Thirsty Servers, Carbonivorous Computers: An Ethnographic Survey of the Cloud’s “Metabolic Rift”
In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx formulated the concept of “metabolic rift” to describe capitalism’s unsustainable expansion as chemical fertilizers depleted soil nutrients and smog from factories choked the skies of an industrializing Europe. Today, much of what society describes as the “Cloud” resides in data centers not so unlike Marx’s factories. They are the invisible engines of digital capitalism; their pooled, remote computational power and storage capacity are the informatic backbone of everything from social media to payroll to ChatGPT. Computation, however, like capitalism, is a metabolic process. Drawing on six years of ethnographic research in data centers located in the United States, Puerto Rico, Iceland, and Singapore, this keynote reveals the global and local ecological impacts of cloud computing, everything from carbon emissions, water footprint, electronic waste, noise pollution, and land usage. Examples of alternative and more sustainable data ecologies are presented, inspired by Anthropology, Science & Technology Studies, and Design Studies & Speculative Fiction.