In Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice that she’s “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”. Well, it’s a good thing I read this post about the environmental impact of Google searches before breakfast. It cites physicist Alex Wissner-Gross as saying that the average Google search generates 7g of CO2, using up half as much energy as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea.
I ate some breakfast after reading it, and now I’m feeling appropriately skeptical again. If nothing else, I doubt Google reveals enough about its internals for anyone to come to such a precise calculation.
[Note: Google explains here that the calculation is off by a fair amount–the average search generated 0.2g of CO2. Thanks to Jeremy for the heads up. Also, Jason Kincaid criticizes the Times Of London’s reporting here.]
Nonetheless, there may be something worth exploring in this argument. Even if the environmental cost of Google is far less than this research claims, it’s still a cost. Perhaps we should think about information seeking systems not only in terms of efficient use of human attention, but also in terms of other non-renewable natural resources.
In the automobile industry, we (at least in the United States) made the mistake of assuming the customer was always right, thus favoring SUVs over more economical and energy-efficient alternatives. Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson, though that’s still to be determined. In any case, perhaps there’s a similar lesson to be learned in the world of search engines.