An ongoing list of instances that illustrate why we need to think about the material finiteness & ecological fragility of the digital age (started in June 2021):
April 2023: In the first half of 2023, semiconductor manufacturers in Taiwan – Asia’s biggest semiconductor producing country – again warned of likely disruptions to the supply of silicon chips due to extreme water shortages. Drastic shifts to the island’s seasonal rainfall and typhoons have led to rainfalls plummeting as low as 40% of average seasonal levels. With advances in semiconductor technology requiring increasing amounts of water consumption in the manufacturing process, chip producers are being asked to cut their water use and invest in water conservation procedures, water recycling technology and other work-arounds.
August 2022: Data centres forced offline by summer heatwaves. Summer heatwaves across Europe and North America led to a string of data centre failures. Cooling problems caused Google Cloud’s data centres in London to shut down for a full day – leading to internet outages for customers in the US and Pacific regions who are served by these UK data centres. Similarly, Oracle’s cloud-based data centre in London was also shut down for a day, with the company blaming this on “unseasonal temperatures”.
Such breakdowns are becoming increasingly regular, with nearly half of US data centres experiencing extreme weather events that threaten their capacity to operate. While data centres are constructed to withstand the historical weather patterns of their particular locations, such planning has not factored in the severe temperature fluctuations now being experienced as a result of climate change.
August 2022: Summer heatwave crashes computers at leading London hospitals. High summer temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius in the UK caused key IT failures and system breakdowns at two London hospitals over a three-week period – necessitating authorities to cancel weeks of surgical operations and other appointments. Initial blackouts caused weeks of subsequent disruption as IT staff attempted to recover missing data and reboot systems. Doctors were left without access to patients’ medical records and a spokesperson described the hospital as ‘flying blind’ for weeks after the initial breakdowns. The incident was reported to have “caused misery for doctors and patients and have also raised fears about the impact of climate change on data centres that store medical, financial and public sector information”.
June 2021: the worst flooding in 50 years along the Congo river causes a massive undersea avalanche in the Atlantic ocean rupturing submarine cables and disrupting internet traffic in West Africa. The consequences of climate change, flooding and fires can be far-reaching – especially in terms of the submerged infrastructure that constitutes the physical networked connections of the internet. Experts reckon that this event is likely to have gone unnoticed had it not slowed data traffic between Nigeria and South Africa. Presumably it would have been noticed a lot quicker if it had compromised internet connections in Northern Europe, North America, Singapore or other over-served high-tech hubs?
June 2021. Global chip shortage to slow laptop production until at least next year: A worldwide shortage of semi-conductors is disrupting the supply-chain for computers, phones and gaming consoles, as well as computer-reliant products such as new cars. Companies estimate that they can only meet 50% of demand – which has been boosted by people working from home during the COVID pandemic, and chip-hungry markets such as gaming technology and crypto-currency mining. While promising to develop more ‘enviro-friendly’ products, laptop manufacturers present themselves as prioritising education – which is presumably a smart marketing strategy given the COVD-related boom in remote online learning:
“We shipped millions of education devices last year [and] this year. That is simply because we believe people really deserve a right to be able to continue their living and learning.”
This raises the tricky question of who continues to get prioritised in even more restricted times … at what point does health or defence technology outrank the IT needs of education? What families and students are most in need (… or perhaps most profitable)?
2021 (and ongoing): IT industry acknowledges the exacerbation of the ongoing semi-conductor shortage by drought in Taiwan. Water shortages and regular power outages are reported as jeopardising the production of silicon chips – which require tons of water to clean the delicate layers of metal that comprise a semi-conductor.