On November 2, 2018, Data & Society hosted an academic workshop on the environmental impact of data-driven technologies. Major tech companies are working hard to make cloud services more energy efficient, but server farms still require tremendous power and water to function. Additionally, other parts of the “stack” (e.g., software development, usage patterns) do not take environmental impact into consideration. Likewise, financiers obsessed with blockchain and 5G are often ignoring the environmental impact of the proliferation of these new technologies. Apple has been called out for slowing down its operating system when battery life declines to make the user experience more seamless, which, in effect, encourages users to buy more equipment. Yet, the environmental cost of new hardware is piling up – quite literally.
Users steam a billion hours of YouTube videos every day and load countless hours of videos and images into online backup services where they are likely to be watched/viewed by humans only a handful of times. Gmail has normalized the idea that everyone should archive email in perpetuity, which means that Facebook notices indicating you have a new message that you received in 2007 are still using up energy. Much work is still needed to understand the environmental cost of technology.