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Those Tiny Chips With Huge Smelly Footprints

Low Tech Magazine presented the article titled “The monster footprint of digital technology” in which they show how the power consumption of our high-tech machines and devices is hugely underestimated:

When we talk about energy consumption, all attention goes to the electricity use of a device or a machine while in operation. A 30 watt laptop is considered more energy efficient than a 300 watt refrigerator. This may sound logical, but this kind of comparison does not make much sense if you don’t also consider the energy that was required to manufacture the devices you compare. This is especially true for high-tech products, which are produced by means of extremely material- and energy-intensive manufacturing processes… The energy consumption of electronic devices is skyrocketing…There are multiple reasons for the growing energy consumption of electronic equipment; more and more people can buy gadgets, more and more gadgets appear, and existing gadgets use more and more energy (in spite of more energy efficient technology – the energy efficiency paradox described here before).

However, most of the energy involved in electronics is not much about their use. Larger amounts of energy are being used for the production of the technology, the embodied energy.

The energy used to produce electronic gadgets is considerably higher than the energy used during their operation. For most of the 20th century, this was different; manufacturing methods were not so energy-intensive…Advanced digital technology has turned this relationship upside down. A handful of microchips can have as much embodied energy as a car… The embodied energy of the memory chip (of a computer) alone already exceeds the energy consumption of the laptop during its life expectancy of 3 years.

The trend in the manufacture of electronics is going toward more energy-intensive processes and heavier costs in terms of raw materials and resources. Did the fast development in computer processing speed and memory, coupled with the huge amount of energy needed for manufacturing them make them faster and more productive? Every Windows user knows that after one or two years of use the operating system becomes cluttered and slows down considerably.

Defragmenting the hard disk, cleaning the registry and uninstalling applications have little effect. The cooling fan runs often, often the hard disk works like hell with no apparent reason, operations get slower and slower. This can be blamed on the poorly-engineered Windows operating system, but even alternatives like Apple or Linux, though better, don’t come any closer to match the development in hardware at the software level

Software doesn’t look like it is getting much more fast or productive. Twenty years ago a word processor took me no more than a couple of seconds to be loaded in memory and run (and memories were measured in mega or even Kbytes, not in giga), while it now takes several seconds. We could say that nowadays word processors are much more powerful but I (as I think most people) use basically the same basic set of features which were already present. As Jaron Lanier in “One Half a Manifesto” wrote, “If anything, there’s a reverse Moore’s Law observable in software: As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources.”

Speed and memory will never be enough, though. When we substitute technology for deeper needs of the psyche then it is going to be “never enough” since we are basically chasing a mirage.

The ecological footprint of technology described till now is not the whole story. Toward the end of the article, it is written:

This article focuses exclusively on energy use and does not take into account the toxicity of manufacturing processes and the use of water resources, both of which are also several orders of magnitude higher in the case of both semiconductors and nanomaterials. Last, but not least: the energy-intensive nature of digital technology is not due only to energy-intensive manufacturing processes. Equally as important is the extremely short lifecycle of most gadgets. If digital products would last a lifetime (or at least a decade), embodied energy would not be such an issue.

The conclusion is that “digital technology is a product of cheap energy.” Raw materials are starting to become scarce, as well as the energy resources to process them. And recycling raw materials from electronic items doesn’t seem a solution: recycling is difficult, energy-intensive, and often just impossible.

Adding to what the article presented, there is an intrinsic fragility of digital technology, where a failure of a single chip of a computer or a gadget often causes the crash of the whole instrument. After a few years it becomes difficult to find spare parts or somebody with the needed skills to repair it and more often than not, the whole equipment has to be discarded and substituted with a new one with an even bigger footprint. Often, after few years or even months, this upgrade happens even when the tool is still working perfectly.

Since the limited resources of the earth don’t grow according to Moore’s law, I can easily foresee a future world with costlier and more limited high-technology products. In some areas electronics might even be avoided as much as possible. The high interdependence of electronic components and tools make it less probable to go halfway.

For sure, Kurzweil’s singularity fans will instead foresee more breakthroughs in technology, which looks to me like a reflection on the technological area of the wishful religious thinking of the Messiah. Following this line of thought, no matter the mess we make, we will be redeemed by a future technology. Technology is given an almost divine role, as an impersonal force, basically good, ever-present, which will bring us to no less than immortality.

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