Big Tech has done an absolutely marvellous job of convincing everyone that it is immaterial, ephemeral, light, green, sustainable. And yet nothing is more dependent on the physical material world than digital. The physical world can get along just fine without digital. Digital could not survive for one second without a vast array of physical materials. Not just that: digital toxifies (harms life) at every step, whether in mining, manufacturing, use or e-waste. Fresh water is just one material that digital has a massive and exponentially growing impact on.
Steven Gonzalez Monserrate is a postdoctoral researcher in the Fixing Futures research training group at Goethe University. As a graduate of MIT’s History, Anthropology, Science, Technology & Society program, his dissertation project, “Cloud Ecologies”, is an ethnography of data centers and their environmental impacts in the United States, Puerto Rico, Iceland, and Singapore.
There is a global freshwater crisis and this crisis is being accelerated by data centers’ incredible growth and thirst for fresh water. I asked Steven why it is that data centers demand fresh water and cannot at least use other forms of water, including waste. “Some scholars are estimating that anything from 5% to 10% of data center water comes from alternative water sources, like grey water, sea water,” he replied. “But the vast majority is drinking water. And there are a few reasons for this. One is the biohazard. As water is being warmed and flowing through these data centers, micro-organisms flourish in these conditions. That is one reason why data centers turn to drinking water because that water has already to some degree been treated, so there is less of a risk of these microbial blooms happening. For the same microbial reason, the water can’t be endlessly recycled. It has to be dumped or returned to the sewers because even with reverse-osmosis filters and other techniques, these microbes will flourish.”
Like all of Big Tech, data centers are super-secretive. They behave like alien invaders coming in to occupy a community. They plan for a surprise attack, landing in a community and being approved and operational before the community has had time to organize. They like doing deals behind the scenes, playing one government against another, getting the cheapest rates possible for land, electricity, water. Historically, data centers have been getting water so cheap that the majority of data centers don’t even measure how much they use. Although data centers have been forced—through community pressure—to change, historically, they have wasted water as if were an infinite, free resource.
Steven explained to me that in the cooling processes data centers use, “A lot of water evaporates. They’re not very water efficient. And there’s no reason for them to be because there’s no regulation. There’s no incentive. Some water, when it evaporates, can leave behind really corrosive particulates of various kinds.” In fact, in the US, data centers are known as a source of Legionella disease.
Data is physical. Every byte requires the support of multiple atoms to exist and be used. Data growth is exploding. We are only at the beginning of the massive negative impact that data centers will have on the environment. Millions more people will go thirsty in order to feed TikTok habits.