Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Computer Green

Sharon Wildwind

This past week I listened to audio books while I did a lot of hand sewing. I learned some helpful things about social media and a lot of disturbing things about computers and the environment.

Computers are not green: mining raw materials, manufacturing first components and then devices, packaging, around-the-world shipping distances create a large carbon footprint. A huge amount of electronic waste not only ends up in landfills, but is turning landfills toxic.

What really surprised me is that the number one ecological impact is not from machines. It's from data storage.

I’m talking about every video, TV show, movie, digitized book, electronic news story, map, drawing, photograph and document ever posted on the web. Close to every e-mail and social media interaction sent on the Internet.

Who needs that much data? Apparently we do. Every time we search for 10 Easy Avocado Recipes, a kid does homework on-line, a scientist does research or we click on a link to see grand baby photos, get directions, or any of the millions of other things we do on-line every day, that request ends up at a data farm. Search engine have to have access to stored and indexed files.

So much data is being collected that new measurements had to be invented. The data storage for my first computer, a cassette-tape fed Radio Shack, was measured in kilobytes, a unit so tiny that, like the penny, it’s too small to be of use any more.

Increases in data storage capabilities are not neat like having a 1,000 unit jump each time. Each jump is a 1,024 unit increase.

1 megabyte (an average novel manuscript) contains 1,024 kilobytes
1 gigabyte (a small library of about 1,000 books) contains 1,024 megabytes
1 terabyte (a 1,500,000-book university library) contains 1,024 gigabytes
1 petabyte is 1,024 terabytes
1 exabyte is 1,024 petabytes
1 zettabyte is 1,024 exabytes
1 yottabyte is 1,024 zettabytes

There are people who say that the “yotta” is not big enough, and that new terms will be created in the near future.

For decades data storage increased while physical storage space decreased. If my 3 gig chip was pulled from my current machine, I could balance it on the tip of one finger.

We have this mistaken idea that as memory capacity goes up, storage space always goes down. It ain’t so. By the time we reach petabyte level—we are already there with some university libraries now building storage systems capable of holding a petabyte of information—we’re talking multi-story buildings with huge energy requirements. Those requirements continue all day, every day. The lights are literally never off.

Actually the lights are off because these buildings don’t require much human intervention, so they are kept dark, but the cooling systems, and the banks of data storage machines suck power constantly.

So much power that local governments are being asked to build new power plants to service one building. Not only are many of these data storage buildings in rural areas, they are often in rural areas already facing water shortages, and most power plants use water in some way to make power.

Smarter, more powerful people than me are going to have to make the big decisions about how much data storage is enough and how many resources are going to be devoted to data farms, but we might want to do a little detective work and see what’s being built close-by. It might surprise us.

If we want to act locally, really locally, like on our own desks, here are some things we can do.

Considering upgrading or buying new electronic devices? Check out energy consumption requirements and expected life span before buying. The fewer peripherals, the more energy saved, so making choice like buying a combined scanner/printer may be a better ecological choice than buying two separate machines.

Here’s a biggie. If we’re going away from our computer for a brief period, like a coffee break, set the power saving features to turn off the monitor after 10 minutes and the hard disks after 20. If we plan to be away from our computer longer than 20 minutes, turn it off. All the way off. Turn the monitor off, too. Turn the power bar off.

Screen savers do not save energy. Sleep cycle saves some energy, but not as much as we think. The idea that there is less wear and tear on a machine by leaving it on 24/7 is ancient history. In fact, because internal components are now packed so tight, heat generated by being on all the time isn’t good for the machine.

Use the power saving features on both computer and printer, if it has one. Turn the printer on to print and off immediately afterwards.

Plug all computer equipment, including peripherals into a power bar or surge protector. A computer that is just sitting there, turned off, still leaches energy from the electrical socket. I have no idea where this electricity goes. Perhaps Dr. Sheldon Cooper, of The Big Bang knows, but he’s a busy man and I don’t want to bother  him by asking.

For more practical tips check out

Discarding electronic gadgets? Here are 11 Facts about Electronic Waste.

Quote for the week:

The environment is where we all meet; where all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.
~ Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson (1912 – 2007), first lady, environmentalist, co-founder along with actress Helen Hayes of the National Wildflower Research Center


LD Masterson said...

A very good post.

Sandra Parshall said...

Those are startling and disheartening figures. The massive storage of decades-old information is both the reason for and the result of our expectation that we can find anything online, however old or obscure. And we want to find it instantly. If computers were an alien life form invading the earth, they couldn't have done a better job of enslaving us.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, ladies. Even with all I read/heard in the past week, I still woke up this morning and immediately turned on not one, but two, devices. This electronic world is so seductive.

Kaye George said...

Good grief, I haven't heard of these biggest terms. That's a lot of bits! I used to be a mainframe programmer and, coding in Assembler (machine) language, we could squeeze incredible amounts of data into tiny spaces. That's still done for banks and insurance companies, of course, but not for regular PC users. Wow!

Sandy, good point. Sci-fi story coming up?