Monday, September 17, 2007

Can bloggers ever be green?

by James Murray
Blogging has apparently just celebrated its tenth birthday. Were it a person you'd say it was fast approaching those teenage years when it starts to get confrontational, aggressive, surly, pedantic, volatile and anti-social, but then again it's always been like that.

Unsurprisingly this anniversary has prompted one of those now perennial debates about what exactly blogging is for, whether it is proving beneficial, whether it is really, as it's advocates claim, poised to destroy the mainstream media, and most amusingly whether it is even ten years old.

The white-suited, best-work-behind-him novelist and supposed modern-day sage Tom Wolfe took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to defend dead tree publishing and slam the blogosphere as "a universe of rumours" filled with "narcissistic shrieks and baseless 'information'," which would be fair enough if it wasn't also a recognisable description all forms of media besides blogs.

With an inevitability that convention dictates we describe as wearying the blogosphere leapt to defend itself.

The most interesting response came from Scott Rosenberg, the co-founder of, who (somewhat ironically) took to the pages of The Guardian to argue that Wolfe was guilty of the exact same dismissive attitude that originally greeted his pioneering of the personal voice of New Journalism in the sixties. As with the New Journalism movement, asserts Rosenberg, blogging does little or no harm and in providing a more democratic platform for people to voice their opinions and emotions it can do much good.

He cites as an example the blog of 38-year-old Canadian blogger Derek Miller who earlier this year began posting about his experience with colon cancer:

"On one level, this was the sort of thing so many of blogging's critics detest - of what The Wall Street Journal described as "thoughts that, ideally, should have remained locked inside fevered heads".
Of course Miller's posts are not traditional journalism, or blows against the "MSM" [mainstream media], or anything like that. They're just one human being injecting a direct vision of his experience into the global information stream... His work simply matters - to him, and his friends and family, and to anyone else who drops in a gets caught up in the drama of his story."

As Rosenberg adds, if anyone objects to such blogs no one is forcing them to read. "What price is the world paying for the existence of blogging's universal soapbox?" he asks. "Unless someone has figured out how to make you read a blog when you don't want to, I don't see one."

Now it will surprise no one to learn that I broadly agree with Rosenberg's analysis - you after all reading this on a blog.

There are appallingly bad and even harmful blogs out there, just as there are apallingly bad and even harmful newspapers, TV programmes and people. The immediate mass publication that blogging enables may well increase the risk that ill thought out and occassionally libelous opinions are voiced, but weighed against that risk is the ability to provide a hugely open and egalitarian form of publication and communication. Some politicians and old school journlists may disagree, but blogging's accessibility and it's ability to stimulate debate and communities has to be good for democracy.

That said, Rosenberg makes one throw away comment that is almost undoubtedly supported by millions of bloggers and serves to highlight the most intransigent problem the IT industry faces as it attempts to tackle its burgeoning environmental footprint.

"So what, exactly, are Wolfe and other blogging detesters worried about?" he asks. "We're not going to run out of web space."

Well we might not run out of web space, but our real world space is taking quite a kicking as a result of our exponentially increasing need for web space and the computing power that provides it.

As has been noted here several times, IT is responsible for over two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions - the same as the airline industry.

A huge number of innovations in IT hardware, software and datacentre design promise to slash the IT sector's energy use in the short to medium term. But it is highly unlikely that any of the technological developments delivered over the next five years will deliver energy savings big enough to keep pace with the increased demand for computing power from corporations under pressure to keep and analyse more and more data, from consumers who want a server in the corner of the living room, from burgeoning developing economies wanting to come online, and yes, from the ever-expanding blogosphere.

The problem, as Rosenberg's comment encapsulates, is that no one sees IT and, more specifically, the internet as a finite resource that might have to be managed. It is ephemeral, it is free, or virtually free, it is ubiquitous - it really is like air. And as it becomes more and more central to democratic, social and economic life, as embodied by the benefits of the blogosphere that Rosenberg rightly espouses, access to the web becomes increasingly regarded as a right.

And yet the web space Rosenberg is so confident will not run out is entirely dependent on real world resources that can and do run out - the PC on your desk, the millions of miles of cabling that literally tie the web together, and most concerningly the football pitch-sized energy-guzzling datacentres that IT experts agree are increasingly constrained by a shortage of space and power.

The IT industry can do a huge amount to tackle these problems through better, more energy-efficient technologies, but perhaps it also has to begin to ask itself some unthinkable questions about how best to manage the "web space" we already have instead of trying to keep pace with exponential demand for more.

We're not going to run out of web space? Sadly I'm not so sure.

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