The Reason Why Internet Servers (Hopefully) Won't Destroy the Earth

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Because billions of computer users around the world are clicking "save" more and more, it may seem like we'll have to keep building server farms apace to store all those baby pics and status updates. But that's not exactly how it works. Storage, it turns out, isn't really the problem.

"The amount of information you can collect is increasing exponentially," says Jonathan Koomey of Stanford University. "But that doesn't mean that the energy needed to collect all those data and to store them has to increase at the same pace."

The reason not to worry is captured in Koomey's law, which says that the efficiency of computers increases faster than the data we need to store. Yes, data is getting bigger. But we can also fit more of that information into a smaller space using less energy over time. 

None of that means that e-hoarding our old photos is free of consequences. Gary Cook of Greenpeace says, "If you aggregated the amount of electricity that is required to power the internet and deliver and store our data and compare that against the electricity consumption of countries, it would rank about six. So it's significant." 

He wants more users to demand their personal clouds are powered by the sun or other renewable energy sources. And maybe, we should just not save so much of that e-stuff we really won't ever want again. 

Koomey agrees on the info overload front: "When you have thousands of photographs, how do you decide which ones you put in the book for posterity for your kids?" he asks. 

This interview is an excerpt from this week's New Tech City podcast exploring various ways that deleting more of our digital detritus would change our brains, relationships and our planet. You can listen to the full podcast below or on iTunes.