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[flagged] To decarbonize we must decomputerize: why we need a Luddite revolution (theguardian.com)
35 points by viburnum 27 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

It’s interesting to see this article for me because it is similar to the “Bitcoin is bad because CO2” articles and arguments that arise from time to time. To which I’ve unsuccessfully attempted to argue you can’t really say Bitcoin is bad and shouldn’t be allowed to exist for that reason without also agreeing that other stupid things we do with computers should suffer the same fate. Which surprisingly attracts a fair amount of defenders for the Snapchat et-als.

What we can do is to be neutral to how it’s used, and instead make sure that electricity is appropriately priced to cover its externalities. That means a carbon tax. The same solution is still the right one for Bitcoin as it is for other silly computer uses mentioned in this article. If it becomes too expensive to deliver Snapchat when electricity is properly priced then Snapchat won’t exist. So on.

The pluses about a carbon tax is that it also affects the more invisible ways that we are killing the environment - hating on big tech is cool, hating on the car you use to get to work isn't as cool. Both should be taxed relative to their emissions.

The ironic bit is personal cars account for 20% of the US emissions already. Transportation is the largest category, at near 30%. Electricity is a close second, but pretending data centers use more than say the air conditioners across the US is probably false. Sure, per individual, data centers might use more, but something like better insulating houses would probably do more on net for emissions than just dismantling one data center, and ditching your car and riding public transit will probably do more than that.

There's always some other industry/technology/nation/group that uses <X> times the energy: "China emits far more CO_2" (total), "The US emits far more CO_2" (per capita), "Industry emits far more than households", etc.

I mean you're right that it has to be everyone, not just one or two groups that reduce emissions. But that is the point actually. Most likely, the way to address emissions will include consumption by the US and production by China. Any imaginations that anything outside of that (or short of that) will fail.

carbon taxes are regressive insofar as the poor spend a larger % of their income on fuels than the rich and this is often not negotiable - people can't choose to e.g. not commute half an hour to work when they don't have much disposable income to start with, whereas the rich can generally pay for whatever quantity they want to consume already.

so the point of the tax (reduce consumption) unfairly hits the poor.

A Carbon tax would also disproportionately help the poor, especially the global poor, so it's not fair to call it regressive without finding a way to put some numbers on both the costs and benefits. Besides, the money gained from a carbon tax isn't lost, it can be reinvested in things like public transit infrastructure.

That climate benefit from a carbon tax would only start indirectly helping the poor in decades, while a carbon tax is a direct immediate burden; and you can't just tell them to "take one for the team and wait it out" as that just ends up with them burning down your capital while wearing traffic vests. Using the carbon tax for regular infrastructure purposes is also a bad idea because when it is working it will go down overtime as the public optimizes their carbon use, as it should. Tying it to unrelated societal maintenance creates a pervasive incentive for the government to somehow force the continual use of carbon (probably through questionably legal means) while sustaining the tax in order to get income up.

And all this also avoids the core issue in actually deciding if the unpaid externalize of a unit of carbon is $200, $20, or $0.02; if you can't even get people to universally agree if there is a crisis in the first place than how on earth are you going to get them to agree on the monetary value of said crisis.

Let's be honest, everyone huffs and puffs around this but don't have a handle on the facts. Look here[0]. The US is by far the one of the largest GHG producer per capita, and this is not a pinko anti-American bit, it's solely the US, not Europe when taking to account total emissions and emissions per capita. The US is second on the total scale of emissions per year, and not shown here (can't find the link) but first in terms of cumulative positions over the years, but it's a good thing to remember that China expends a lot of their emissions to produce things we consume.

A carbon tax would be regressive for the American middle class. On the other hand, it would in fact be beneficial for the global south/poor. That is one of the difficult things about this, because a carbon tax would hit the middle class (note I didn't say working class) in the US which has quite a bit of power globally through their ability to elect the US president, so implementing any sort of carbon tax without giving them some deal will be moot politically. It would hit the working poor in the US pretty hard as well, although a good fraction of them don't own a car[1], so they wouldn't face a tax on the largest source of GHG's in the US.

[0] https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/sc...

[1] About 19% of people who earn less than 25K per year (yes! very poor) don't own a personal vehicle. https://www.bts.gov/sites/bts.dot.gov/files/legacy/publicati...

You could even use it for a universal basic income. It wouldn’t be enough to live from, but could nudge people to, for example, spend a weekend in “nice city a 100 km train ride away”, rather than “nice city a 2,000 km airplane flight away”.

You'd have to have trains for people to ride. The US systematically dismantled trains and made highways in their place.

Public transit is not viable in most of the US.

> Public transit is not viable in most of the US.

Since many US cities had public transit a century ago (and don't today), I wonder if you mean technically viable, economically viable, or politically attainable. I'm guessing the latter, and it's sad.

No I mean it is not viable in any way if you leave the bubble of US cities which account for a small percentage of the total area. Rural US is struggling just to make school buses work. The distances are too great and the people too few to ever support public transit. Any tax on fuel/cars screws rural areas who have no other choice.

That's fine, you can roll out electrical vehicles in the rural US. The majority of the US population live in cities or suburbs of cities. That is who needs to see development and infrastructure that enables the use of public transportation.

It's possible to find ways to give some of the takings back to those who are less well off.

> That means a carbon tax.

This seems like the most sensible route, rather than trying to dictate what is 'ok' and what is not.

>you can’t really say Bitcoin is bad and shouldn’t be allowed to exist for that reason without also agreeing that other stupid things we do with computers should suffer the same fate

That point is debatable because Bitcoin and snapchat are different in kind. For bitcoin to function, it must be deliberately very computationally expensive. Generally speaking other software limits deliberately costly operations to certain functions (e.g. password hashing) and inefficiencies caused by of developers disinterested in performance can be reworked. Even the resource draw of a high end gaming for a few (or many) hours a week and a 24/7 miner are distinguishable in both raw and cost/benifit ways.

Hmm...how would it effect Porn? I would guess they are larger than Snapchat.

My cellphone (pocket computer) needs 10 Wh to run all day. For the same amount of energy, the lights in my office will run for 6 minutes. I'm not buying this "must decomputerize" pitch.

unfortunately for most people (including myself) the cellphone is nothing more than a fashionable toy which needs permanent connectivity and data-influx to be relevant as well as regular replacement (because fashion). And this is consuming a lot more than 10Wh a day.

Technically I could (and probably would) still use my old Galaxy Nexus if I had a secure browser/mediaplayer and would only browse sites at the "complexity" of HN, had a chat app which wouldn't randomly hang the UI for seconds when task-switching (probably it would help having no emote-packs, videos-disguised-as-gifs and perfectly viable 720p-pictures as the inline-default) and the 3G network around was a little bit better... And yeah I (and a lot of other people) wouldn't miss a thing, GOOG and co. might have a little less cash in store and the craft of UX-designer might pay a little worse (BUT: all of this would have catastrophic consequences on the service oriented growth economy of the US which might not even hit Joe Doe very much if properly managed but would remove a little power of all the epsteins of this world, which of course can't happen...)

yes, but the masts, wifi, network and servers to support that consume a lot more than 10Wh

How much do they use compared to 24 hours of constant, valueless office lighting?

Total, all-in energy costs is actually a pretty interesting question and intellectual exercise. Paint is actually super high on the list


^ this much, (not to scale.)

I'd guess the energy costs would be similar since it's roughly the same hardware (CPUs, memory, radio transmitters) but minus the display.

just having a lot higher transmission power and a lot of supporting hardware to keep things running for seasons (have you ever used your mobile phone in -10°C for an extended time - could you?) and years. I just did a little googling and found something like "total power consumption of all mobile phones in India"x15 (can't get the link, because of, well there's another comment for that...)

And when you divide that by millions of users, how many watt hours is it?

The only service that I know of that has millions of users on one instance is whatsapp. Everything else you're looking at 1% of a cpu, so 1% of ~40-80watts per connection. More if its active.

Alas, the author failed to do adequate research before getting on their high horse.

Yes, cloud computing sucks power (which is then vented to the outside world, it could be recycled _and_ cut latency)

but you know what pushes out more CO2?

Poor house insulation.

This is what this article says to me. A poorly researched piece.

I'm not unsympathetic to the need to run computing from renewable energy, but this article seems like a stretch, especially when it tries to link in government surveillance, etc.

> Poor house insulation

And you know what emits more CO_2 than poor insulation? Transport! And what emits more CO_2 than transport? China!

With that logic, we'll never cut emissions anywhere.

So you're saying that insulation, which makes an occupant more comfortable, and spending less money on energy, is going to be more popular than taking away all computing and plunging everyone into the 1950s?


No, I'm not saying that, evidenced by the fact that I didn't say that, and that saying that would be stupid.

There's a surprising amount you can do with just 8-bit microcontrollers which on average (using extensive low-power mode) use less energy than a housefly. Performance can be as good as 1 microwatt per MIPS. We could run most "smart device" applications off of those little solar cells used for calculators.

For house applications, virtually any kind of efficiency gain that computerization gives us would offset the energy consumed in computation.

The problem is not the presence of computing, it's that fossil energy does not pay for its externalities.

Which isn't to say that computation-intensive ads aren't the worst thing ever.... And it does seem that some of the most hype-driven applications of digitization rely on exceedingly (and often intentionally) inefficient algorithms (blockchain and deep learning), but overall digitization can often be done with very little energy usage for the same benefit. I'm reminded of this cellphone that works on about 4 milliwatts. (although granted, it's using wireless electricity) https://www.wired.com/story/this-cell-phone-can-make-calls-e...

I appreciate the sentiment but this article is riddled with factual errors.

1) digitization (which includes tracking objects in the real world with IoT tech) increases efficiency, which results in moving fewer real objects around in the world, thus reducing total energy consumption. Think of Netflix vs manufacturing and shipping DVDs to stores then driving to the store to buy them.

2) data centers are far from the biggest carbon creators. Transportation and construction are, by far, #1

3) data centers can run off green energy. Combustion engine cars cannot.

4) data centers can be built in far away places that provide the most efficient and greenest energy

Productivity (reciprocal to your efficiency) has been surprisingly flat in exactly the timeframe of about 1980 to today that we have seen digitisation taking hold: https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&tbm=isch&...:

1) Increase efficiency sometime/often lead to rebound effect in our current system... When it comes to Netflix, current consumption replace both a) old renting a film system, and b)TV. You seems to overestimate the energy/pollution cost of a) (which can run on green energy too) and ignored b)

2)Sure, but data center consumption are added to transportation, construction...

3)Electric car can run on green energy too... does not change point 2)

4) You still try to compensate 2). And even data center running on green energy needs ressources and have effect.

The idea is not to not to get ride of digitization, but to keep in mind its consequences and don't see it as a magic thing that will solve all our problem and have no bad consequences

The author doesn't mention decarbonizing electricity in the first few paragraphs. He simply claims ML is driven by fossil-fuel electricity, when in reality the electricity mix for computation is increasingly green over time. Since computers don't need anything except electrons to run, it's all about power sector emissions here, and that's a bright spot in climate relative to transportation, industry, and agriculture emissions.

It'd be far more effective to have a Renewables revolution which pushes the scale of wind, solar, and batteries much higher. That would be far more cost-effective than a Luddite revolution which would ban computationally and data intensive practices in all the most valuable companies.

The author also doesn't mention black holes, but there's a huge one at the center of our galaxy which will gladly do away with us and all our problems.

Electron arguments aside, computers need matter and a lot of that matter in them is rare, which requires things like strip mining and other non-Earth-friendly activities. If we manage to pull off a walking/talking/joke cracking AI, it and its little AI buds will likely demand every erg of power they can get. Sorta like my dog at dinner time.

Also, the amount of compute we are creating is accelerating at a non-linear rate, which is why there was a discussion about Bitcoin using so much energy at such and such a point in time in the future.

The speed of networking is not increasing at the same rate as compute.

The article didn't really make that argument though. It could have gone into things like your strip mining example and that would have been better than a lot of the arguments used.

"Computers are stupid: babies know what a face is within the first few months of being alive. For a computer to know what a face is, it must learn by looking at millions of pictures of faces."

Actually this is a completely inaccurate representation. The network to understand a human face can be transferred to a computer in milliseconds. The network to understand a human face gets baked into a human over many many months. Developing that network took a computer millions of images and several hours. Developing that network took biology many eons and billions of lifeforms.

What about a proposal to make journalist write their articles with a typewriter?

EDIT: Following the general rquest of writing substantive comments, let's extend this.

The problem is that the authors see the cost of computers in other applications, but he doesn't see the benefits. For example using machine learning to detect face has a cost, but it can be applied to many things. From trivial applications like decorate your face in the phone to security applications like face recognition of justice fugitives, to more realistic faces in movies to deep fakes. You may like some of them and dislike other, but for some people the new technology provides benefits that hopefully are most than the cost.

For a journalist, probably the most important use of a computer is to write an article. Perhaps also to keep the small parts of info that must put in the article. Make some research by internet instead of traveling to a library. And modern cellphones are quite a powerful computer. You can perhaps replace the cellphone by a line phone, use a lot of cards for contacts and store information. But I think that the journalist will see immediately the benefits of using a computer to write the articles instead of a typewriter.

Stop computering in places where fossile fuel is used for electricity. Build datacenters next to cheap renewable or nuclear energy and access cold air and water. There are hundreds of abandoned industry sites near lakes and rivers in Northern Europe for example.

Believe it or not, cooling is almost never the bottleneck, aircooled datacenters can be built in relatively warm places like virginia. The infrastructure for datacenters is often the bottleneck - each one takes up the electricity of a small town and many out-of-the-way places don't have the infrastructure set up to support such things, nor do the local renewables provide enough energy to run the datacenters.

Yes the data enters need to be built in small towns with the energy production large cities or small countries, such as Facebook near the massive hydro plants in Luleå, Sweden.

No one is voluntarily giving up progress, ML or not. The far easier sell to the public is a faster move to nuclear, wind, and solar, with battery powered cars. Then we won't need a Luddite revolution, and progress can continue making lives better.

This article is completely wrong headed. Any profit heavy use of energy can be a boon to decarbonization. The price of renewables has been plummeting due mostly to economy of scale but also to funding of new developments. At current prices, it only takes a nudge of incentive or regulation to push new energy use to renewables. And it's a feedback loop, the more renewables get used, the cheaper their production becomes.

Governments that continue to subsidize fossil fuel industries while failing to properly incentivize renewable or regulate/tax carbon emissions are the thing that holds the feedback loop back.

There are a couple of different facets to this that the article ignores. The energy consumed by computers can be offset by recovering waste heat to offset space or domestic hot water heating (which is the bulk of your energy consumption in colder climates). You can do this at a building scale, and even at an urban scale with the use of district energy systems.

Banning adtech would be a good start.

That sounds like a sensible way to go about it to me. Suddenly all those services that nobody would actually pay for, that are simply designed to hook people and consume their time, would go away. A whole lot of services that people would actually pay for would suddenly change in focus because now they wouldn’t be driven my ad metrics and engagement metrics. E.g. You’d be paying for email so your email provider would just be a damn good email provider. So on.

I hoped huge popularity of adblock would do the same, without the need for regulation. No need for clickbait title when visitors are only a cost.

If Mobile Safari and Chrome for Android supported extensions, it probably would already be ubiquitous.

I switched to Firefox for Android after getting tired of ads that redirected to a landing page or Google Play and prevented me from actually using the site I wanted.

Mobile safari does support adblocks. https://1blocker.com/ seems to be the one most people recommend (I personally haven't tried it)

Does it have the ability to do ad/tracker blocking properly, or is it cripple in some way that still makes the data ads/trackers are able to collect valuable?

Why is this flagged?

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