Since the turn of the millennium, the tech industry has spent billions to conjure a seductive narrative that the cloud—a term most nontechnical people use to mean everything the internet touches —is limitless and weightless, that it is “greener,” more durable, and securer than the analog data storage practices that preceded it. They have trained us to upload, download, stream, post, and share to infinitum. In turn, we have come to expect seamless and instant access to digital content anytime, anywhere, as if data were immaterial.
What exactly is the cloud? Where does it begin or end? Is it the fiber optic cables that transmit our data packets across oceans and continents? Is it cellular towers and mobile phones? Is it servers whirring in the halls of data centers? Since 2015, I have been asking this question as an ethnographic researcher, shadowing technicians and interviewing executives and residents who live near digital infrastructure sites. I have found that the answer depends greatly on who you are asking. For the less technically minded person, the cloud is the entirety of the information and communications technology network (ICTs). In the data storage industry, the cloud refers to a specific class of ultra-efficient data centers called hyperscalers (which make up just over a third of data centers in operation), run by a handful of companies like Google, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, Tencent, and Alibaba. In either case, the cloud is a metaphor we use to abbreviate the complexity of the infrastructures behind the digital sphere.
That so many laypeople struggle to specify what the cloud is speaks to the dazzling success of Big Tech’s marketing, but also its careful obfuscation of the cloud’s material residues. In the wake of recent megadroughts, gigafires, heat domes, and hurricanes, however, this marketing illusion of an immaterial cloud is evaporating before our eyes. Thanks to the work of activists, scholars, and journalists, we know now that the cloud warms our skies and drains our watersheds. It pollutes our communities with electronic waste and harmful noise. It is an accomplice to global heating, desertification, and the toxification of our environment, an epoch and force that I call nubecene (nubes is Latin for “cloud”).
The cloud’s voracious expansion has not been met without resistance. In some communities, residents are organizing, citing pollution, power grid failures, excessive land use, or lack of job creation as reasons to oppose the construction of new data centers. Even so, the cloud’s exponential growth shows little sign of ebbing, which raises the question: Is it too late to fix it? What reforms can be implemented to curb the cloud’s increasing environmental impacts? Much of the work of activists has been devoted to answering these questions, but fewer are asking this: Is the cloud an inherently unsustainable paradigm? Must the cloud as we know it come to an end, for our collective survival?
Enter the Nubecene
Data centers are anything but homogenous. The first data center I visited was nothing like the sleek cyberpunk technoscape depicted in films or Google’s marketing content. Instead, I arrived in a crumbling shell of an office building, where racks of blinking servers were arrayed in opposing rows and columns, and cold air was pumped up from an air-conditioned plenum beneath the floor. A typical data center spans about 100,000 square feet, but I have been inside of facilities that are the size of a small home or as large as a university campus. The average data center can consume as much electricity as a small city in order to power and cool its computing equipment, drawing energy from electrical grids that in many parts of the world are coal-fired. To maintain our expectations for constant availability without as much as a hiccup, data centers run diesel generators in a state of hot-standby to supply power in the event of an electrical grid failure. The carbon dioxide trail thickens if you look at the footprint of facility construction or the supply chains of servers, power supplies, and other equipment that must be continuously cycled through the glittering halls of these facilities.
In an effort to minimize operational costs and reduce their carbon footprints, data centers are increasingly turning away from conventional computer room air conditioners (CRACs) as a cooling method. It takes a great deal of energy to refrigerate air, so more operators are resorting to a more efficient fluid medium for cooling computers: freshwater. Like humans, the thirst of servers can be quenched only with treated water, due to the corrosive effects of sediments on delicate electronics. Few facilities recycle their water, consuming millions of gallons per day to keep the cloud afloat. Others use chemicals to treat the water they cycle through their facilities, dumping the resulting wastewater into local watersheds with unknown effects to local ecosystems, as has reportedly occurred in the Netherlands. In places like the American southwest, which is currently experiencing a megadrought spurred by climate change, data centers are flocking to Arizona’s desert, lured by tax breaks and business-friendly legislation and seemingly unhindered by the catastrophic threat they pose to local populations and ecosystems. There, data centers are guzzling water to cool servers in stressed watersheds, while farmers are being asked to ration water. Arizona, where I spent six months researching data centers as an ethnographer, is not an outlier but part of a wider trend of data centers taking root near vulnerable watersheds.
As part of my dissertation research on the cloud’s ecological footprint, I visited and worked inside data centers in Iceland and, within the US, New England, Arizona, and Puerto Rico. Working as a novice technician, I helped decommission servers that reached the end of their warrantied lifespans (an average of three years). I unplugged, unscrewed, and hauled cart upon teetering cart of bulky servers, magnetizing their drives to securely erase their contents before stacking them in discard heaps. In the weeks before the waste removal subcontractor’s truck arrived to cart them away, I witnessed my colleagues pilfering valuable chips or graphic cards from the husks of these condemned computers, a shadow salvage economy that was certainly illegal but not penalized, given the fate of the electronic waste. The United Nations estimates that less than 20 percent of electronic waste is recycled annually. Millions of metric tons of expired electronics with toxic components are disposed informally in computer graveyards in places like Ghana, Burundi, or China, where salvagers (often women and children) smelt them down to retrieve rare metals, poisoning watersheds, soils, and their own bodies in the process.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
Those unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity of data centers might be subjected to the constant droning of diesel generators, rooftop air handlers, or chiller units, leading to diagnoses of hypertension, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. From Chicago to Appalachia to Virginia, communities are using their voices to oppose the racket of digital infrastructure, calling for moratoriums on data center development, greater community participation in zoning decisions, and noise attenuation legislation for the data center industry. In Chandler, Arizona, I studied residents organizing against the noise pollution emitted by Cyrus One, which has constructed a data center campus abutting Chuparosa Park and a cluster of residential communities.
Given the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the window to foreclose the cataclysmic effects of global heating is rapidly closing. Yet demand for ICTs keeps growing. This winter, Europeans will weather skyrocketing energy prices in the wake of Putin’s war in Ukraine. While citizens and cities will implement energy rationing to keep costs down, data centers will continue to churn (on diesel generators if necessary), a single facility consuming the energy equivalent of 50,000 homes. The situation is similar in other countries. Iceland, once pitched as a data center haven for its cool climate and renewable electricity grid, is now edging toward the limits of its power capacity due to cryptocurrency mining in data centers. In Ireland, where data centers consume about 14 percent of the island republic’s energy, grassroots resistance to data centers is mounting due to rolling blackouts and the vast swaths of land they occupy. Citing the climate crisis, limited space, and the electricity strain, Singapore implemented a moratorium on data center construction in 2019, which it lifted earlier this year, outlining strict sustainability requirements for future projects.
The International Data Corporation, a “global provider of market intelligence” for IT professionals and executives, estimates that digital data storage capacity may have to double or triple by 2030 to meet rising global demands for data storage. By the end of this decade, some estimate that cloud infrastructures will gobble up 20 percent of the world’s energy resources. (These figures, however, are speculative, provisional, and reliant on quantification schemes that are themselves highly contested given the opacity of the privately owned infrastructures behind the cloud and the complexity of variables involved.) The future is even less certain: a world of metaverses, augmented or mixed reality, 8k video streaming, autonomous vehicles, cryptocurrency mining, and energy-intensive artificial intelligence applications. What no one can say for certain is whether the fragile web of infrastructures we call the cloud will be able to withstand such explosive growth in the backdrop of a steadily intensifying climate disaster.
After the Cloud
Must we sustain the cloud, even as it ravages our communities and ecosystems? Do we put faith in Big Tech to fix the damage they are inflicting with their digital infrastructures? Should we entrust the stewardship of the planet to corporations like Amazon that, even as they make carbon-neutrality pledges, continue to invest billions of dollars in the fossil fuel industry?
The cloud, as I have seen it, is already broken, already breaking. There are no easy techno-fixes that can save us, because the problem we are facing is not an engineering problem, but a cultural one. We suffer from a deficit of imagination because capitalism has conditioned us to think of the digital as inexhaustive and instant, to think of ourselves as consumers rather than stewards, to think of the cloud as a service rather than a community.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
I envision three possible pathways for remaking the cloud into something more sustainable for future generations.
1. Break Up Big Cloud
There was a time when modest regulations could have stymied this ecological disaster caused by the cloud. That time has largely come and gone because Big Tech has consolidated enough political and economic influence to assure the continuation of a largely deregulated, transnational digital sphere. It was only after the public became aware of the cloud’s environmental impact that tech companies began to announce green initiatives. These pledges, programs, “studies,” and other self-regulation overtures have largely quelled sweeping data center regulation. Where federal or national governments have failed at halting data center expansions, local governments and grassroots constituencies have been more successful. While wins for local communities, these are minor setbacks for Big Tech, who continue to buy land for building data centers elsewhere at an alarming pace.
The cloud, a network of mostly privately owned and operated infrastructures, should not be exempt from regulation. In fact, given our increasing reliance on digital infrastructure (especially during the pandemic) and the framing of “connectivity” as a human right, the cloud might be reformatted as a public utility, subject to direct government oversight. We trust a handful of companies who own hyperscale data centers to be stewards of most of our digital assets. Perhaps a consortium of governments might be better caretakers? Can the cloud be broken up into a meshwork of clouds, smaller clusters of infrastructure that can be managed on a more local scale?2. Ending Planned Obsolescence
We have become so habituated to the cloud’s efficiency, speed, and reliability that it is impossible to imagine anything otherwise. What if we begin to reject the market logics that Big Tech has hardwired into us? Take, for example, planned obsolescence, a built-in feature of our gadgets that assure their continuous upcycling as the latest, glitzier version debuts on the market. If no one purchased the latest iPhone or Google Pixel or HP laptop, this cycle might end, and the revolving door of toxic electronic waste and human rights atrocities associated with electronics manufacture along with it. Designers might design for durability and modularity, an approach that would enable repairs and component-level upgrades rather than total replacement. In data centers, this would mean designing servers that are more resilient and repairable at a component level to minimize electronic waste.
2. Cold Storage
The cloud as we know it today might be described as a hot data storage system. Our information ecosystem metabolizes immense quantities of energy and materials to operate. The alternative is a method of data storage that humans have utilized for millennia: cold storage. Unlike hot storage, cold storage does not require significant energy inputs to maintain data. Examples of cold storage in the ancient world include cuneiform tablets, etched in clay by Sumerians 5,000 years ago, or the quipu, the fabric computers of Andean civilizations, both of which have remarkably survived into the present. This speaks to another feature of cold storage: its vastly superior durability. A solid state disk drive begins to fail within a decade, while Shang dynasty–era oracle bones are still legible 4,000 years after they were made.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
The reemergence of cold storage, however, does not necessarily imply the end of hot storage, but rather the creation of a more heterogeneous data storage ecosystem. Emerging cold storage technologies include ceramic tablets, 5D memory crystals, and synthetic DNA. Rather than keep all of our data “up in the cloud” at the ready for accessing at all times everywhere, selected volumes of images, articles, texts, posts, and tweets might be archived in cold storage. This approach could be key to solving both the inherent problem of preserving digital heritage for future generations and dealing with digital waste—junk data taking up space on servers that is of little value or utility. Cold storage also has the potential to democratize data storage. The Grow-Your-Own-Cloud project envisions a future in which data might be stored in the living tissues of plants, empowering users to be their own data stewards (or gardeners).
Technologies alone won’t save us. Our cultural expectations must shift toward sustainability and away from the excesses of runaway capitalism. The technologists behind these technologies are developing ways to shift items in and out of cold or hot storage, but this would entail a cultural shift as well, for a cloud wrought from DNA or ceramics or quartz crystals might not be as quick or frictionless as the one we have become so conditioned to expect.