The ease of use of many internet services means some problems - including censorship and environmental - remain out of sight and out of mind, writes Tom Chatfield.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” argued the author Arthur C Clarke in the last of his three laws of prediction.

It’s an adage that the current state of digital technology comes close to testing for many users, and never more than in the field of “cloud” computing. This increasingly widespread practice, popularised by companies like Apple and Google, makes everything from photographs and music to apps and documents available online, anywhere in the world.

Even the word “cloud” is as a kind of incantation, removing all sense of physical or geographical limitation. Yet it’s also a form of technological magic whose physical demands – for infrastructure, for power, and for the continued expansion of these to match demand – make for a field within which “out of sight, out of mind” is the very last kind of magical thinking we can afford.

As a recent investigative series of articles in the New York Times has emphasized, cloud-creation is a remarkably intensive industry. “Most data centers”, James Glanz noted in his piece Power, pollution and the internet, “by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner... worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants.” For clouds to function as users expect, effortless access to information is required at all times and in all places, with “no sense that data is physical or that storing it uses up space and energy”. And so the machines making all this happen must be available 99.999% of the time with constant, energy-hungry reserves of spare capacity.

Glanz’s piece may be a startling awakening for some but, as others have pointed out, it largely fails to take into account many businesses’ increasingly intense awareness of energy usage – not to mention the improved efficiencies that huge, remote services can represent over tiny local ones. Users may not realize that their every action is burning a little more fuel, but giants like Google and Facebook certainly do.

Tube ride

While the environmental situation may not be quite as apocalyptic as the New York Times suggests, however, the piece points the way towards other important long-term issues. For, as we upload more and more of our lives into digital immateriality, the cables, switches, servers and consumed power beneath this are steadily growing in both social and political significance.

Consider the case of Iran and its scheme for a “halal” internet, first proposed in 2011 as a way of replacing the open (and both politically and morally corrupting, according to the Iranian government) international internet with a separate, strictly controlled national network. Some have judged the scheme implausible, not least for economic reasons. But the possibility remains, with Iranian officials themselves cheerfully predicting a fully operational system by March 2013.

Even if you’re not inclined to credit Iran with the technical capacity to live up to its threats, its actions – and those of other similarly censorious regimes – paint a very different picture of the online realm to that of clouds’ weightless freedom. The internet itself is merely a network of networks, and networks can be broken and fragmented – especially if you know where to cut.

As the author Andrew Blum puts it in his recent book Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet, “Everything you do online travels through a tube. Inside those tubes (by and large) are glass fibers. Inside those fibers is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us.” It’s a kind of magic - but one that can evaporate as absolutely as a card trick’s mystery, once you know the gimmick. In one scene in Blum’s book, he visits a key part of the net’s American infrastructure. “All this talk about Homeland Security, but look what someone could do in here with a chain saw,” says his tour guide.  

Iran may not be willing to wield the chain saw – yet – but Egypt certainly was in January 2011 when its desperate government shut down all the country’s major internet service providers, bringing over 90% of online activity crashing down with them. It was a tactic that didn’t prevent revolution – and which by some estimates cost the country $18 million in lost economic activity per day – but it was also easy enough to achieve and extremely hard to resist, thanks not least to the consequences that internet service provider employees (themselves very much physically present in Egypt) were likely to face if they failed to comply.

Censorship, revolution and digital blackouts can seem a long way from environmental brow-beating. Yet a clear common thread connects them. In an age when information is an inherently political commodity, to act as though the privileges of the digital present – from the infinite suffusion of cloud services to the political freedom to use them – are simply conjured from the ether is to have your head in a perilous proverbial cloud.

Similarly, as even Arthur C Clarke might have conceded, there’s no such thing as magic: there’s only someone being fooled, and someone doing the fooling. And no sufficiently advanced society can afford to fool itself, if it hopes either to understand its present or to protect its future.

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