Over-engineered infrastructure anticipates expanded consumption

Recently a consensus has developed that it is not feasible to separately parse out the contribution of streaming video to ICT. It is more accurate to measure the power consumption of data centers, networks, and devices separately (see e.g. Hintemann and Hinterholzer 2021, Andrae 2021). It makes sense to calculate the electricity consumption of large actors like YouTube, and to calculate individual consumers’ electricity footprint, including the production energy of their devices, but not to add up all individual consumers’ hours of streaming. Some engineers (e.g. Malmodin 2021; Preist, Schien, and Shabajee 2019) argue that more data, as in streaming video and other data-intensive practices, does not necessarily result in more energy consumption. This is because networks and data centers are running 24/7, regardless of data use. As network engineer Chris Preist explains, ‘With current network technologies, if you send less data along it, in most cases it doesn’t reduce the energy use. It's like an airplane: if you don’t fly, the plane flies anyway, and so “not flying” only reduces emissions if it leads to less airplanes flying in the long term’ (Burgess, 2021).

That’s not good news, though. ICT’s infrastructure of networks and data centers was put in place for data-intensive applications like streaming and computation-intensive applications like AI and blockchain. The infrastructure is engineered to anticipate future use and spur consumer demand. The argument that streaming only slightly increases electricity consumption naturalizes the notion that infrastructure should be over-engineered. It encourages additional high-data (and computation-heavy) use that will require infrastructure to expand still more.

Only slightly decelerated by the pandemic, ICT’s infrastructure of networks, data centres, and devices continued to expand worldwide in anticipation of market growth (Global Market Insights, 2020; Research and Markets, 2020).

The more we use them, the more the infrastructure will expand. Our goal can only be the equivalent of keeping more planes out of the sky: reducing the expansion of ICT. It is crucial to limit consumption, including devices.

References

Andrae, A. 2021. “New perspectives on internet electricity use in 2030.” Engineering and Applied Science Letters. 30 June.

Burgess, Matt. (2021) "YouTube’s carbon footprint is huge, but smarter web design could fix it." Wired UK, July 5, 2019.

Global Market Insights. (2020) "Telecom Network Infrastructure Market Size, By Component."

Hinterholzer, S., and R. Hintemann. (2020) Videostreaming: Energy Requirements and CO2 Emissions Background Paper: The Most Important Points in a Nutshell.‘ Trans. Stephan Meinke. BorderStep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability.

Malmodin, J. (2021) ‘The power consumption of mobile and fixed network data services: The case of streaming video and downloading large files.’ Unpublished paper.

Preist, C., Schien, D., and P. Shabajee. 2019. "Evaluating Sustainable Interaction Design of Digital Services: The Case of YouTube." In: CHI 2019 - Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), 1-12

Research and Markets. (2020) “Worldwide Server Forecast, 2021-2025.”