When businesses develop their future strategy, one hopes they do so fully equipped with the facts from market potential, to availability of staff and raw materials and the anticipated impact on the environment. Knowing the facts today should provide a foundation on which to grow but what if not all the facts are widely known or that the environmental outcomes of certain actions are completely unknown? Rumsfeld famously talked about knowing what we don’t know and furthermore not knowing the unknowns. Sustainability experts do know a lot of facts about energy, e-waste, and resource security yet broadcasting and connected digital media are following the same old business models of make more, make it more efficient and build in redundancy. Is this business model sustainable on a finite planet?
Our world is becoming ever more connected, from broadcasting and telecommunications to banking and education to healthcare and post production, – the list goes on. Many accept this technological revolution as an indication of growth, improved quality of life, progress for humankind, and will advocate that it is essential to satisfy growing consumer and business demand. Environmental issues tend to focus on energy, security and resources and little is talked about the real social implications.
With energy demands increasing, government legislation is pushing for energy reductions so products are developed that use less energy. In 1865, William Jevons suggested it was “a confusion of ideas to assume that the economical use of fuel would drive reduced consumption”. Today we use the term ‘rebound effect’ to explain that owning devices which use less energy simply results in using more devices. There is a disconnect for many consumers when it comes to understanding device efficiency with energy utilization. The energy consumed from using a Smartphone is not restricted to the two or three dollars a year to charge the device. Our devices require power for resource extraction, manufacturing and recycling. Device energy use whether a Smartphone or a SmartTV is linked to data centers, wifi hubs, network carriers and the energy for constantly updating apps, playing video games, sharing images and videos and uploading these onto social media.
When PSI’s Ganyam Style 4.12 minute video was viewed by 1.7billion viewers in 2012 (over 2billion by 2014) the amount of energy used to date is 356GWh. That is equivalent to the energy for a year from SmÃ¸la’s 68 wind turbines in Norway generating power for 18,000 households. Viral videos pop up everyday. Every month more video content is uploaded onto YouTube than a television station can broadcast in >300 years 24/7/365.[i]
As we are encouraged to absorb content anywhere, anytime on any device and send all our data to the cloud, data generation grows, so does storage which is creating a challenge. According to the Amsterdam International Internet exchange, in 2001 there were about 690TB per month whereas in 2014 this has risen to 578,000TB per month. Superfast broadband is responsible for superfast data generation and a growing electricity demand. In 2009, data was generated at 50GB per second but current trends suggest by 2020 it will reach 500GB/µsecond.
Marketing assures us that updating software and hardware is an essential part of everyday life. But as products become redundant at an increasingly faster rate, ideally they would be appropriately recycled (WEEE[ii]) and key elements such a gold, platinum, palladium, copper, and rare earth elements extracted to be used again in new products. Sadly, many of our devices hit the nearest port and end up in landfill creating health problems in the developing world.
 Courtesy it-world2.blogspot.com
Story of e-waste: What happens to 2Tech once its trash?
This insatiable appetite for the faster, smaller latest gadgets for content increases not only our energy use but our demand for component resources. Use of data centers means social networking sites are updating hardware every nine months. The global abundance of the elements in our Smartphones, tablets and TV’s is declining and ever more energy is used for mineral extraction. Will you be able to make or buy a touch screen without indium in 2025? When we run out of copper will there be enough erbium to amplify signals along a fiber optic cable? When neodymium runs out might we start talking again on trains as we commute to work as headphones become as scarce as the element required to drive their functionality or just revert to old-fashioned designs.
[i]  BITTERLIN I., Professor Chief Technology Officer, Emerson Network Power Systems, EMEA
[ii] WEEE – European Community directive 2002/96/EC on Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment European Community directive 2002/96/EC