.

Maybe we could all pause and consider this “chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine“.