Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Electrical Brain

Power failed again in our neighborhood, evidently due to some defective transformers. This had happened before, and over an extended period, the week of August 8-14, 2010, thus less than two years ago. Oddly enough, power to half of our circuits remained on. It was denied to about a third of the house, from basement to the second storey. Whole banks of plugs were also gone, and these affected parts of the still “lit” portions of the house. The failure lasted from 8:43 pm to 1:10 am (this morning)—but we were gone and discovered the situation at 11:30, about midway into it.

Such events rudely remind us. We never think about electric power—until it fails. And when it does, it is truly difficult to think about anything else. It is a trauma—although in rank secondary to failures of the body itself, which are even more powerful reminders of our contingent state in this dimension.

This morning—the coincidence seems meaningful—comes an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal informing us that data centers now consume 1.3 percent of all electricity generated across the globe. Data centers are used by the likes of Google, Facebook, Bing, Yahoo, and many others—not least any organization or individual engaged in “cloud” computing, thus storing files miles away from the screen-keyboard-and-box. The author of the piece, Robert Bryce (“Renewable Energy Can’t Run the Cloud”) says that “The power needed by data centers has been a hot topic for more than a decade as local electricity grids have been forced to adapt to huge new loads.”

When you think about it, that 1.3, while a small percent, is high when we think of all the lights that burn—so much so that you can see the outlines of America from a satellite by night if it is cloudless across our sub-continent.

Got us thinking. How much of our food-intake is used by our brains? The answer is 20 percent (link). This answer is based on the brain’s average consumption of our oxygen intake, used for burning, in part to the brain’s glucose consumption; that varies from 11 percent in the morning to nearly 20 percent in the evening (link). A fifth is pretty high considering the size of the head in comparison to all the rest. Here is a highly privileged consumer of our daily bread.

Now we known what the global cybernetic brain’s memory storage consumes. It would be nice to known how much electrical energy we use in our communications—including the devices that are hot-and-ready to serve me here, in this basement work space. The printer’s on, the computer hums, and light reaches me from my efficient flat-screen display. Are we, in the broader category, already at 20 percent? I think not—but have no data. But the time will come. As will the arrival of the end of fossil fuels. What are we going to do then? And what will we call that approaching time? The Dark Ages?

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