Information factories: a role in shaping our energy future

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Image courtesy of www.neospire.net under a Creative Commons license

At Central Saint Martins we explore the myriad evolving relationships between the physical and the virtual in all manner of ways – be they disciplinary, interdisciplinary or antidisciplinary.  In doing so we upload films onto Vimeo, send emails with files attached, save documents onto the S-drive, create 3D models using SketchUp, and comment on blog posts – these  are just some of the ways in which we generate our digital information. Daily, enormous amounts of data are launched upon the grid by our staff, students and alumni.

Enabling the rapid expansion in data are thousands of data centres located all over the world, relentlessly devouring huge amounts of energy. These digital depots store and manage our cumulative data, such that we can all access infinite information from our array of devices in a split second. Often considered as containers of seemingly harmless 1s and 0s – if considered at all – the data centres are in fact energy-intensive information factories, and heavy polluters.

These cloud data centres, many of which can be seen from space, consume a tremendous amount of electricity; some consume the equivalent of nearly 180,000 homes.

Greenpeace, 2012

Greenpeace recently published an insightful report, How Clean is Your Cloud, which provides ‘a look at the energy choices some of the largest and fastest growing IT companies are making as the race to build the cloud creates a new era of technology.’ The choices that these IT companies make, such as Apple and Yahoo!, have significant impact on our physical environment. The report states that companies must not concentrate solely on how efficiently they are consuming energy, but also focus on the sources of electricity that they are choosing – such as available renewable ones.

BA Product Design student project

CSM BA Product Design student project by James Barber

So, why is sustainability being raised in a blog about digital literacy?

Digital literacy is, in part, about critically engaging with technology and developing an awareness of its impacts in multiple areas.  The physical foundation of all the digital information that we produce, consume and store is the data centre.  Our desire to have digital information to hand wherever we are has significant environmental impact.  Hence, to be digitally literate in the 21c means we need to understand the effects of our online world on our offline world.

There are a number of ways within which the University and the College is engaged with social and ethical agendas and activities pertaining to environmental sustainability, and the University’s recently launched Digital Life programme will no doubt be concerned with the environmental impact of our digital choices.

CSM Sustainable Committee  http://www.csm.arts.ac.uk/about/sustainability/

The Green Grid   http://www.thegreengrid.org/

Google data centres featured in News.com.au