Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
Commentary
1/27/2009
10:55 AM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary
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Nicholas Carr Redirects Google-Tea Heat To Real Source

The always-interesting Nicholas Carr turns the recent kerfuffle about Google searches and tea kettles on its head by focusing on the real issue: "But this isn't really about Google, which is only supplying us with services that we want. It's about us." Whether or not you believe we humans are boiling the Earth (I don't), you'll enjoy Nick's analysis of Google's "moral quandary."

The always-interesting Nicholas Carr turns the recent kerfuffle about Google searches and tea kettles on its head by focusing on the real issue: "But this isn't really about Google, which is only supplying us with services that we want. It's about us." Whether or not you believe we humans are boiling the Earth (I don't), you'll enjoy Nick's analysis of Google's "moral quandary."Quick background: my colleague Tom Claburn was among the first to probe the audacious interpretation by London's Sunday Times of a Harvard researcher's work on computers and carbon dioxide emissions. The researcher, Alex Wissner-Gross, told Tom the Sunday Times had badly misinterpreted his results, somehow coming to the mistaken conclusion that Wissner-Gross was claiming that using a desktop computer to perform two Google searches generates as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle of water for tea.

While Google also disputed the Sunday Times story and offered details of its own, the flawed journalist-driven narrative was out and took on a life of its own, generating hundreds and maybe even thousands of followup pieces. Enter Nick Carr on his Rough Type blog, with a post called "Strip mine media," in which he forces the reader to get past the silliness stirred up by the Sunday Times' botched reporting and consider the more enduring issues at play:

"Google is in something of a moral quandary here. It's dedicated to energy efficiency, but it's also dedicated to getting people to spend as much time using the Net, and their computers, as possible. (That's the very core of its ad-based business model.) The company hasn't disclosed its electricity consumption. It says that such details of its operations are competitive secrets. I'm sure that's true. I'm also sure it's true that Google doesn't particularly want us to focus too closely on its energy use or, for that matter, on the environmental implications of our own Internet use.

"If reducing energy consumption were the company's top priority, it would launch a PR campaign to educate people about those implications. It would encourage us to be conscious of the time we spend online -- and to try to reduce that time. It might even offer, perhaps as part of the Google toolbar, a little calculator that shows a running estimate of the grams of CO2 we emit during each Internet session. Or maybe it could put a little banner across its home page reading: "Is this search really necessary?"

"But this isn't really about Google, which is only supplying us with services that we want. It's about us. We may be obsessive about turning off the lights when we leave a room, but at the same time we may happily spend hours dicking around online, oblivious of the electricity lighting up our screen, heating our chip, and powering and cooling the data centers we're connected to. (It's true that in some cases Internet use may substitute for other activities, such as travel, that would consume more energy, but let's not kid ourselves: the vast majority of computer and Internet use represents additional energy consumption.) How many Twitterheads think about their electricity use before they tweet? Not many. How many bloggers think about it before they blog? Not this one."

What appeals to me about Nick's thinking is his insistence that we move past the easy finger-pointing at Big Google or Big Energy or Big Foot or whatever other bogeymen we like to conjure up as the villain behind something that makes us uncomfortable, particularly if we don't know the real story (hello, Sunday Times). As Nick writes near the end of his post, "So the next time you see some lunkhead smugly bloviating about "dead tree media," ask him how much electricity his computers, smartphones, and other networked gadgets consumed that day."

But what doesn't appeal to me about Nick's post is his apparent acceptance of the unproven premise that humans are generating intolerable amounts of carbon dioxide that are boiling the Earth, and therefore we need to spend huge amounts of time and money thinking about things like how many cups of tea can be boiled in a Google search engine. With everything else that CIOs are intensely focused on these days, this is one diversion they do not need.

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