Immaterialism (2): Some costs

Posted by Rob Walker on March 24, 2009
Posted Under: Ethics,Virtual Whatever-ness

So just I was mulling over the broad subject of immaterialism the other day, I got a note from reader Gladys S. pointing out an London Times story I’d missed that raises a flipside issue. By and large many people think of our many online activities as being largely cost-free — not just in the sense that much of the Web is free, but also in the sense that it seems harmless compared to real-world consumption that entails various ecological and other side effects.

But the article looks at how much carbon dioxide is emmitted by … Google searches.  (As you’ll see includes it includes a clarification after some pushback from Google. I don’t know enough to really comment, you’ll have to decide for yourself.) Nicholas Carr picked up on this, and while he was dubious of the article’s numbers, he does point out that computer use has plenty of real-world consequences, and it’s probably just fine with the Googles of the world if we don’t think about them:

If reducing energy consumption were the company’s top priority, it would launch a PR campaign to educate people about those implications. It would encourage us to be conscious of the time we spend online — and to try to reduce that time. It might even offer, perhaps as part of the Google toolbar, a little calculator that shows a running estimate of the grams of CO2 we emit during each Internet session. Or maybe it could put a little banner across its home page reading: “Is this search really necessary?”

This in turn reminded me of an earlier Carr post, from back in the heyday of Second Life hype, in which he suggested the massive power required to run that virtual world’s servers meant that the per-capita energy use of a typical avatar was about the same as a typical Brazilian. A comment to his post added that in terms of CO2 emissions, a typical avatar’s yearly output is “the equivalent of driving an SUV around 2,300 miles.” Again, I’ll leave it to you to judge the details of that assertion.

My point here is not to say that immaterialism is a horrible pox upon us all. I’m just noting some critiques which point out it is not as cost-free as it might feel.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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