Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is the Internet Really Free?

Perhaps the Internet isn't quite as "free" as we thought.

Correspondent Subuddh P. recently busted me for saying the Internet was "free." Here is his thought-provoking commentary on the true costs of the Web:

The web is not free. It is not really that free economically and it is most certainly not free ecologically and its hidden social cost is enormous. If anything the web is perhaps the most costliest invention of the industrial revolution.

Let us consider the the environmental cost. Google lets you search billions of pages for 'free'. Your search request goes to thousands of machines that are running twenty four hours a day and they require lots of power. Take one day to observe yourself: how many web hits did you make, how many times did you check your email? Each one of these activities requires power and fuel to generate that power. Now imagine billions of people around the world doing the same thing.

This link added by CHS: 'Carbon cost' of Google revealed (BBC News)
US physicist Alex Wissner-Gross claims that a typical Google search on a desktop computer produces about 7g CO2.
However, these figures were disputed by Google, who say a typical search produced only 0.2g of carbon dioxide.
A recent study by American research firm Gartner suggested that IT now causes two percent of global emissions.
Dr Wissner-Gross's study claims that two Google searches on a desktop computer produces 14g of CO2, which is the roughly the equivalent of boiling an electric kettle.
The Harvard academic argues that these carbon emissions stem from the electricity used by the computer terminal and by the power consumed by the large data centres operated by Google around the world.
Speaking to the BBC, he said a combination of clients, networks, servers and people's home computers all added up to a lot of energy usage. End of BBC excerpt.

The technology business also generates tons of toxic waste. The turnover for hardware is huge, a business is always updating its hardware all the time and the need for resources is exponential in its growth. Besides, without the tools and consequent costs of the industrial revolution the web would not be possible in the first place.

If you want to measure carbon footprints, please, measure the footprint of your using the web.
Now look at the economic cost. Google search is free now, but it is free like television is free. By advertising, creating need for things you don't really need. Oftwominds has had a number of pieces on the advertising machine that manufactures needs. With the credit bubble bursting the average purchasing power is going to be less. In the short run Google may even benefit from this as more and more people go to Google as a cheap way to sell their stuff.

But if more and more people go broke, this advertising will dry up. It's worth remembering, you can't be rich if everyone is poor and makes nothing, because no matter how great your knowledge, if nobody can afford to buy what you make then you will be broke, too.

And the social cost? Well, putting aside the obvious, like surfing addiction, information overload, social withdrawal, porn addiction, the far bigger cost is this: the web gives us the illusion of unlimited *ever improving* choice, which if we buy into it, can only destroy us. Nothing has the potential to ruin a person's life quite like living with this illusion. Even poverty is better. People can still find love, community and fulfillment while being poor.

This is not about having the option of fifty different types of cereals, it's about believing that there is unlimited choice for the important things in life, namely work and family. This illusion allows us to flake out when things get a little demanding or troublesome, there is always something else out there.

Consider online dating which is so popular these days. How easy is it to just flake on the match du jour, break off communication midway because it's too much trouble, you are not really hundred percent sure and there is always some other match right around the corner? After all, don't we get the daily list of matches of new all seemingly exciting people? We can put it off because it's easy to do so and we are not worried because we think there are always other options.

But the human psyche does not work like that. Psychologists will suggest that most people are capable of genuinely caring for at most two or three people in their lifetime, with the usual degrees and exceptions, and this is most likely in their twenties and early thirties. This is when our habits are being formed. At thirty-five the body reaches its peak; after that it's a slow process of decay.

And it takes years to establish any solid relationship. All that romance that at least some of our grandparents and even our parents seemed to have, that everyone talks about but seems so elusive today, it required perseverance, commitment and being true to your word, it didn't just happen. It also helped them that they didn't believe that had that many choices...

The same is true for career. If we jump around from one thing to the next we cannot develop anything in depth. Ditto friendships. Contrary to what the myspace profile might suggest, we can't really have a thousand friends. Again, psychologists will suggest most people can have at most a dozen or so close people in their life; the psyche cannot handle more than that.

The closeness does not develop with an easy come easy go attitude. It is the shared history that creates the bond and the kind of friendships we can make at twenty are very different from those we can at forty. The reality is that to build any kind of a solid career or relationship we don't really have that much time nor do we have that much choice. ( The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough Atlantic Monthly)

Three things have historically restrained human beings. The first two are scarcity and incompetence. The third is an acknowledgement of our mortality and a higher function in life. Why is it that so many Buddhist and new age healing centers have sprung up in America? People are hungry, perhaps they have spent too much time living with these illusions, too much time working in cubicles starting at a fluorescent screen while living in splendid isolation with no community and ritual, all the while justifying the isolation by saying they are searching for true this or that.

It is not technology that is to 'blame' per se. Human know-how is neutral. But even though we may know how to make things better, the human psyche is still the same; we still will go through the same pedagogical cycle. We still make the same transitions, from adolescence to adulthood, from dependency to responsibility, from caring about ourselves to caring about someone else, from maturity to inevitable decline and death.

The mythology of any given time has to prepare us to to live our life cycle while incorporating the tools available; to help us make these transitions during the window of opportunity when we can, while going through the training necessary to successfully make them.

So what are the myths we live by? This seems to be the state of the technology enabled modern mind and it seems a kind of cosmic joke. We believe we have unlimited choice while throwing away cultural values which would have helped us actually make choices.

We postpone the important transitions of life because we believe we can always do them later, and we must be free to do them only when we choose to, as if time will stop for us. We insist that the perfect love, perfect career and perfect everything are out there and fully believe that not only can lightning strike us, but it will strike us, we are entitled to it and it is necessary to hold out for it.

We insist we must feel passion for whatever we do, but reserve the right to flake out whenever things get involved, which is when we actually feel some passion. What is this but, as the thirties and forties roll in, a recipe for introversion, lots of time on the therapist's couch and that prescription for valium and prozac? All this at a time when we are entering a world of far greater scarcity.

The piece on the death of the expert brought suggestions of elitism. But consider the pilot of the US Airways plane who brought the plane down safely in the Hudson. Captain Sullenberger is being described as the last of the American Gentleman; as someone who who took his responsibility of being captain seriously, who was ready to leave his sinking ship only when the last passenger had been taken off, a man of impeccable manners.

Who thinks these kinds of values just happen? Of course they don't and of course they are elitist: they can only be learned over years of training, commitment, sacrifice and hard work. And Captain Sullenberger is the elite of the elite, the best of the best. Why is he the last of the American gentlemen? Because we no longer care about these values. But ask yourself, the next time you are on a plane would you rather it be commanded by someone who has these values or someone who doesn't?"

Thank you, Subuddh, for this cornucopia of food for thought. Subuddh requested I post his email should you wish to correspond with him: subuddhparekh1@aol.com

Here is a related essay of mine, written in the first days of this blog: Flattening the Knowledge Curve: The "Googling" Effect (May 2005)


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