Is it just my life or does everything require a plug anymore? Are there no transactions between humans that aren’t electronically negotiated? We can argue about the emotional ramifications and the privacy implications and many do* but my question du jour is: What in the ducks does all this cost? Every rechargeable device, every plug-in, every screen both ultra-wide and handheld small—they all draw on the grid. And, unless we go total hamster and self-charge our TVs with treadmills mounted on dynamos**, we’re all using energy. Lots of it. By replacing boring old passive materials with interactive, multi-sensory, energetic versions, we could be getting more efficient (maybe), more accountable (some cases) and easier (often) but the conversion is not cheap. More and more, I’m thinking, turning stuff into e-stuff is not the most sustainable way to go.
This idea has been nagging me for a while but another piece of the puzzle clicked when I saw a recent New York Times front pager on the costs of cloud computing. If you haven’t already perused the article, you might like to take a peek at its tales of secrecy, wastefulness and pollution in this just one aspect of our E-Age. Since I don’t have the investigative resources of the Gray Lady, I chose to tackle this thorny topic by philosophizing and noodling instead, which, for the most part, is still free.***
Let’s start with those ubiquitous email footnotes that primly suggest the non-printing of things that don’t need to be printed (“save a tree, don’t print me!”). Add to those the well-intended platitudes from organizations “going green” by turning every interaction into a digital endeavor. To me, gestures like these feel both like “not enough” and “missing the point” in semi-equal measure. It’s a bit like the push for CFL bulbs, saving energy upfront but leaving the sizeable problem of the mercury component for another day. I haven’t done the math (just give me time—and a really big abacus!) but it does seem we could be missing the global forest to save the local trees. By upgrading/converting so many interactions into high-tech exchanges, we have created an economy even more dependent on energy than before. Is this really where we want to be or just where we’re told (sold) we want to be?
Take, for example, advertising. (Puh-leeze!!!) The energy super-sizing of marketing continues to proliferate. Billboards become video billboards. Directories become moving screens. Buses and trains “upgrade” from flyers to kinetic images. We exist in a landscape that constantly beckons and flirts while Philip K. Dick laughs (or cries) in his grave. And it appears we’re paying a high price to be wooed this way. We can argue over psychic impacts, but it’s undeniable that all these shiny sales vehicles need power, lots of it, merely to operate. They glow therefore they be…a drain on the grid.
It may seem like an externality (if there’s a plug, we have the right to use it—power source be darned) but there are real costs and real trade-offs. Not to pick on the footwear industry (not me!) but what does it cost to have a glossy monitor indicating where the shoe stores are at the mall instead of a simple poster? And don’t get me started on video games vs. skateboards, iPads vs. bicycles, Kindles vs. picture books. OK, since I started down that hoary path, here’s my Back in the Day example. Walking to the public library to do research gave Much Younger Me: 1) fresh air—or the NE Philly equivalent; 2) exercise—a meandering stroll; 3) interaction with actual people, not 3D versions—yes, grumpy librarian included; and 4) completed homework—maybe not up-to-the-minute news but information all the same.
Our children can go to the computer after school and never leave!
And speaking of the distraction, I mean, the entertainment industry—boy, do they have us where they want us (everywhere, that is.) Desperate to fill any moment with tiny hits of byte-sized engagement, we carry our e-toys in fear of unscheduled boredom. The CrackBerryesque shots of pleasure from each tweet are addictive but let’s admit, often superfluous.
In the meantime, we’re dealing with issues of global conflict and planetary sustainability in order to feed this electronic maw. (And here I am typing instead of planting bulbs!) To make a small difference and partially offset my blogger’s guilt, I’ve been asking myself even more, do I really need to use that e-device to accomplish that task? Do I need to waste energy by distracting myself with that screen instead of using my own power to do something plug-free instead?
As a card-carrying techno-flexitarian—I blog but refuse to routinely carry a cell phone— I already tend to be a critical thinker when it comes to the role of Big T. And while it’s true that not having me available by phone 24/7 does drive my husband crazy, heck, that’s no reason to give in, right?
I mean, you gotta start somewhere.
**There’s an idea…heading to the patent office right now. (There might be a line.)
***Not counting the electricity I squandered writing, editing and posting this blog entry. Let’s see, carbon credits per word, carry the six, subtract the good intention, alrighty…looks like I owe $2.95 to my daughter’s grandchildren. In 2060 dollars, of course.
More on mercury in CFLs:
More on dopamine and technology:
RIP, Ray Bradbury!
Copyright 2012, Lori Fontanes