Ethnographic research in data centers

Data centers are destroying the natural world, writes anthropologist Steven Gonzalez Monserrate in Wired. But is the cloud an inherently unsustainable paradigm? Must the cloud as we know it come to an end, for our collective survival?

Monseratte has – since 2015 – conducted ethnographic research in data centers, surveying the diverse ecological impacts of digital data storage in New England, Arizona, Puerto Rico, and Iceland. 

By the end of this decade, some estimate that cloud infrastructures will gobble up 20 percent of the world’s energy resources. (These figures, however, are speculative, provisional, and reliant on quantification schemes that are themselves highly contested given the opacity of the privately owned infrastructures behind the cloud and the complexity of variables involved.) The future is even less certain: a world of metaverses, augmented or mixed reality, 8k video streaming, autonomous vehicles, cryptocurrency mining, and energy-intensive artificial intelligence applications. 

In the article he foresees three possible pathways for remaking the cloud into something more sustainable for future generations.