Monday, January 12, 2009

Google Warming

I'd heard about the losing battle that newspapers are fighting to stay afloat as they steadily lose ad revenue to the net, and perhaps that accounts in part for the article in yesterday's Times of London that painted Google as a carbon-spewing behemoth. But I see the article is actually carried in their online edition, so perhaps they are daring Google to block searches to their damning report and thus incidentally redeem itself from the sin of environmental spoliation. Or perhaps, since they draw a comparison between a Google search and the homely English cup of tea, it's a belated rebuke, 235 years late, to our disrespect of their favorite brew in Boston Harbor long ago.

In any case, the article quotes Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross as saying that two Google searches generate about as much carbon as brewing a single cup of tea, about 15 grams, and of course, if we multiply that by all the millions who are looking up baseball scores, their favorite celebrities, or their horoscopes online, instead of brewing a cup of tea and opening a paper copy of The Times, the worldwide impact could be severe. If Samuel Johnson could be made to understand the issue here, he, at least, would feel vindicated, since he is said to have consumed tea by the basinful after he gave up wine and liquor. On the other hand, he peopled his attic with a swarm of scribes to help him mark and copy passages from books for use in illustrating the definitions in his Dictionary. Presumably, he supplied them with candles, so perhaps their labors were not more energy-efficient than if they had used Google.

To be sure, the computer industry worldwide is not lagging in its efforts to burn kilowatt hours and is said to contribute to 2% of the planet's carbon emissions, about the same as world aviation. On the other hand, since greater energy use adds not only to the deterioration of the materials in networks and computers but to their operating costs, it's in the interests of information technology to discover better materials, more rational designs, and greater energy-efficiency. For that matter, the growing capacity of smart phones is leading us to a future in which much of what is done from desktop or laptop computers today is about to take place in the palm of the user's hand, instead. Meanwhile, the consumer who shops online, the reader who reads online, and the traveler who goes online and finds the quickest routes and lowest prices all contribute to saving energy, compared to older and more conventional means of accomplishing the same things.

Google published a response that denies Wissner-Gross's figures and asserts, instead, that the carbon involved in a Google search is many times smaller, involving, in fact, about the same amount of energy that the human body burns in about a tenth of a second. Indeed, Google says, its networks are so efficient that the the seeker's journey to the desired information consumes less energy than the computer sitting on one's desk.

Meanwhile, the Washington Posts's TechCrunch feature notes that the average book is responsible for 2,500 grams of carbon (Ayn Rand, you should have trimmed some of John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged!), while a cheeseburger accounts for an unseemly 3,600 grams, not to mention what it does to the profile and the digestion.

The London Times article certainly has a point in saying that a great deal of time and energy is wasted by sharing with the world what would have been confined to one's diary a century ago ("Walked the dog; it was hot today; rosebushes are not doing well," etc.). Indeed, that's one of the reasons that I've never seriously considered carrying a cell phone and would have little interest even if I had more room in my budget: I refuse to become part of an enterprise in which millions worldwide pay to say at a distance what was never worth saying face to face in the first place. Air quality isn't the only issue here; we also have noise, thoughtlessness, and what I'll call spiritual pollution to reckon with. Still, Google represents a force that, used wisely, ought to increase our efficiency and make knowledge more widely available, and at a lesser cost.

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.

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