The High Cost of Cheap Email

The author’s desk while writing this article.

Every day, millions of people send emails – for free, as it appears. Yet, behind every free email, internet access, YouTube, online videos, etc. lurks a cost. This cost often comes as a rather bitter environmental cost. To put it mildly, cheap email has a high cost.

To make sure that we understand what we are talking about, here it is – plain and simple, our Internet use makes one of the biggest contributions to global pollution with billions of interfaces – such as through tablets, TVs, PCs, smartphones, smartwatches, etc. Our point of entry into the internet comes at a cost.  In addition, the data that we produce at every moment also weighs in.

These data are transported, stored, and processed in massive, energy-hungry infrastructures, and used to create new digital content requiring even more data interfaces. Today, the global digital industry consumes enough water, material, and energy to give it a footprint triple that of a country such as the UK. Digital technologies currently use 10% of the world’s electricity. And it accounts for up to 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Currently, an old favorite – GAFMA, Google (Alphabet), Amazon, Facebook (Meta), Microsoft, and Apple – has been replaced with FAANG – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google. Perhaps these things change like the behavior of teenagers particularly of those who are called digital natives, the generation born with the Internet.

Yet, it is not just them but many others who tribute to the fact that there are some 34 billion pieces of digital equipment in circulation on the planet, representing a total of 223 million tons, or 179 million cars.

It is getting worse, the decades of digitalization in our societies have also seen the highest increase in our ecological footprint – and industry inventions that shift attention away from corporations. We, the people, are responsible. Yet, we are (falsely) led to believethat global warming has nothing to do with corporations and capitalism.

Let’s start with the batteries of billions of telephones around the world that despite each containing a little more than two grams of graphite in order to have electric conductivity, however, its manufacture comes at great human and environmental expense because of the residue emitted from the nearby mines and factories that can spread into the atmosphere for dozens of kilometers in all directions.

The number of materials needed to manufacture the 34 billion mobile phones, tablets, and other devices in circulation in the world – for 4.5 billion users, the gateway to the global information-technology network and its infinite services – is mind-numbing.

The standard smartphone with features like two cameras, three microphones, an infrared sensor, a proximity sensor, a magnetometer, multiple GPS antennas, Wi-Fi, and 4G is rather traumatizing to the environmentally conscious mind.

Slowly, we come to understand how absurd and pathological it is to talk about dematerialization when it comes to Internet communication. Online communication may appear immaterial, but it comes with a huge number of materials and an adjacent level of environmental vandalism.

Just consider this, over the last three decades, the lifespan of a computer has dropped from eleven to just four years. Homo sapiensbecomes homo detritusproducing the equivalent of 5,000 Eiffel Towers of electronic waste – every year. Children on waste tips in Accra (capital of Ghana) can testify to that, as even had to admit.

All these items contain a microchip. Yet, manufacturing these chips demands sixty raw materials, including silicium, boron, arsenic, tungsten, and copper, all of which are 99.9999999% purified. And such a microchip can contain up to 20 billion transistors.

Worse, extracting and refining silicon, and casting wafers at 1,400 degrees Celsius requires exorbitant amounts of energy. And an integrated circuit needs to be rinsed with de-ionized water that is purer than distilled water, at every step of the manufacturing process.

In other words, it takes a lot of water to develop these chips. Taiwan’s semiconductor-making corporation, TSMC has a water consumption of 156,000 tons per day – again, such mind-numbing numbers! That is not all, TSMC’s factories in Taiwan supposedly require the equivalent of three nuclear reactors to operate.

Our electronic gadgets that use microchips, like phones, tablets, computers, etc. have yet another hidden cost. It is the submerged part of the iceberg: unaccounted for, invisible to our senses, and therefore largely ignored.

Those are run by Equinix, Interxion, EdgeConneX, CyrusOne, Alibaba Cloud, and Amazon Web Service. They are the datacenters where servers run not just the Internet, but also what is euphemistically called the cloud. This may well be the heart of our computerized life.

Yet, rarely do people give a thought to the existence of these spacious buildings. For some reasons, there are no open days. There is nothing to distinguish a data center from any other old building, a factory, or a warehouse. In fact, you’ve probably walked past dozens of them without even noticing.

Today, the digital industry no longer thrives from selling computers or software, but from commercializing information. What should not remain unmentioned is that corporations do this commercializing for one reason only – to make a profit.

Unlike the false claims made by global warming deniers and corporate propaganda, all this has something to do with capitalism. At the environmental level, cooling an average-sized data center can take as much as 60,000 cubic meters of water per year — enough to fill 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools or meet the needs of three hospitals.

Such data centers are set to become the most important electricity consumption elements of the 21st century. In fact, this is already happening, when, for example, in Dublin, data centers now consume more energy than the city’s population. With Internet of Everything or the Internet of Things (IoT), this is set to get worse.

Virtually, the same thing will occur once we have all moved to the 5G network. If 5G becomes a priority for the principality, it is because it can transfer 10 times more data 10 times faster than 4G. It takes less than 10 seconds to download a two-hour film, instead of seven interminable minutes on 4G. It is hard to imagine that consumers would not want this, and corporations would not sell it.

In the area of LED lighting, the pattern of energy consumptions looks very similar to the pattern of Internet consumption. It is true that with the introduction of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), we have made no energy gains but more energy is consumed instead. Digital technologies are no exception.

Furthermore, digital players are astutely aware that these new technologies will increase our digital consumption and that, far from solving the problem, it is energizing it. Those that are euphemistically called digital players are, in fact, large multi-national profit-seeking corporations.

In monopoly capitalism, the same applies to the companies that transmit information. Interestingly, close to 99% of the world’s data traffic travels not though the air, but via the cables deployed underground and at the bottom of the sea.

An undersea cable called TAT-8 was laid between the United States and Europe in 1988. It allows over 40,000 telephone calls to be made simultaneously. Today’s undersea cable can handle five billion telephone calls, or three times the information contained in the US Library of Congress, per second.

Yet, putting those cables down cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, overall turnover worldwide is growing by 11% annuallyand is expected to reach $22 billion by 2025.

Typically, for capitalism, the owners of the cables are a handful of corporations – Deutsche Telekom, AT&T, Telecom Italia, Vodafone, and Orange – while cable manufacturers are, for example, Alcatel Submarine Networks, SubCom, and NEC. Beyond all that, there are also zombie cables.

In the end, the internet is just another instrument in the quest for power and money. One might like to close with the fact that the Internet and online communication are nothing more than a tool created in our image. They are — and will be — no more, and no less environmental than we are. If we happily waste food and energy resources, digital technologies will serve to accentuate that inclination.

Downloading this article for free is not so free after all.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of German Conspiracy Fantasies.