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Capital Blight - They Really Don't Know Clouds At All.

By x344543 - September 9, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

A recent discussion among IWW members about whether or not to change the default delivery option for the union's official organ, the Industrial Worker, from hard copy to PDF has touched on a larger debate over the "greenness" of "the cloud."(the many data centers that form the backbone of the Internet).

My attention was drawn to this debate by one of my fellow worker's reaction to the following statement from the current editor of our union's venerable publication, the Industrial Worker in reference to a change in the default option from a paper copy to an emailed PDF:

Go paperless, live in harmony with the earth and help save the union money!"

The union implemented this change to cut costs. The apparent environmental benefits are merely coincidental, though it's gratifying to see that the membership is taking the environmental tenets of the IWW Preamble seriously.

My aforementioned fellow Wobbly took exception to this statement thusly:

From some of what I have read, the physical maintenance of the digital world is anything but green, even though the idea that computers = lower pollution and energy consumption is to be found pretty much everywhere these days.

Below is a link to an article from the New York Times on the subject.  One of the key points is how much of the energy -- about 90-94% -- is wasted just keeping servers idling in case they need to be pulled in as backups.

The specific article he referenced, Power, Pollution, and the Internet actually quotes a slightly lower figure of 88 - 93%, but more about that later.

He then offered the following quotation to emphasize a comparison between data centers and the paper industry:

Nationwide, data centers used about 76 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010, or roughly 2 percent of all electricity used in the country that year, based on an analysis by Jonathan G. Koomey, a research fellow at Stanford University who has been studying data center energy use for more than a decade.

Datacenter Dynamics, a London-based firm, derived similar figures.

The industry has long argued that computerizing business transactions and everyday tasks like banking and reading  library books has the net effect of saving energy and resources. But the paper industry, which some predicted would be replaced by the computer age, consumed 67 billion kilowatt-hours from the grid in 2010, according to Census Bureau figures reviewed by the Electric Power Research Institute for The Times.

Skepticism of any capitalist industry's claims to be "green" should be regarded as healthy, but that skepticism should be followed by careful examination of all of the facts.

To begin with, the Industrial Worker is already offered in PDF form, and has been so for more than five years. The average size of each issue isn't that large either. Each issue averages between 3.5 to 5 MB (MB = Megabytes) in PDF form.

Also, the circulation of the Industrial Worker is roughly 10,000 at best. If we assumed that the largest size file were multiplied by that amount, we're talking about 50,000 MB or 50 GB (GB = Gigabytes). That's actually not a great deal of bandwidth. Some streaming high resolution HD Video files average roughly 3 GB per hour per capita maximum, but if we're going to make a high-end estimate with the Industrial Worker we may as well assume a high-end estimate for streaming HD videos. In other words, In one hour, 17 individual users could spend more energy trying to watch streaming HD videos than 10,000 users would need to use to download that many copies of the largest issue of the Industrial Worker.

To be certain, even if the IWW returned to the policy that each member automatically receive one paper copy of the Industrial Worker each month and also filled every non-member subscription request, plus produced the same number of "bundles" of additional copies for sales and/or literature tables, it would still be largely tied in with the Internet. Granted, nobody is making such a proposal, but it helps to illustrate the point:

A great deal of research for articles we publish in each issue involves use of the Internet and mobile technology. The organizing campaigns and workers' struggles we cover utilize the Internet heavily. Articles are submitted to our editor via the Internet. Even with an all hard copy paper, we'd still sell subscriptions online at our online store and we'd probably use Social Media anyway.

Very few contemporary publications--even anti-civ, primitivist, and "Luddite" periodicals--do not make use of the Internet or computers in some fashion. The lone exception to this rule that I know of is The Match! a Tucson based individualist-anarchist journal published sporadically by one-time IWW member Fred Woodworth, and there are probably few others, numbering less than a dozen.

Even the production and distribution of all hard copy publications, including The Match! involve computers and the Internet. Try as he might to keep his production 100% analogue, Fred Woodworth cannot keep those that deliver, distribute, or sell The Match! from using the Internet or computers.

On the other hand, were the Industrial Worker to go 100% digital, i.e. no paper copies at all (which also isn't a proposal on anyone's radar at the moment), the likelihood is that many end users would opt to print out a hard copy of their PDFs. Also, some of the research, production, distribution, sales, and delivery would likely make some use of paper, at least under current available technology. Perhaps at some future date that might no longer be the case, but I wouldn't try to predict when that might happen.

So it's really hard to say what effect switching the default delivery of the Industrial Worker would have--if any at all. I hope, someday soon, our circulation would be large enough to warrant an actual study, but we're not quite there...yet.

We are in a position to discuss "The Cloud" versus the Pulp and Paper Industry, however, and the figures cited by the author of the New York Times article, James Glanz, are highly misleading. There is no accounting for all of the energy used in harvesting the materials used to produce the pulp in the first place, nor is there any consideration given to the substantial effect that (capitalist) commercial logging has on the long term stability of ecosystems--and most logging is still highly capital intensive, very invasive and destructive--not to mention timber workers, whose employment conditions and job security are degraded by capitalist logging practices. No factoring in of the energy used in refining, storing, and transport of the materials are provided either. No consideration is given to the fact that most paper copies of periodicals are discarded, and even if recycled, that requires energy as well.

Taking a closer look at the referenced New York Times article, if one reads it very carefully, they will discern that its author, James Glanz, is not concluding that data centers are inherently energy hogs. In fact, he is stating that under current (capitalist) practices many data centers are inefficient and use a huge amount of energy.

The article primarily focuses on the tendency of data centers to suffer from what's known as "low utilization", whereby many servers are kept running, but only actually utilized between 7 - 12% of the time due to the peaks and troughs of user demand and institutional fears of temporary outages, a potential threat to the capitalist profit margins of the data centers' owners and shareholders. A secondary focus involves the industrial cooling needs of data centers. Overheated servers can cause delays, outages, or even fires, which also represent potential threats to the bottom line.

These problems are not only not insurmountable, but that they actually quite easy to fix. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), cited quite frequently by Glanz, has conducted numerous studies that demonstrate how to reduce data center energy usage by implementing four different conservation techniques. These include more efficient power supplies (yielding as much as 20% energy savings); managing airflow velocity to maintain adequately low server temperature (saving up to 17% of total energy used); employing thermal maps to provide better regulation of airflow (3-5% savings); and Replacing standard AC power systems with DC to eliminate multiple AC-to-DC and DC-to-AC power conversions (saving up to 15% of total energy usage. The EPRI study doesn't indicate whether combining all four methods would yield 65-67% energy savings, but there is no logical reason to conclude that it wouldn't.

While shaving two thirds of data center energy usage would represent a significant advance, there's no reason to stop there. Glanz, himself, points out that the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center achieved a near perfect 96.4% utilization (as opposed to 7-12%) by implementing server programming efficiency measures that resulted in no appreciable loss in end-user experience. He also cites the case of LexisNexis Risk Solutions who reduced the square-footage of their facility from 25,000 to 10,000 by consolidating servers and updating hardware. Combined with the measures suggested by EPRI, there is no reason to believe that almost 99% savings could be achieved. Then, instead of using 76 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, the actual amount used would be a mere 760 million kilowatt-hours, substantially less than the 67 billion supposedly used by the pulp and paper industry.

Rather than point this out, however, Glanz makes the following sophomoric comment, "Of course...100 percent utilization is not possible."(!)  So what!?! 100% utilization isn't possible, but 96.4% is, and 96.4% is substantially better than 7-12%! Why even make such a nonsensical comment at all?

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to understand that the biggest obstacle in eliminating the inefficiencies in data centers requires one to question the capitalist business model. Glanz even offers the following quotation from EPRI spokesperson, Dennis P. Symanski, who said:

You look at it and say, ‘How in the world can you run a business like that? ... They don’t get a bonus for saving on the electric bill. They get a bonus for having the data center available 99.999 percent of the time.”

It's also worth noting that Glanz alludes to the energy sources that power some of these data centers, noting--for example--that Amazon faces fines exceeding $550,000 for illegally operating diesel backup generators without permits to provide additional power for its facility in Virginia.

In addition to solving the utilization problems, the power sources could easily be generated locally by renewable resources, and according to Greenpeace media officer, David Pomerantz, at least five major data centers are already doing this. These major players include Google (and yes, Pomerantz takes them to task for hosting a fundraiser for climate change denier James Inhofe), Apple, Facebook (no, Pomerantz didn't mention Facebook's Keystone connection unfortunately), Salesforce, and Rackspace. On the other hand, Pomerantz singles out three of the worst offenders, which are the aforementioned Amazon, as well as Yelp and Microsoft.

For the most part, data centers are owned by capitalist interests and most capitalist interests still favor centralized utility generated electricity generation, as Glanz makes clear:

Data centers are among utilities’ most prized customers. Many utilities around the country recruit the facilities for their almost unvarying round-the-clock loads. Large, steady consumption is profitable for utilities because it allows them to plan their own power purchases in advance and market their services at night, when demand by other customers plummets."

Again, the source of the problem should be obvious, but Glanz has other ideas. Rather than point out the inherent inefficiencies of capitalism (a definite "no-no" if you write for the New York Times) the author blames the consumers, not the least of which he does by quoting Uptime Institute Vice President, Bruce Taylor, who declared, “If you tell somebody they can’t access YouTube or download from Netflix, they’ll tell you it’s a God-given right."

To emphasize the point, Glanz also quotes another industry spokesman, David Cappuccio, who pontificates:

That’s what’s driving that massive growth — the end-user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere...We’re what’s causing the problem.

Oh come on! We're supposed to believe that a bunch of apathetic hipsters are destroying the planet?!? Is there not even a modicum of responsibility to be assigned to the billions of capitalist business transactions or security state surveillance activity that takes place every minute of every hour of every day has anything to do with it? You've got to be kidding me!

Apparently not, I guess. Glanz--like so many other foot soldiers for the 1%--feels compelled to point out the Philistine ignorance of we 99%ers thusly:

Using the cloud “just changes where the applications are running,” said Hank Seader, managing principal for research and education at the Uptime Institute. “It all goes to a data center somewhere.”

Some wonder if the very language of the Internet is a barrier to understanding how physical it is, and is likely to stay. Take, for example, the issue of storing data, said Randall H. Victora, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota who does research on magnetic storage devices.

“When somebody says, ‘I’m going to store something in the cloud, we don’t need disk drives anymore’ — the cloud is disk drives,” Mr. Victora said. “We get them one way or another. We just don’t know it.”

One might ask which "we" they're actually describing. As well all know well, there's a good deal of difference between the energy consumption of the employing class and the working class, but there's a still more important question not being answered, and that's why even sound alarm bells about data center energy usage at all?

The New York Times published Glanz's article in September of 2012, but the discussion about it in the context of the Industrial Worker proved to be fortuitously timed, because less than a week later, the Corporate Media dutifully regurgitated a piece of pseudoscientific garbage by Mark Mills, CEO of Digital Power Group, called The Cloud Begins With Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power, which--in spite of the evidence cited above--argued that the Internet is highly dependent upon coal to provide its power.

As it turns out, however, the study was quickly and thoroughly debunked by Joe Romm, who pointed out some very important facts that Mills (and Glanz) omitted. For example, while data centers might account for 1% of all electricity consumed worldwide (not counting the 99% potential savings described above), the Internet actually helps us use the remaining 99% more efficiently.

For example, peer reviewed studies demonstrate that by downloading music instead of purchasing a CD, approximately 40% at worst and 80% at best less greenhouse gases are emitted, and in general, "moving bits is environmentally preferable to moving atoms". This is done either through dematerialization, the substitution of matter with information or reduced transportation.

Information Technology (IT) also makes it possible to use electricity and energy much more smartly, by providing data and usage statistics which help plan the complex distribution of electricity and energy across the grid and various power networks (though Romm neglects to mention that a great deal of that results from capitalist business practices). IT is also widely used to reap more efficient usage of energy generation and transmission technology.

These conclusions are supported by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) who found that for every unit of energy used by IT, anywhere from six to fourteen units of energy are saved elsewhere.

More importantly, Romm points out that Mills has a 14-plus year history of publishing similar disinformation devoid of peer review, and each time his studies have been debunked. This latest "study" by Mills was sponsored by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in other words, BIG COAL. Yet, the Corporate Media published Mills's self-serving propaganda as news without so much of a hint of dissent (and even some of the liberal and reformist green blogs parroted it) as if it were reputable news. One of the worst offenders was an article published by Carmel Lobello in The Week, August 14, 2013, titled Your iPhone Uses More Energy than a Refrigerator.

Right off the bat, Lobello--like Glanz--blames consumers (not the capitalist datacenters), in her opening sentence, declaring, "How much energy does it take to power your smartphone addiction?" (So it's an "addiction" now? Does that make Apple the "pusher"? And how many hours does the Lobello spend on her iPhone?)

Lobello admitted that Mills's hardly scientific study was funded by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, but then--without so much as a hint of irony--states, "it's safe to say that (coal is) playing a huge role in keeping us connected"(!) This, of course, should come as no surprise, because The Week's website features an energy column sponsored by Shell.

As for the actual energy used by the typical iPhone, Dr. Jonathan Koomey (also cited by Glanz), a well-credentialed expert on the energy consumption of the Internet, who has debunked Mills several times over the past decade and a half weighed in with his own analysis. Rather than repeat all of Koomey's figures and calculations, readers are encouraged to view them at the source. In short, Mills overestimated the typical iPhone's consumption by a factor of 18. One additional point raised by Koomey bears repeating, and that's the fact that later model iPhones are more efficient than their earlier cousins. Data transfer on 4G systems use between 0.4 and 0.8 kWh/GB (kWh/GB = kilowatt-hours per gigabyte), as opposed to 2.9 kWh/GB for 3G systems and a whopping 37 kWh/GB for 2G systems. Koomey doesn't offer figures for LTE (5G) systems, but it's safe to say they're more efficient than their 4G predecessors.

As for iPhones versus paper, Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, points out that IT has reduced the usage of paper as well as made far more efficient usage of energy. According to Atkinson, it requires 3,405 kWh to produce 100 tons of paper--approximately the amount needed to contain the information transferred annually by the average smartphone user, which is a good deal more than that used by the average refrigerator.

So just what is going on here? Why is the Coal industry publishing such blatantly bogus misinformation? It turns out that this ruckus may be indicative of something far greater afoot. Either overlooked or deliberately ignored by the corporate media are the growing fears by certain sectors of the employing class that a huge carbon bubble is eminent. According to a report published in the Guardian on April 18, 2013 at least 70% of remaining fossil fuel "reserves" (i.e. unmined and untapped sources of oil, coal, and natural gas) must remain in the ground in order to avoid exceeding the limits that would keep the global temperature rise below (an already dangerous) 2 degrees Celsius . However, these represent the assets already owned and accounted for by shareholders, which means that all of them are potentially "stranded" assets. In an effort to quickly maximize profits, fossil fuel interests are racing like mad to squeeze as much profit out of their reserves before this impending bubble bursts.

Coupled with that, utility companies (remember them?) are desperately trying to hold back a coming tidal wave of distributed renewable energy generation that is already threatening to completely shift the paradigm of centralized, privately owned, for profit power generation. That fight is manifesting itself in numerous ways.

Spain recently passed laws (at the behest of centralized utilities) that overturned popular feed in tariff programs. In Georgia, fossil fuel interests (led by ALEC and the Koch Brothers) fought to oppose laws that offer incentives for deployment of solar electricity generation (which ironically brought greens and Tea Party members together in coalition against ALEC). In Arizona and California, utility companies are desperately battling it out with solar companies and individual rate payers over net metering laws.

Capitalism depends very heavily on the centering of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, but renewable energy technology greatly threatens, or even potentially reverses that process, and it doesn't help the fossil fuel interests if their fellow capitalists--such as the folks at Apple, Facebook, and Google--inadvertently unleash the floods that threaten to sweep them unwittingly into the dustbin of history, so it makes sense that the fossil fuel wing of the capitalist class is doing everything in their power to try and convince the world that we cannot survive without them.

Of course, there are many problems that those defending information technology and smartphones are themselves overlooking or deliberately ignoring, such as the sweatshop like working conditions endured by the workers that manufacture such devices; the fact that even if their impact is smaller than that of non-digital technology, it's still harmful to the environment; and in spite of the potential for much greater energy conservation by the Internet data centers, far more needs to be done, but these are problems inherent in capitalism that can and must be solved by organizing at the point of production, which is something that any IWW member knows going in.

Certainly, the most important measure we can take to save energy is abolish capitalism, and indeed the capitalist press even unwittingly suggests so. In one of the many articles parroting the coal industry's rhetoric about the Internet being an energy hog, author Bryan Walsh, senior Time editor, cites an example in which the LEED Platinum certified Bank of America Tower building in New York City uses more energy than the nearly century-old Empire State Building.

Walsh admits that this is the result of the intensive capitalist driven computerized stock trading that requires five computers per desk throughout one third of the Bank of America Tower (though he misses the obvious point that if this activity were occurring in the old Empire State Building, the energy usage would be far worse). What the author, of course, doesn't state, is the tremendous waste of energy capitalism produces in general. I think that is a matter of far greater importance than how much energy we save (or waste) by digitizing our humble anti-capitalist paper of record. 

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