Since the turn of the millennium, the tech industry has spent billions to conjure a seductive narrative that the cloud—a term most nontechnical people use to mean everything the internet touches —is limitless and weightless, that it is “greener,” more durable, and securer than the analog data storage practices that preceded it. They have trained us to upload, download, stream, post, and share to infinitum. In turn, we have come to expect seamless and instant access to digital content anytime, anywhere, as if data were immaterial.
What exactly is the cloud? Where does it begin or end? Is it the fiber optic cables that transmit our data packets across oceans and continents? Is it cellular towers and mobile phones? Is it servers whirring in the halls of data centers? Since 2015, I have been asking this question as an ethnographic researcher, shadowing technicians and interviewing executives and residents who live near digital infrastructure sites. I have found that the answer depends greatly on who you are asking. For the less technically minded person, the cloud is the entirety of the information and communications technology network (ICTs). In the data storage industry, the cloud refers to a specific class of ultra-efficient data centers called hyperscalers (which make up just over a third of data centers in operation), run by a handful of companies like Google, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, Tencent, and Alibaba. In either case, the cloud is a metaphor we use to abbreviate the complexity of the infrastructures behind the digital sphere.
That so many laypeople struggle to specify what the cloud is speaks to the dazzling success of Big Tech’s marketing, but also its careful obfuscation of the cloud’s material residues. In the wake of recent megadroughts, gigafires, heat domes, and hurricanes, however, this marketing illusion of an immaterial cloud is evaporating before our eyes. Thanks to the work of activists, scholars, and journalists, we know now that the cloud warms our skies and drains our watersheds. It pollutes our communities with electronic waste and harmful noise. It is an accomplice to global heating, desertification, and the toxification of our environment, an epoch and force that I call nubecene (nubes is Latin for “cloud”).
The cloud’s voracious expansion has not been met without resistance. In some communities, residents are organizing, citing pollution, power grid failures, excessive land use, or lack of job creation as reasons to oppose the construction of new data centers. Even so, the cloud’s exponential growth shows little sign of ebbing, which raises the question: Is it too late to fix it? What reforms can be implemented to curb the cloud’s increasing environmental impacts? Much of the work of activists has been devoted to answering these questions, but fewer are asking this: Is the cloud an inherently unsustainable paradigm? Must the cloud as we know it come to an end, for our collective survival?
Enter the Nubecene
Data centers are anything but homogenous. The first data center I visited was nothing like the sleek cyberpunk technoscape depicted in films or Google’s marketing content. Instead, I arrived in a crumbling shell of an office building, where racks of blinking servers were arrayed in opposing rows and columns, and cold air was pumped up from an air-conditioned plenum beneath the floor. A typical data center spans about 100,000 square feet, but I have been inside of facilities that are the size of a small home or as large as a university campus. The average data center can consume as much electricity as a small city in order to power and cool its computing equipment, drawing energy from electrical grids that in many parts of the world are coal-fired. To maintain our expectations for constant availability without as much as a hiccup, data centers run diesel generators in a state of hot-standby to supply power in the event of an electrical grid failure. The carbon dioxide trail thickens if you look at the footprint of facility construction or the supply chains of servers, power supplies, and other equipment that must be continuously cycled through the glittering halls of these facilities.
In an effort to minimize operational costs and reduce their carbon footprints, data centers are increasingly turning away from conventional computer room air conditioners (CRACs) as a cooling method. It takes a great deal of energy to refrigerate air, so more operators are resorting to a more efficient fluid medium for cooling computers: freshwater. Like humans, the thirst of servers can be quenched only with treated water, due to the corrosive effects of sediments on delicate electronics. Few facilities recycle their water, consuming millions of gallons per day to keep the cloud afloat. Others use chemicals to treat the water they cycle through their facilities, dumping the resulting wastewater into local watersheds with unknown effects to local ecosystems, as has reportedly occurred in the Netherlands. In places like the American southwest, which is currently experiencing a megadrought spurred by climate change, data centers are flocking to Arizona’s desert, lured by tax breaks and business-friendly legislation and seemingly unhindered by the catastrophic threat they pose to local populations and ecosystems. There, data centers are guzzling water to cool servers in stressed watersheds, while farmers are being asked to ration water. Arizona, where I spent six months researching data centers as an ethnographer, is not an outlier but part of a wider trend of data centers taking root near vulnerable watersheds.
As part of my dissertation research on the cloud’s ecological footprint, I visited and worked inside data centers in Iceland and, within the US, New England, Arizona, and Puerto Rico. Working as a novice technician, I helped decommission servers that reached the end of their warrantied lifespans (an average of three years). I unplugged, unscrewed, and hauled cart upon teetering cart of bulky servers, magnetizing their drives to securely erase their contents before stacking them in discard heaps. In the weeks before the waste removal subcontractor’s truck arrived to cart them away, I witnessed my colleagues pilfering valuable chips or graphic cards from the husks of these condemned computers, a shadow salvage economy that was certainly illegal but not penalized, given the fate of the electronic waste. The United Nations estimates that less than 20 percent of electronic waste is recycled annually. Millions of metric tons of expired electronics with toxic components are disposed informally in computer graveyards in places like Ghana, Burundi, or China, where salvagers (often women and children) smelt them down to retrieve rare metals, poisoning watersheds, soils, and their own bodies in the process.