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Sci Tech    H4'ed 10/5/20

Dear Greta: Letter #2 - Test Your Internet-Footprint IQ by Katie Singer

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Dear Greta,
I thought I'd make this letter a quiz. It's the best format I know for introducing some of the Internet footprint's invisible issues.

Q: Name three of the Internet's main energy guzzlers.
A: Embodied energy. This is the energy used to design a product, extract and refine its raw materials, prepare and ship every necessary substance through its supply chain, then manufacture and ship every finished device and infrastructure part to its end-user.

Access networks. An access network provides internationally deployed infrastructure including cellular sites, fiber optics cables, copper legacy wires, satellites, battery backups. antennas and routers... so that users can access cellular and Internet services.

Data-storage centers. Data centers store websites, videos, GPS, software, social-media posts, email, utility data, and financial, medical, education and military records. Data centers are packed with computers from the floor to the ceiling and cooling systems that keep the computers cool. Some data-storage centers are large enough to be visible from outer space. UK data-center expert Ian Bitterlin says that the amount of energy consumed by data centers doubles every four years.[1] Data centers account for two percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, as much as the aviation industry.[2] By 2025, data centers alone are projected to consume 4.5 percent of total global electricity.[3] Their CO2 emissions grow 13% per year.

Inside view of a data center

Aerial view of the U.S. National Security Administration's Utah Data Center. Photo credit: Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Q: Every manufactured device uses energy from its cradle to its grave. How much of its cradle-to-grave energy has a laptop used before its end-user turns it on for the first time?
A: 81%. [4]

Q: Why does energy efficiency increase energy use and extraction?
A: As devices get more efficient and less expensive, more people buy them. Manufacturing more devices means increased extraction of more raw materials and increased energy use. (For more info, study the Jevons Paradox.)

Q: What are transistors?
A: Transistors are the building blocks of a computer. Transistors are made from semiconductors. They amplify, control and generate electrical signals so that our devices can transmit and receive signals, store data, provide memory and apps. One electronic device can contain billions of transistors. Soon, I will write a letter about how semiconductors and transistors are made.

Q: Compared to the number of grains of wheat and rice grown by the entire world's farmers, how many transistors do manufacturers fabricate?
A: Manufacturers fabricate 1000 times more transistors than farmers grow grains of wheat and rice combined. [5]

Q: How many substances are in one smartphone?
A: 1000+. [6]

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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