We’re so used to using computers and phones that they feel like an extension of our brains — it isn’t just me, right? A Google query comes back as fast as a thought, and the information at my fingertips feels intangible like the information in my brain.
But “the cloud” is a metaphor; all that data runs through very real and physical wires, and courses from rack to rack in data centres.
All those machines (not to mention the air conditioners that keep them from overheating) use electricity. And that electricity has to come from somewhere.
The internet is real, and it has a huge carbon footprint.
Artist Joana Moll designed a visualisation called Defooooooooooooooooooooorest to show how much carbon dioxide Google, as a company, produces over time. One second of the company’s energy use is equivalent to what 23 trees can suck up, she calculates.
Quartz checked her numbers and found that there’s dispute about how to calculate the carbon footprint of constantly googling everything. Google says a month’s worth of searches from one person have a similar impact as driving a car 1.6km. (They also put effort into reducing their emissions and say that the company is currently carbon neutral thanks to alternative energy and buying carbon offsets.)
Google the company does a lot more than search, though. And your own carbon footprint from searching should include the energy to power your laptop or phone, for example.
So take the numbers with a grain of salt, but enjoy Defooooooooooooooooooooorest as a reminder that the internet is a real, physical thing.