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This Cloud Pollutes

Think of a server as something like your cable box.  It’s probably always on, always warm, and usually has a cooling fan.  Now add 80,000 thousand more for one location.

Communications equipment isn’t particularly known for creating excessive amounts of pollution.  But we may need to reconsider that view.  Unfortunately, our language isn’t very helpful.  “Cloud computing” may be a boon to organizations and internet-based businesses.  But its clear that what we are really talking about is server farms firmly planted on earth, often in the Southwest, but spreading to other locations as well.  The “cloud” sounds so. . .well. . .innocent. It’s our habit as Americans to put a gloss on what is usually a harder reality–like the euphemism of “bringing justice” to Iranian general Qasem Soleimani rather than naming the harder truth that the United States assassinated him.

Imagine a server farm the size of a shopping mall, with thousands of separately powered electrical units generating heat that needs to be controlled. As with other industrial processes, the shortest route is no longer opening a window (dust, you know), it’s building huge cooling units that usually sit on a corner of the site.  It’s the part of the site with machinery that is clearly on the outside of the structure: cooling units, large insulated pipes and standby generators. This section is filled with energy-thirsty pumps and large heat-exchangers.  It’s one thing for a boxed toaster to sit on a shelf until needed in an Amazon warehouse.  No special air handling is required to store it. But Amazon’s servers, along with Google’s and others, need to operate in conditions that will not melt down their circuitry. Think of a server as something like your cable box.  It’s probably always on, always warm, and usually has a cooling fan.  Now add 80,000 thousand more for one “farm.” The units obviously burn energy as they work, with heat as one of the largest side effects.  The need for cooling makes two forms of pollution.  Now add a third.

We are swimming in a sea of racket.

As a homeowner, you may be in for a surprise if you live in an area where server farms operate.  There is growing evidence that the pumps for cooling not only generate chilled air, but a fair amount of infrasonic noise.  This is the kind of low noise that approaches the point where the ear passes off the responsibility of detection to the body.  We can feel some infrasonic noise.  And that’s apparently what’s happening in the Southwest, where residents complain about a very low hum that never stops and is not easily blocked by routine building materials.  Bianca Bosker recounts the stories of some residents in Chandler Arizona in her recent Atlantic article, “Why is everything getting louder?”

It would not be true to say that server farms are the worst polluters. Indeed, in the 19th century you could identify towns like Lowell Massachusetts or Pittsburgh Pennsylvania or Dearborn Michigan by the rumbles of their heavy industries and the dirty air.  Smoke was the most visible form of pollution in these places, and few then considered the equally destructive effects of this newer culprit of industrial noise.

But our day of reckoning is here.  Partial deafness in older Americans is now as much a certainty as wrinkles. We are swimming in a sea of racket made worse by devices that have almost made it impossible to remember what quiet sounds like.

Are we Done Collecting?

Capture digital sampleOwnership of the thing itself—an urgency that kept postwar teens in book and music stores for hours on end—seems to be a fading passion.

I wonder about the future of the personal library: those numerous shelves lined with books and music that still line the walls of many of our homes. Owning a physical copy of the work of a writer or performer was, until recently, a sometimes obsessive pursuit for devoted listeners and readers. For many these displays of neatly organized works are a badge of honor, meant in part to suggest membership in certain aesthetic tribes within the culture.

I’m writing in a room cluttered with stuffed bookcases.  It’s the same in other parts of the house, where CD cases sit on table tops and stand upright on shelves.  We are clearly vestiges of the Edison past. In the early days of recording the idea of capturing sound was completely engrossing. Thomas Edison was as much in awe of the idea as everyone else. Add in the possibility of owning a disk of a performance that could be played at will, and the nation collectively swooned at the chance. Shellac cylinders and flat disks soon became their own fetishized possessions. Every middle class parlor had a record player and a growing collection of relatively expensive 78 r.p.m. records. Jump ahead several generations well into the 1990s and teens were still heirs to this passion of record collecting. British novelist Nick Hornby enshrined three clearly recognizable obsessives in his wonderful 1995 book, (and, later, a film) High Fidelity.  In our own ways we were Jack Black:  voracious readers of album liner-notes, and dead-certain of what to display with pride and what to hide.

Ownership is its own reward: something many of us still feel as we purchase a book we will read and perhaps re-read at a later time.

The personalized library has been memorialized by the wealthy with its own room in turn-of-the-century mansions. The rest of us starting  out as impoverished students usually exercised the less baroque option of bookcases made from bricks and boards. In either case books were considered intellectual and decorating necessities.  Their presence meant that you were a serious collector.  Robert Pirsig on one shelf and Miles Davis on another conferred status.

Now the tide has receded. To more younger consumers in most places (except Japan, with its continuing love of CDs) these music and print libraries seem to be an anachronism, like the player-piano rolls I remember as a child collecting dust in a corner of my grandmother’s lace-curtained living room. Digital “natives” are just as happy essentially leasing access to commercial libraries, such as those offered by Amazon, Spotify, Netflix, Apple and others.  Even the e-book, which is sold as the digital equivalent of a hard copy, is never quite the owner’s in the ways that the paper version is.  It can’t be easily loaned or resold because its storage is usually in a proprietary “cloud.”  Digital “immigrants” used to owning works are not quite convinced that we will have access to the work in perpetuity. A cloud-based purchase of an author’s book or a composer’s symphony seems less permanent.

Communication scholar Joshua Meyrowitz partly explains what has changed in his use of the phrase, “the Association factor.”  When we own a hard copy of another’s work—when it is in our physical possession—we more readily identify ourselves with it.  It’s an artifact tied to our identity, an outward representation of our place on the human map.  So if I am carrying around a copy of a particular novel or have a copy of music cd sitting in the living room, I’m probably prepared to defend its presence in my space.  I’ve “associated” myself with it. By contrast, a person may feel no responsibility to defend a song that presents itself to houseguests on Spotify. The lease of a channel of media content seems less personal than outright ownership, even though custom music sources have the advantage of opening our ears to much larger libraries.

My own adult children are mostly consumers of these digital services, and just as passionate in their own ways about their music and books as earlier generations. But ownership of the thing itself—a fact that kept postwar teens in book and music stores for hours on end—seems to be a passing signifier of the avid appreciator. No doubt that for many modern consumers walls of CDs and books look archaic. Why hold “hard” copies if they are all available in digitized files?  Perhaps the only answer is that some books and performances are too precious to not hold in one’s hands.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu