I originally wrote the below in June 2010. It still feels relevant, and I haven't heard much conversation on it since - aside from some pledges for carbon neutral server centers and the like. With the increasing ubiquity of network-enabled everything, this conversation should be as topical. What is consumption, if we don't recognize we are consuming? With advances in the harvesting and use of byproduct energy, perhaps we will begin to see a shift...
Greenpeace’s recent attention on data centers has lead to a bit of thinking, which lead to a spooky realization: we are further and further abstracting our consumption.
We can look to a simplification of our recent history for analogies. We have abstracted how we obtain food, shifting from hunting and gathering to the efficiencies of commercialized agriculture; beginning to simply acquire rather than seeking food. Via industrialization, products became mass produced, distancing us from the production of the objects we use. Most recently, we've gone a step further of moving production of food and tools overseas, removing even our geographic ties to how the things we consume are made in order to get them made ” better,” faster, and cheaper.
As we’re in the thick of a domestic (American) movement of going back to basics – desiring a part in the development and cultivation of things we consume that are physical (like food, furniture, the objects we use) – we’re becoming tremendously reliant on less tangible things like network-based services, and these things rely on data centers that are enormously energy consumptive (amazingly, the EPA’s already on it). Since these services are ephemeral and abstract at their foundation, they are inherently more and more removed, and therefore less and less viscerally connected to us. Not many of us are savvy to how much we’re consuming, and in understanding exactly what we're consuming in the first place can be a challenge. We want to know from where our things come and want them to be sustainable, not made out of plastic, locally grown, etc, and we’re visibly conscious of what we’re buying, eating, and doing – what kind of car we’re driving and how we’re doing our part to not destroy the planet. All this as we’re developing patterns of consuming technology in a way that’s extremely wasteful, if in a way that is invisible to us.
So, how do we solve for this? Do we educate on the practical underpinnings of technological advancements the same way we’ve (reactively) been educated that plastic is bad, local is good and that single-body aluminum MacbookPros are more material/production efficient? As product designers, we were tasked with addressing “sustainability” long before the term or concept was part of the public vernacular – so is it now our responsibility to address this new means of consumption in order to design more responsible behavior into products?
Note: There are some interesting advancements made in this space, such as Google’s goal to recycle a majority of water used in their data centers.