Of Google Searches and Butterflies

It's All Connected, Unless it Isn't
It's All Connected, Unless it Isn't

According to a report from a Harvard Physicist, defenders of the environment have yet another planetary scourge to worry about: frivolous internet use

Performing two Google searches from a desktop computer can generate about the same amount of carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea, according to new research. . . Though Google says it is in the forefront of green computing, its search engine generates high levels of CO2 because of the way it operates. When you type in a Google search for, say, “energy saving tips”, your request doesn’t go to just one server. It goes to several competing against each other. It may even be sent to servers thousands of miles apart. Google’s infrastructure sends you data from whichever produces the answer fastest. The system minimises delays but raises energy consumption. . . [Additionally,] Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch, Rewiring the World, has calculated that maintaining a character (known as an avatar) in the Second Life virtual reality game, requires 1,752 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That is almost as much used by the average Brazilian. Such internet phenomena are not simply fun and hot air, Newcombe warns: the boom in such services has a carbon cost [emph added].

I love articles and studies that make people feel guilty about innocuous habits that, if we changed, would do nothing more than remove little pieces of joy from our lives. Now, every time I perform two or three inane searches on google (Ingmar Bergman the Virgin Spring, and Dead Boys Sonic Reducer lyrics, for instance), I will think of a tea kettle whistling on a stove, and a lone polar bear cub stranded on a slushy, melting ice floe, adrift in an Atlantic ocean growing ever so slightly warmer due to my bourgeoisie curiosity. Or maybe not.

And don’t let this article fade from your mind; there will no doubt be shrewd reactions by savvy online capitalists eager to exploit the anxiety of the environmentally conscious. Watch for something along the lines of a “Free and Fair Electrons” certification branding to populate throughout online communities (World of Warcraft, certified Free and Fair Electrons© by theOnline Green Conservancy). Or Star Wars Galaxies, certified Free and Fair Electrons©, stores nearly 32% of game data on servers located less than five miles from gamer’s communities. You get the idea. It’s coming.

And butterflies, what about butterflies? Ray Bradbury’s classic story “A Sound of Thunder” detailed an effect similar to the one described by the Harvard Physicist’s Google effect. In Bradbury’s story, a man named Eckels:

goes on the adventure of a lifetime: travelling back into the past on a prehistoric safari to kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex. As the participants wait to depart, they chat about the recent presidential elections, in which an apparently fascist candidate, Deutscher, has just been defeated by the more moderate Keith, to the relief of many people. After the party arrives in the past, Eckels is warned about the necessity of minimizing their effect on events when they go back, since tiny alterations to the distant past could snowball into catastrophic changes in history.

Despite his earlier eagerness to begin the hunt, Eckels loses his nerve at the sight of the T Rex. Travis, his guide, tells him he can’t leave, but Eckels panics and veers off the path. The two guides kill the dinosaur, and shortly afterward, the tree that would have killed the dinosaur in the absence of human intervention falls on the corpse. Travis’ elation quickly changes to fury when they find Eckels and see his muddy boots, which prove he went off the path. Travis threatens to leave Eckels in the past unless Eckels removes the bullets from the dinosaur’s body, as they can’t be left in the past.

Upon returning to the present, Eckels notices subtle changes. English words are now spelled strangely, people and buildings are different, and, worst of all, Deutscher has won the election instead of Keith. Looking through the mud on his boots, Eckels finds a crushed butterfly, whose death was apparently the cause of the changes.

Bradbury’s story, along with interesting meteorological research in the 1960s, gave rise to the theory of a Butterfly Effect, which postulates that “small variations of the initial condition of a dynamical system may produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system”. The Meteorologist entitled the presentation of his research “Does the flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas”. The Physicist in the google/environmental degredation study would be well-served to title future presentations of his research “Does Googling for the ultimate Kim Kardashian video drown polar bears in the North Atlantic”. Catchy, right?

Post Script.

1. This research is being released a bit too late. A Huffington Post contributor recently published an article critical of the relationship to Global Warming (yes, the Huffington Post!!) and CO2. This research would have gotten a great deal more play if people on the left were not starting to build cover for the incoming administration to abandon an environmental agenda in favor of helping the damaged economy. Now it’s just news that nobody wants to hear.

2. I performed two Wikipedia searches to add the Bradbury piece at the end; thus far, no one has detailed the impact of using Wikipedia on the environment. And just to be safe, I am swearing off editing Wikipedia articles from this point on (editing Wikipedia articles is something that gets one classified as White and Nerdy, anyway), since there is no telling the amount of carbon dioxide generated in such endeavors.

3. And now everyone must be conscientious when drinking tea? Come on, give us all a break! Chamomile tea is great at night, especially as my keg of home brewed Hefeweizen grows increasingly lighter. . .

UPDATE: Maybe it’s a good idea to use the internet to generate some CO2, since some people now suspect we are on the verge of a new Ice Age.  .  .

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3 thoughts on “Of Google Searches and Butterflies

  1. hmm
    Google destroys nature
    Internet is home of google
    Al gore invented Internet
    Nature’s supreme defender is al gore.

    That’s irony in a nutshell!

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