Hey! 👋 Help us make the show better by taking our listener survey!

73: The Effects of Technology on the Environment

Published April 13, 2021
Run time: 00:19:45
Listen to this episode with one of these apps:

In this episode, Tim chats about the impact our digital world has on our physical world using an Uber thought experiment.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How tech affects energy consumption
  • Which parts of your phone consume the most energy
  • What our power grid looks like and how we store energy

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded April 5, 2020 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski

Show Notes:

Tim’s blog post on the impact of tech on the environment

Dyson’s Sphere

Wikipedia article on extracting lithium in a Chilean desert

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at all things technical. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.

Today, I am going to be rambling about the effect of our digital world on our physical world. So I've been doing a lot of reflecting during this COVID pandemic time. And, you know, personally, my wife and I have made a lot of changes around the house. We've really become more aware of our impact on the environment. And I know that sometimes talking about climate or the environment can be trigger words for a lot of people, one way or the other. You know, either you're a bleeding heart liberal that's being fooled by the mass media, about all this fake news climate stuff that's going on, or you're a ignorant redneck, rural, you know, trash person. I don't know. I really don't understand why any of this stuff has to be political. These are just things that I've realized as a technologist for the last several years of my life. And, you know, during the pandemic, I've really tried to find ways for myself to be more conscious of how I interact with the world. And I got to thinking about my job as a mobile app developer, and how can I use my skills that I have in this arena to make our world a better place and not just make another app that people are going to download and get a couple minutes use out of and move on to the next thing.

You start to get a little older in your life, and you want to really make a positive impact on the world. So I started thinking about what impact tech has on the environment. And we compiled that into a nice, concise, non-rambley blog post, which we will certainly have in the show notes. But I thought it'd be an interesting conversation, at least, to talk into the air and hopefully some of you that are listening might take what I'm saying here and give me some good feedback on it because I'm really a novice in this climate change space. And I want to really understand more about what I can do to help make our world not warm up too fast.

So here's what we're going to talk about today. We're going to talk about a few different components of how tech can impact our world. So obviously, today, 2021, most of our life happens in the cloud. You know, especially with COVID, we all moved to Zoom for most of our work, if you're, you know, lucky enough to have a job that you can do that. But even things like we expect to be able to get groceries, food, even pets, on demand. Like we should be able to launch an app and tap a button and we have hot food delivered right to our doorstep. Any trivia question, anything you can ever possibly think of, you should be able to pull up a box and type into it and up comes the answer, the right answer. You can video chat with anyone around the Earth in High Definition with great visual and audio quality. And it's just crazy. It's insane this world that we've built up of computing.

Now the question is, what does it take to have those nice things? Very often we abstract away the bad parts and the dirty parts, and we make it so complicated that people can't understand. So I wanted to really just drill down and try to understand what impact all of these services have on our environment.

So where do we start? We've got to start at the beginning, right? When it comes to all of this stuff with climate change, and everything, it all comes down to one thing and that's energy. Our species has gotten pretty good at harnessing fire, right? That's the first thing that we learned how to control is fire. As soon as we were able to control fire, then we were able to just chop down trees in our backyard and burn them to stay warm. We started getting more clever as we started consolidating tribes into cities and towns and metropolises and we found a lot of clever ways to harness different kinds of energy. And there are obviously some sustainable ways of creating energy. We have hydroelectric dams. We have windmills. We eventually were able to harness the power of the sun with solar energy. We have nuclear energy that, you know, obviously has some waste byproducts to it, but overall, is relatively sustainable and green. But most of the time, the vast majority of the time our energy comes from sucking things out of our earth and setting them on fire. And until we can create a Dyson Sphere, we're stuck with what we've got. If you do not know what a Dyson Sphere is, I highly encourage you to look at the YouTube video that I will make Jenny put into the show notes because Dyson Spheres are so cool. And it's our key honestly to survival.

So what does energy have to do with tech? Well, obviously, technology uses a lot of energy. Here's a couple of facts that I still just find absolutely startling. If the internet were a country, it would be the sixth largest polluter on our planet. That's insane. Bitcoin, which we've all heard a lot about, Bitcoin mining consumes more yearly energy than the entire country of Argentina. And Argentina doesn't use a little bit of electricity, right? And it keeps growing. Every time I look at it, the yearly amount continues to grow for which country we're talking about here. It's insane. Tech uses a ton of energy. And I want to put it into more easy to understand terms.

So sometimes with numbers that large, it's hard to really fully understand exactly how much energy that is. So I want to put it into a thought experiment. So I want us to take the Uber app. And let's talk about all of the energy consumption that you can directly see whenever you take a round trip or just, you know, a trip from your source to your destination. What energy gets used in that transaction?

Well, the obvious one would be the gasoline from the car, right. That's going to be your clear polluter that you can see exhaust literally coming out of the back of the car. Unless you're in a Tesla or something, don't be a smarty pants.

There's also energy coming from your phone. The number one largest user of energy on a smartphone is, don't Google it, any guesses? Take a guess. Your screen. Your screen takes a ton of energy to power. And as we've gone from the first iPhone to what we've got now, we've gotten better with screen technology that uses less and less energy, but still powering that screen requires a ton of energy.

Next, the largest consumer of energy on your phone is going to be your cell radio. You're going to need to have constant communication between your phone and the cell towers that are going to ultimately talk to Uber. So you need to have a constant connection to those 4G, 5G, you know, Edge, LTE, whatever kind of cell tower you're connected to.

The third component that would be your largest source of energy drain is going to be your GPS, your navigation, the ability to track your location in real time down to the millionth degree of latitude and longitude. Your GPS radio uses a ton of energy as well to be powered. This is why when you use the Uber app for an extended period of time, you can check your energy settings on your device, and you'll see that it sucks a lot of power up.

So that's the energy from your phone. You also have the driver with their phone. Now they're using the same things: screen, cell radio, GPS. The big difference here is the turn by turn navigation. That feature also uses a ton of energy and compute power to make sure that you are on the ideal route to get you from point A to point B. So those are some of the things and most of the things I could think of that you would be consuming that you can see in terms of energy.

Now what about things you can't see. So let's take a side tangent and talk about servers. Servers are the messy underbelly of the internet. These are computers that are running 24/7/365. Their sole purpose is to crunch numbers and process tons and tons and tons of data. Every single app that you use these days touches a server of some sort. Facebook, as an extreme example, there isn't hard numbers to this, but the last best guess that I was able to find is that they have more than 15 million square feet of data center space comprised of 1000s of servers spread all over the world. That's obviously an extreme example, but you can look at most apps are powered by Amazon Web Services or Google's cloud or Microsoft Azure. All of those server farms are massive.

So in the case of Uber, going back to our thought experiment, what are some of the things that you can't see that are happening on the back end? Well, first of all, there's matchmaking. The second that you launch your app and try to find a driver, you are in constant communication with Uber. They are constantly looking around your area and trying to find the best match for you. Also, once you are moving, it is always going to be tracking your location. It's going to be tracking your location from the time you launch the app until the time you shut it down. That's just the way Uber works. And finally, they're going to be doing these things on the back end, where they're calculating your best route and your estimated time of arrival. Those problems are pretty complex. It takes a lot of processing power to determine the quote unquote best route, especially if it's across a wide distance and especially if it's in a city. If you're in a rural area, then obviously, there's not as many roads, not as many people, traffic's lighter, it's pretty predictable how long it's going to take you to get from point A to point B. But if you're trying to get from the south side of Minneapolis to the north side of Minneapolis, that depends on the time of day, the time of year, you know, all those different variables of what roads you would take. And Uber is constantly doing these micro calculations to determine for the driver which way is the best way to go.

Now, all of this processing power requires a lot of energy. So where does this energy come from? It comes from our power grid. So our power grid is a mixture of both renewable and sustainable sources, and not so renewable and sustainable. Last, I found the most updated numbers I could find in 2019, showed that about 17% of our global electricity is generated from renewable energy sources. Now, that seems like not a lot. And even if we say, you know, in 2021 with the the rapid decline of solar prices, and you know, improvements over the last couple of years, we can be generous, let's be generous, and say that 25% of our energy is coming from sustainable energy, which it probably isn't. But even 25%, that still means that 75% of our energy is literally digging up things out of the ground and setting them on fire and just getting rid of them. That to me is pretty insane.

So if we're talking about switching to a 100% renewable, sustainable source of energy, we need to be able to store that energy. And how do we do that? That's through batteries. And most batteries these days are lithium batteries. You may have heard of lithium ion, that's every cell phone that you have, your laptop, your Tesla car, all of those are powered by lithium batteries. And lithium, it still requires you to, you know, extract sources and minerals from the earth. But the way that they extract lithium is really cool. And I would highly advise you look up this Wikipedia article about this Chilean desert that is where most of, the sun, it basically evaporates this salt rich water and turns it into lithium. So it's actually a pretty sustainable way of doing it. But even still, we're still taking minerals out of the earth. And we are causing some issues with water use with local residents because mining, obviously, puts things down into the ground that can contaminate things. And also we're causing animals like the Indian Flamingo to go potentially extinct. They're endangered now because of these mining activities.

So let's go back to Uber. We needed to do that side tangent of what our power grid looks like and how we can store energy. But let's go back to Uber. So Uber has expressed a goal to have their data centers powered by 100% renewable energy by 2030. That's awesome. What about the next nine years? Are we expected for the next nine years to just continue to set things on fire and extract the energy from them? I don't know. I suppose we are. There's really with the way that we've contrived the world, that's just kind of how it is.

So that was a lot. That's a lot of stuff that I just kind of dumped on you as to how this works. And that ends our Uber thought experiment. So what is my point? My point is, we take a lot for granted with modern technology, and we complain about a lot of things because we live in an middle to upper class society, then we expect certain comforts, right? And as a result, we often find comfort by taking only the things that we like, the comfortable things, and extracting away the messy pieces. So think about like wastewater treatment. When you flush your toilet, how does your urine and poop soaked water turn into clean, drinkable water that comes right out of the tap? Do you know how that works? I happen to because I worked in a wastewater treatment plant for a summer. But what about things like garbage, recycling. You throw your stuff into a can and that's the end of it, right? No, this stuff goes up someplace, right, and we just shove it back in the earth and bury it.

When you talk about things like Uber or let's talk about doordash for a second. You expect to push a button and have fresh food put on your doorstep, but what about all the stuff that goes into it, all of the production of the food that the restaurant would buy. First of all, to make your chicken Caesar salad, you have to get Caesar salad dressing, lettuce, chicken, croutons. You have had to find all these things, and they have to be grown and created. And then the restaurant has to assemble them all. And then they assemble it into the meal, and then they load it up in a bag, and then somebody drives over there and drives it back to you making next to nothing doing that. And then you get to have this fancy delicious food.

My point is not to make us feel bad about these comforts. There's no point in that. And I don't want anyone to feel bad. I indulge in all of those things, probably more than I should. My point is that we really need to take time to understand how the world actually works, even if it's just at a very high level. Just even listening to this podcast, I hope it gave you a little understanding of what it takes to power Uber. And in that one thought experiment that we did, it's simple enough to think about, you have your one trip of you driving to one place. And that's all you think about because that's your worldview. From Uber's standpoint, though, they're doing that thing, but millions of times a day, lots and lots and lots and lots of trips. So in isolation, any one of these activities isn't bad. But when you have the entire world effectively buying food and having it delivered to your house and having your wastewater go off and getting treated and just cutting down trees and doing fracking to extract oil, so we can drive from point A to point B, it's a lot of messy stuff that's uncomfortable to think about.

So my point is not to say let's get rid of all of these activities. My point is to say, let's appreciate what we've got. And let's find a way to use this technology in a way that's not flippant and ignoring all of the real impacts that it has on the world. Maybe find a way to reduce the amount of trips you have. And better yet, maybe find a way to find these massive companies that are orchestrating all of this global pollution, find a way to hold them accountable, not even out of a grandiose gesture of making it so that we are punishing corporations for making a ton of money. I'm not even thinking that at all. It's just, do they even realize what they're doing? Is there a way that we can all work together to minimize and instead of making it this big arms race for Silicon Valley eyeballs and like millions of dollars in venture capital money, like can we find a way to bring some sanity back and realize we don't need to have these global massive machines generating all this pollution, that we can keep things local, and maybe make the world a better place? I don't know. Again, this is all me rambling. And I don't know the answers. And I don't want to, you know, make people feel bad about any of this stuff. I just want everyone to be aware that technology has a price and we all at some point are going to have to pay that price.

My final thoughts on this are we at JMG are obviously a contributor to all of this. We build apps that are used by millions of people every day. And it's our responsibility to find a way to reduce our digital carbon footprint by taking steps to build and promote more green technology. We're really just beginning to dip our toes in the world of sustainable tech. So please do stay tuned for more content pieces around digital sustainability. We've gone so far as to hire some people to help us do some research and find ways that we can give back and help make mobile apps a better, more sustainable contributor to the planet.

Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_ podcast. Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the vivacious Jordan Daoust.

If you have a minute quick before you leave, we'd love it if you left us a review on the Apple Podcast app. It shouldn't take much time at all, and it really does help new people find our show. Just head to constantvariables.co/review. And we'll link you right there. This episode was brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group. If you're looking for a technical team who can help make sense of mobile software development, give us a shout at jmg.mn.