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Department of Sociology


The environmental impact of the internet as a medium is being concealed by discourse connoting incorporeality – and it’s a big problem for the climate

Connie Walsh, Queens' College

In June 2019, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez met with 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg to discuss the climate emergency. Articles in The Guardian reporting their meeting are headed by a photo of Ocasio-Cortez and Thunberg sat, side-by-side and looking determined, ready to tackle the greatest emergency faced by mankind in human history. Of course, Thunberg doesn’t fly, and Ocasio-Cortez is a Congresswoman based in Washington DC, so this ‘meeting’ took place in the incorporeal location of the internet, the photos edited to reflect physical proximity to match their virtual vicinity. The pair used the internet as a medium for communication for exactly this reason: its non-physical location and provision of international, borderless connection without requiring transport makes it the best medium to use during the climate emergency because it does not physically damage our environment. Right?

The discourse surrounding the modern era’s dominant medium – the internet – emphasises this non-physicality of location, fitting in to a broader information society discourse in which new technologies are framed as efficient, equalising and democratising through changed our perceptions of connectivity outside traditional physical space. This discursive trend in highlighting non-physicality has, like all discourses, been intentionally constructed by certain individuals and groups in society to shape meaning in a way that will ultimately benefit their capital – be it economic, social or cultural. Ultimately, these ethereal connotations promoted by discourse surrounding the internet serve to mask the effect that this medium is having on the climate.

An obvious example of this is ‘the cloud’. Vincent Mosco suggests that “discourse, myth, and magic have a large role to play in creating the cloud” – what started as a simple symbol to describe the interconnected elements of a computer communications network in diagrams was appropriated by marketing departments in tech companies, governments, lobbying organisations and big business. The cloud now acts as a meaningful symbol in a broader information society discourse suggesting that the internet transcends national boundaries, our data is ‘above’ us like a cloud and not physically located on earth – tying in with the aforementioned ideas that the internet provides a virtual space and incorporeal arena for communication and connection.

In contrast to the pervading discourse surrounding the internet, data storage is very much part of our tangible, physical world. ‘Data centres’ are vast buildings used to store information, coding all aspects of data into either a ‘1’ or a ‘0’. Of course, this coding needs energy to be carried out, and then requires more energy to be stored. It is not surprising, therefore, that data centres require significant energy to operate. It has been reported that the global carbon footprint of the ICT industry accounts for more than 2% of global carbon emissions. This is comparable to that of the aviation industry’s fuel emissions. By 2020, it is estimated that the ICT industry will account for a maximum of 3.6% of the total global carbon footprint and that data centres will account for 45% of the total ICT industry carbon footprint, a 12% increase from 2010 and a figure which is set to increase exponentially. (source: Science Direct).

Academia – intentionally or otherwise – laid the foundations for the discourse of transcendence, discursively concealing the internet’s environmental impact at a time of climate emergency. Writing before the internet became society’s dominant medium, Marshall McLuhan describes the notion of a ‘global village’, referring to the mass consumption of images, media, and content by the global audiences. The term global village means different parts of the world form one community linked by the internet, forms of communication such as Skype allow users to communicate and connect with others irrespective of national borders. With the virtue of hindsight, it is clear that McLuhan is building towards the discourse which suggests that the internet allows for free, harmless and entirely non-physical relationships between users – the very same discourse used to conceal the real, lived environmental effects that this medium is having at a time of climate emergency.

The discourse of non-physicality of location surrounding the internet is detrimental to the environment, yet, despite being in the midst of a climate emergency, even those working at tech companies responsible for data centres tend to be unaware of their environmental impact. The perpetuation of this discourse sustains the authority of tech companies, governments, lobbying organisations and big business through removing potentially damaging connotations of environmental destruction which should be attributed to their activities.

However, we should not throw the virtual baby out with the incorporeal bathwater. Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez’s meeting should not be criticised as a failure to recognise the real, lived effects that the internet as a medium is having on our environment. Their efforts to curb carbon emissions through reducing air travel should be applauded at a time of climate emergency, and, per head, the internet is more environmentally friendly than flying across the Atlantic. For the good of the planet, a series of recognitions are required: a recognition of the fallacy of non-physicality perpetuated by discourses surrounding the internet, a recognition of the real effects data centres are having on our environment and a recognition that technology is not going to resolve the climate emergency if it is perpetually considered to be beyond our physical reality.

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