The cloud

26 June 2010

Suspend Me From The Clouds, Keep Me From Ground, Robyn O’Neil (Graphite on paper. 2008.) [1]
“Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth.”
— Benoit Mandelbrot
“With so much of the information we use today stored in “the cloud” it can be easy to forget that out there, somewhere, there’s energy being used to power thousands of servers in massive data centers. Facebook just announced that it’s going to build its first data center in Oregon. And while Google and Microsoft precede them in the state, they take advantage of cheaper and cleaner hydro power, while it looks like Facebook will be using mostly coal power from Idaho.
[….]
Apparently it is an issue of cost. Starting in 2012, the days of super cheap hydro from Bonneville Power Administration, which Google and Microsoft cashed in on, will draw to a close. And faced with a tiered rate structure from Bonneville, Facebook decided to put down roots in the high desert area of Pineville and get its juice from Pacific Power in a mostly coal package. Of course there were some nice tax breaks thrown into the equation, too, and it looks like the community can use all the jobs they can get. The area has 17 percent unemployment and the schools are considering a 4-day week to cut costs.” [2]

Back in the States, sweltering in a Brooklyn loft until Tuesday. The culture shock’s easier the second time around, although it’s still weird to be in crowded urban spaces & hear English everywhere.

Sometime in the last two years, while I was away, smartphones apparently became not an esoteric toy for day traders & political types but an everyday accessory for anybody sufficiently middle-class to afford Ray-Bans. I haven’t had internet in my apartment since spring 2008; all of my Stateside friends now seem to swim in the stuff, a kind of invisible mesh draped over everything, and I find this degree of hyper-connected digital mediation deeply weird.

I scrounged a month-old issue of the New Yorker in the coffeeshop this morning (coffeeshops!— another thing Spain doesn’t have) & came across a profile of “invention engine” & MacArthur genius grant-winner Saul Griffith (3), an ecologically-minded tinkerer with a doctorate from MIT summed up at one point as a  “prime exemplar of ‘maker culture’—a community of sophisticated do-it-yourselfers . . . who believe that making, modifying, and repairing things can be an antidote to throwaway consumerism.”

Inventions are listed or described, playful & somehow homemade-seeming even when they’re massive in scale (roadways paved with photovoltaic panels) that range from frivolous to apparently game-changing: a machine that turns digital designs into three-dimensional chocolate objects, puck-sized plastic components that assemble themselves on an air hockey table, homemade kitesurfing boards, a compact electricity generator powered by swinging it around your head like an Aboriginal bull-roarer, an electricity-assisted tricycle, a hand-cranked cellphone charger, building materials made from recycled fabrics & plastic waste, an electric rope with sensors that detect changes in load, paper window insulation based on origami, a small device that cranks out any prescription lens in a few minutes (it looks like a tiny springform cake pan between adjustable membranes), a flying wind power generator that is a single rigid wing tethered to a tower (a utility-scale version would have “a wingspan of roughly a hundred feet and would have a peak generation rate of a megawatt, or enough to power five hundred houses” — a wind farm would look like “a bunch of very large kites, flying in circles all day, two thousand feet above the ground”).

The catch, in these last two cases, is as interesting as the inventiveness that they showcase. Griffith won the genius grant for the lens machine, an “inexpensive desktop device with which a minimally trained operator could turn a fast-hardening liquid into a finished lens in a few minutes” that was supposed to replace huge, expensive lens factories for the developing world— but as it turned out, the machine never found a market. Why?

“‘It turned out,’ [Griffith said], ‘that we were solving the wrong problem. A lens factory is expensive to build & equip,  but once you’ve got one you can deliver them anywhere in the world for a dollar or two in postage.’ In effect, Griffith’s invention addressed a problem that had been solved years before, at lower cost, by Chinese labor and global shipping.”

Why buy an ingenious machine when you can rely on cheap factory labor across oceans and (for the time being) cheaper global shipping? Why make it yourself when you could just send away for it? The problem turns out to be not building the lenses but instead the availability of optometrists to test eyes and write accurate prescriptions in countries with no medical system.

The flying wind turbine project is run by Makani Power, headquartered on an old US Naval Air Station outside of San Francisco that was declared a Superfund site in 1999 & consists of “un-used runways, crumbling streets, empty parking lots, and post-apocalyptic-looking semi-abandoned buildings.”

“Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, invested ten million dollars in Makani in 2006 and an additional five million in 2008, making it the company’s biggest financial backer. […] Google is interested in energy mainly because the company’s server farms, along with the rest of the Internet, use a huge and rapidly growing amount of power. Searching, accessing, and storing an ever-increasing volume of Web pages, family snapshots, emails, old books, tweets, “cloud” applications, humorous videos, television shows, feature films, pornography, and everything else that can be found online requires electricity, and most of that electricity is currently generated by burning coal. The Internet’s energy and carbon footprints now probably exceed those of air travel, Griffith told me, perhaps by as much as a factor of two, and they are growing faster than those of almost all other human activities. In February, the federal government made the decision to allow a Google subsidiary to participate directly in energy markets, on an equal footing with utilities.

Even with Google’s backing, though, the cloud will not be wind-powered, not even this inventively, for a long, long time. “Even if I came to you tomorrow with the perfect energy idea,” says Griffith, “the reality is that to go from that idea to doing utility-scale power generation would be a minimum cost of entry of a hundred million dollars, and a minimum lead time of five to ten years.” And the article makes the point, through Griffith, that things like a hand-cranked cell phone battery depend not on the ingenuity of the tech but on the culture of use & behavior we cultivate around the objects we consume.

In the meantime, the cloud— invisible & omnipresent, the data we swim in— comes from a place in the real world, and it feeds on something: coal, server farms, economically devastated towns in the middle of the country.

__________________

1. Image found at Roberts & Tilton. Artist found via iheartmyart. Believer interview with Robyn O’Neil. Artist’s website. A better sense of the scale of the pieces here & here.
2. “Every time you update your Facebok status, a baby polar bear dies,” Tara Lohan (Change.org – 11 February ’10)
3. “The Inventor’s Dilemma” (abstract), David Owen (The New Yorker – 17 May ’10); a compendium of do-it-yourself projects set up by Squid Labs, Instructables.com; the homepage for Makani Power.

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2 Responses to “The cloud”

  1. Cultural Witticism Says:

    “all of my Stateside friends now seem to swim in the stuff, a kind of invisible mesh draped over everything, and I find this degree of hyper-connected digital mediation deeply weird”

    i’ll only say this once, but i’ll say it loudly: don’t judge America based on New York…!

    not to say that you’re not somewhat right — the internet has begun to encroach upon parts of life you’d, or i at least, never truly anticipated, such as recently when i forgot the lyrics to Love is Here to Stay while performing with an old friend and my brother procured the lyrics for me on his iPhone (what good memory? perhaps this is another layer to the death of scatting) — but out here in the bowels of the States, rural America (yes we’re still here!), we are generally quite unplugged. and it’s still rude to talk on your cell phone in public.

    that said, it does feel more and more like instead of having to make an effort to go into the internet as i remember from not very long ago(down a long hall, up a flight of stairs, several padlocks and a long wait) — these days the door is always wide open and very close by.


  2. […] this post from Jim came along in timely fashion to remind me that I hadn’t been back to report on my […]


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