Save the Internet, Part 1: Two Chickens to Paralyze

Can you imagine life without the internet? I can, but only because I’m “of a certain age” and grew up before the internet became the incredible, almost omnipresent being that it is today. Kids these days (I just jumped from “a certain age” to “90”) cannot conceive of a time when information and endless procrastination were not constantly available online. I remember perfectly well how lucky I felt to have a dial up modem at home- and yet now I would pitch a fit if I couldn’t get online within a nanosecond. I’ve started to set timers on social conversations to see how far we can get before someone needs to google for backup (the average is under 10 minutes and much, much less if we are talking sports or song lyrics).

Where would we be without the internet? Certainly a lot less informed. The internet has become a central, egalitarian repository of information and opportunity for sharing across society, and without it most of us would be lost. Often literally- try navigating a rental car in Italy when your iphone has no connectivity to Google Maps. Total nightmare, in so far as eating gelato in a different part of town from where you intended can be called a nightmare.

Yet we don’t think twice about how we access the internet or what makes it possible, and we certainly don’t seriously consider protecting its existence. Naturally there are a lot of other factors involved, but electricity is the one piece of the internet puzzle that everyone is able to guard.

Electricity is treated as a bottomless resource and it has almost achieved the status of a basic human right. It is certainly a major factor in what separates the developed world from everyone else. It springs magically out of holes in our walls and into our computers, and for the most part we don’t think twice about what would happen if that were to stop.

Electricity generation is probably pretty well understood by the majority of people as a process along these lines:

A power plant of some kind (coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, etc.) creates electricity out of something else (coal, magic, water, air, etc.).

Electricity is sent out to us over a bunch of wires that we complain about for spoiling the view.

I can tweet out what I ate for breakfast, google “best places for gelato in Florence” and book a rental car that will later be named Giuseppe and cursed for his lack of built-in GPS.

It’s simple. However, I would argue that most of us do not appreciate the consequences of using a lot of electricity or of wasting it. Higher electricity bills are the immediate outcome of wasting electricity, but these are only obvious to the person actually paying them. In a family or a business, the majority of people involved in using and wasting electricity are not aware of the outcome and are not responsible for dealing with it. Where is the incentive to save energy?

Behavioral change is definitely an important factor in reducing how much energy we pull from the grid, but on its own it is insufficient. Conserving electricity by remembering to turn off appliances when we don’t need them is a necessary step, but what about when we do need them? We have built a world for ourselves where electricity is a mandatory and integral part of everyday life and often turning things off is not an option. So what can we do when we need to use less electricity but also need to stream talking cat videos from YouTube, refrigerate our food or air condition our data centers that keep the internet alive?

We need to become more energy efficient. We need to be able to do the same things, with less energy. Not only to keep our utility bills affordable, but also to avoid building more power plants, the ultimate consequence of wasting electricity. Built-in energy efficiency is the only way to save the internet.

Stay tuned for next time… why you should care about the “ultimate consequence” of energy inefficiency, and “how to keep talking cats and memes in your home and office”.

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