What Kind of Space Is Cyberspace?

by Jeff Strabone

What kind of space is cyberspace? Of all the things we take for granted, cyberspace is near the top of the list. The promise of the internet in the twenty-first century is to make everything always available to everyone everywhere. All of human culture and achievement, the great and the not so great, may, one day soon, be a click away.

When one is online, cyberspace can seem a lot like outer space or, to use the latest jargon, 'the cloud'. It appears infinite and ethereal. The information is simply out there. If, instead, we thought more about the real-world energy and the real estate that the internet uses, we would start to realize that things are not so simple. Cyberspace is in fact physical space. And the longer it takes us to change our concept of the internet—to see quite clearly its physical there-ness—the closer we'll get to blogging our way to oblivion.

When I was in college in the 1990s, I resided near the campus computing center for two years and made friends with some of the staff. Seeing the physical space where everything happened did not make me want to be a computer science major, but it did de-mystify the internet. I knew they had machines that stored everything we did online. For all I know, they still have all our old e-mail stored away somewhere in case anyone ever runs for high office.

But permanent storage is not the same thing as what we have today. Now, everything that we upload—all the Facebook photos, all the Youtube videos—is always available on demand to everyone. What does it take to keep up that commitment? Tom Vanderbilt recently asked that question in the New York Times Magazine for June 14, 2009. It takes many huge buildings, with square footage in the hundreds of thousands of feet, called data centers or, more appropriately given the internet's relentless growth, server farms.

In order to maintain total, ubiquitous availability, as today's internet users have come to expect, a lot of things have to be happening simultaneously. The millions of hard disc drives that store the internet's contents have to be powered up and spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute, not just in one place but at backup mirror sites elsewhere. The drives' read-write arms are constantly racing over the surfaces of the discs. Other servers have to be available to handle spikes in demand, as when everyone searches for Michael Jackson or Teddy Kennedy at the same time. Electrons run at light speed through miles of transmission wires and power cables. Air conditioning keeps the whirring servers cool. Real estate has to be acquired and developed to house it all. Electrical grids have to be extended to the sites. And lots of electricity has to be generated, which means lots of carbon dioxide gets produced.

How much? According to Vanderbilt:

Data centers worldwide now consume more energy annually than Sweden. And the amount of energy required is growing, says Jonathan Koomey, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. From 2000 to 2005, the aggregate electricity use by data centers doubled. The cloud, he calculates, consumes 1 to 2 percent of the world's electricity.

That is what it takes to maintain Facebook's reported 15 billion photos, entertain Microsoft's 20 million Xbox Live subscribers, and host all the other always-on content that we use. But at what cost?

According to a July 20, 2009 report by Wired magazine, Google's millions of servers 'process about 1 petabyte of user-generated data every hour'. What is a petabyte? It's a million gigabytes. The Charlotte Observer reported on June 3, 2009 that Apple is planning to build a $1 billion server farm in North Carolina, thanks in part to a $46 million tax break from the state. Cyberspace already consumes more energy than Sweden. How long before it needs more space than Sweden?

The economics of cyberspace and server farms provides no automatic curb to their growth. The key questions for business are how to get energy cheaply and how to keep transmission times in the low milliseconds. Revenues for services like Facebook and Youtube do not come from costs to users. From a naive user's perspective, cyberspace is infinite, free, and clean. As long as people perceive no cost in uploading their photos and videos, they will do so—and their content will stay there without expiring. Free video is like free petrol or free air conditioning: anyone not paying the bill for a resource will use it without restraint. And that is exactly what is happening in cyberspace.

In September 2006, I attended a speech by Al Gore, winner of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, at the NYU School of Law. Gore talked about ways, some of them quite visionary, to link pollution to a market economy. He advocated new paradigms that would 'internalize the externalities' of business. This is the key concept behind proposed cap-and-trade legislation. If a company makes a lot of money producing widgets but the widget-producing process also produces beaucoup carbon dioxide, that is perfectly okay in the business world. The company's CO2 production does not show up on ledgers, profit-and-loss statements, SEC filings, P/E ratios, or anywhere else. It is, thus, an externality. What we need, Gore argues, is a new regime that internalizes pollution and other ills as quantifiable costs. In short, we need to put a price tag on CO2 production. Gore's idea, as he explained it before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 28, 2009, is to put the market to work to reduce pollution:

Now, the most serious defect in the way capitalism has addressed this climate crisis up until now has been what the economic theorists call externalities. And—meaning, of course, that the horrible consequences of dumping 70 million tons of CO2 into the Earth's atmosphere every 24 hours are not anywhere included in the market's calculation of the costs and benefits of energy choices and economic choices. If an individual or a business can simply dump the pollution on others and not have to reflect the cost of dealing with it adequately in the economics of what they're doing, then obviously, if that's a free way to evade the responsibility for that cost, they're going to do it. […] With the new recognition that this is by far the most serious challenge we've ever faced, the efforts to internalize those environmental costs so that they're not externalities is the prime challenge to remedy the problems that capitalism has experienced there.

If we don't start internalizing the externalities as users—particularly those among us who post huge files that few people look at—if we don't restrain our impulses to upload all of our experience to the net, we will wind up with a scenario straight out of Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges. The following passage from chapter eleven of Carroll's final novel, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), has a lot to teach us:

“That's another thing we've learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we've carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

Borges told a similar story in 'Del rigor en la ciencia' (1946):

En aquel Imperio, el Arte de la Cartografía logró tal Perfección que el Mapa de una sola Provincia ocupaba toda una Ciudad, y el Mapa del Imperio, toda una Provincia. Con el tiempo, estos Mapas Desmesurados no satisficieron y los Colegios de Cartógrafos levantaron un Mapa del Imperio, que tenía el Tamaño del Imperio y coincidía puntualmente con él. Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil y no sin Impiedad lo entregaron a las Inclemencias del Sol y los Inviernos. En los Desiertos del Oeste perduran despedazadas Ruinas del Mapa, habitadas por Animales y por Mendigos; en todo el País no hay otra reliquia de las Disciplinas Geográficas.

Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes
Libro Cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658

(Yes, that is the entire Borges story. I felt obligated to reproduce it in its own scale.)

We are bringing the Carroll-Borges map to life in cyberspace. As the internet gets closer and closer to the dream of storing the totality of human experience—when every fart gets uploaded to the cloud—there will not be an energy source alternative enough to save us. (The leading fart video on Youtube has had 8,618,651 views so far. Make that 8,618,652.) In the story, the map that covered the farms blocked the sun. In real life, our own one-to-one scale map of human experience in cyberspace will trap the sun's heat through its CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, Google has filed U.S. patent application no. 20080209234 for a 'Water-Based Data Center'. The application's abstract describes the invention this way:

A system includes a floating platform-mounted computer data center comprising a plurality of computing units, a sea-based electrical generator in electrical connection with the plurality of computing units, and one or more sea-water cooling units for providing cooling to the plurality of computing units.

Is that in case they can't afford to buy Sweden? Or in case they run out of space on land?

If no one is watching your Youtube video, does it need to be occupying physical space on multiple, electrically-powered hard drives around the world? On a deeper level, our inexorable drive to create an eternal, all-encompassing memory demonstrates our fear of forgetting. But is forgetting so awful that we must drive the planet closer to the abyss in order to avoid losing any scrap of information, no matter how trivial? Can we let go before we are killed by the need to preserve all of our experience?

Am I suggesting that we stop using the internet? No, of course not. I wrote this for a blog after all. We invented the internet because we need to communicate, to share, to learn, to exchange goods and ideas. That is what makes us human. Hence the pathos of our dilemma: that gorgeous, insatiable yearning we have to communicate across all distances, literal and otherwise, is also driving us towards our destruction. If we turn the system off and turn our backs on the dream of global communication, then we may as well die off for we will have sacrificed our common human dream. This is the heightened drama of existence in the twenty-first century: the grandeur of our brave, new world comes at a cost. We can at least face it honestly.

So what can we do? We can mitigate the internet's emissions by finding alternative energy sources, but its galloping growth will wipe out whatever improved efficiencies we can discover. Can we evolve the new models of business and government that we need fast enough to head off global warming's tipping point? Probably not. We have not done it yet despite all that we know. Recent efforts to achieve something as simple as health insurance for all Americans do not inspire confidence.

Cyberspace is one place where our own actions can make a big difference. Those 15 billion Facebook photos and who-knows-how-many Youtube videos were not posted by the petrol companies. We posted them. We, the users, have the power to slow the internet's planet-choking growth. We can stop the internet from turning into a Borges map of human experience if we reconceive of cyberspace, not as outer space, but as real-world physical space with all that goes with it: wiring and air-conditioning and property taxes and so on. We have to see the externalities—the CO2 emissions produced by our online activities—as internal costs to the planet. We can start by raising consciousness about the problem, restricting our uploads, and even pulling down some. Instead of 1000 CO2-emitting photos on Facebook, just keep your 200 best. If no one watches your karaoke video on Youtube, delete it. At least store on it on something that does not need to stay plugged in.

What if consciousness-raising and voluntary self-discipline are not enough? Despite the cyberpunk mantra that 'Information wants to be free', real estate does not. With that truth in mind, here comes my modest proposal. This will be a very unpopular thing to say, but it needs to be said: there ought to be a cost for sharing too much information about oneself, i.e., an uploading tax. That is the only way that most people will stop uploading huge files to cyberspace—they need to pay for the real energy and space that they are using. Information can still be free to take. What I am proposing is that information should not necessarily be free to distribute by occupying space on internet servers. If you want to post more than a certain amount, you should have to pay rent for the physical space that your megabytes and gigabytes occupy. If uploaders had to pay, many of the photos and videos that no one looks at would come down a lot faster, and internet-associated CO2 emissions from server farms would start to decline. The money from the rents can go towards development of alternative energy sources, or whatever. The main thing is to slow the growth of fart videos.

We need to get our heads out of the cloud and back on solid ground where we know that renting someone else's space costs money. The proliferating server farms that create the illusion of cyberspace will swallow more and more land and spit out more and more heat-trapping gases. In Carroll's novel, the people realized that there was something better than a country-sized map of the country: there was the country itself. We need to heed that lesson. If the life experience that we are preserving online comes at the cost of life itself, then we would be better off entrusting it to the imperfect, ephemeral storage space known as the human brain and taking our chances. We have lost most of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. I think we will still be alright if we lose the video of Kevin crushing the beer can against his head and chugging marinara sauce . The question is, should the Kevins of the world be allowed to colonize our land and use up our energy without paying for it? I say, let's make Kevin internalize the externalities by paying for the privilege.