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Monserrate, Steven Gonzalez. 2022. “The Cloud Is Material: On the Environmental Impacts of Computation and Data Storage.” MIT Case Studies in Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing, no. Winter 2022 (January).


In the age of machine learning, cryptocurrency mining, and seemingly infinite data storage capacity enabled by cloud computing, the environmental costs of ubiquitous computing in modern life are obscured by the sheer complexity of infrastructures and supply chains involved in even the simplest of digital transactions. How does computation contribute to the warming of the planet? As information technology (IT) capacity demands continue to trend upward, what are some of the ecological obstacles that must be overcome to accommodate an ever-expanding, carbon-hungry Cloud? How do these material impacts play out in everyday life, behind the scenes, where servers, fiber optic cables, and technicians facilitate cloud services? This case study draws on firsthand ethnographic research in data centers—sprawling libraries of computer servers that facilitate everything from email to commerce—to identify some of the far-reaching and tangled environmental impacts of computation and data-storage infrastructures. It surveys a range of empirical accounts of server technicians to illustrate on-the-ground examples of material and ecological factors that permeate everyday life in the Cloud. These examples include air conditioning and thermal management, water cycling, and the disposal of e-waste. By attending to the culture of workplace practice and the behaviors and training of technicians in data centers, this case study reveals that the Cloud is not fully automated, nor is it hyperrational; emotion, instinct, and human judgment are enlisted to keep servers running. This case study closes with a speculative vignette that scales up from various local impacts to a planetary framework, sketching some of the particular ways that computation contributes to climate change and the Anthropocene.

Keywords: climate change, Anthropocene, data centers, data storage, digital ecology, materiality of computation, sustainable computing

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Steven Gonzalez Monserrate
Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society, MIT