Greenpeace’s recent attention on data centers has lead to a bit of thinking, which lead to a spooky realization: we are further and further abstracting our consumption.
Let’s think back (this is highly generalized and simplified): First, we abstracted our means of obtaining food from hunting and gathering to relying on commercialized agriculture, allowing us to stop seeking and rather simply acquire food. Next, with industrialization came outsourcing of product, thus we were no longer strongly associated with the production of the objects we were using (and a much wider range of objects were available to us at a rapidly decreasing price point). After that came outsourcing of production of food and tools to overseas sites, removing even our geographic ties to how the things we consume are made in order to get them made ” better,” faster, and cheaper.
As we’re in the thick of a domestic (American) movement of going back to basics – desiring a part in the development and cultivation of things we consume that are physical (like food, furniture, the objects we use) – we’re becoming tremendously reliant on less tangible things like network-based services, and these things rely on data centers that are enormously energy consumptive (amazingly, the EPA’s already on it). However, since these services are more and more removed from us – similarly to how manufacturing was from the industrial revolution on to offshoring – we’re not quite savvy as to how much we’re consuming, and in this case it’s rather difficult for us to even understanding what it is we’re consuming in the first place. We want to know where our things come from and want them to be sustainable, not made out of plastic, locally grown, etc, and we’re visibly conscious of what we’re buying, eating, and doing – what kind of car we’re driving and how we’re doing our part to save the earth, so to speak. All this as we’re developing patterns of using technology in a way that’s extremely wasteful, if in a way that is invisible to us.
So, how do we solve this? Do we educate on the practical underpinnings of technological advancements the same way we’ve (reactively) been educated that plastic is bad, local is good and that single-body aluminum MacbookPros are more material/production efficient? As product designers, we were tasked with addressing “sustainability” long before the term or concept were part of the public vernacular – so is it now our responsibility to address this new means of consumption in order to design more responsible behavior into products?
Note: There are some interesting advancements made in this space, such as Google’s goal to recycle a majority of water used in their data centers.