The data centers that house big data and their attendant network infrastructure are energy guzzlers that consume anywhere between 1% to 5% of the world’s electricity, depending on how one calculates the estimate. In non-digital contexts, the carving of woodblocks, mass printing, and climate-controlled archives consumed energy, but humanists do not traditionally associate our research activity with energy use. A notebook computer may be powered with a solar panel the size of a backpack. Hundreds of thousands of servers in a data center, however, require megawatts of electricity and generate an insurmountable amount of heat.
Our lab’s inquiry into the materiality of big data includes energetics. In today’s information regime, data flows necessitate electricity generation, power grids, carbon emissions, heat production, and water coolants. Every cloud industry leader has heavily invested in the energy sector and presents itself as an innovator and supporter of environmental protection. Amazon claims to be the “world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy” with “6.5 GW of electricity production capacity” as of December 2020. In April 2021, Facebook met its 100% renewable energy goal. Energy efficiency and access to environmental resources are keys to understanding the relationship between corporate interests and public institutions.
Our lab engages in global comparative studies of big data energetics that critically review scientific studies, corporate PR claims, and alarmist reports. We are also interested in cultural differences, such as the widespread district reheating using recycled server heat in the Nordic region vs. the South Korean belief that data centers produce carcinogenic radiation.