By: Adam Ben-Dror

Exploring new uses for “obsolete” storage media

There is a popular perception that the internet or the cloud is somewhere out there, and not somewhere here that you can see, touch and experience with your own senses. Contrary to this view the cloud and the internet are not somewhere in the sky or in outer space. They are here on earth. They have enormous material footprints, they take up space, consume water, electricity and other resources and impact ecosystems and communities1.

Some estimate that the internet has caught up or even surpassed global air traffic in terms of CO2 emissions2. While another study calculates that the internet consumes around 10% of global electricity production3.

When we started Local Making at the end of 2021 we made the decision to engage with the online aspects of the project in the same way we would any other artistic material. In the way a craftsperson learns about different types of material and chooses to work with one kind over another: What is this material? Where does it come from? What are its unique properties? What is its environmental, social and political impact? Should I be using it? What is it useful for. We make similar decisions about the digital infrastructure that we deploy for the Local Making project.

Adopting a kaupapa4 of “low-carbon computing”, we set up our infrastructure on repurposed hardware, running free and open source software5. We turned a donated laptop (courtesy of Cua Berthelsen) into a server which hosts, along with our open source video conferencing platform Jitsi-Meet, which we use to hold online events. This means that whenever someone, anywhere in the world types into their web-browser, they connect through the internet to our repurposed laptop here in Aotearoa (on top of my mothers fridge) which serves them the website.

Our “cloud”, which we use for internal collaboration and to run our mailing list is powered by the open source cloud platform Nextcloud and is locally hosted in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa (Wellington, New Zealand) by artist/activist/educator Walter Langelaar.

On the left you can see the Local Making server which hosts, on the right you can see us accessing an early version of over the internet.

In 2021 I attended critical engineer and artist Julian Oliver‘s “Network Energetics” workshop where we were taught methods and tools to study the energy footprint of computer networks. During the workshop I learned a simple method of finding out where in the world any website is hosted (where in the world the server hosting that particular website is located). By running something called a “traceroute”, you can send a little packet of data to the server. As it traverses the internet locally or globally the traceroute reveals the IP6 address of every node (connector) that it goes through to get to the server at the end. Effectively showing you the path by which you are connecting to that website. This can be an interesting exercise to try and I have detailed instructions on how to do it here.

The location of the server that I connected to when visiting from Aotearoa (New Zealand).

In the course of setting up the Local Making server and attending Julian Oliver’s workshop I was amazed to learn about “hyperscale” datacenters. one of the components that make up the “modern” internet and “the cloud”.

When someone uploads data (photos, documents, video etc) to “the cloud” that data is sent through the internet to be stored on a server located inside a “hyperscale” datacenter. This is the cloud. Giant warehouses filled with computers storing everyone’s data. To be considered “hyperscale” a data center should be at least 1,000m2 and contain at least 5,000 servers. Most are many many times this size with some as large as 500,000m2 and containing millions of servers.

These datacenters are responsible for running all of the things we associate with the “modern” internet: From hosting websites to running AI, banking, music and movie streaming service. To search engines, online auctions, Internet-of-Things (IoT), online gaming and social media platforms. To anything else that you can think of on the internet.

In 2020 there were close to 600 hyperscale datacenters around the world7. With Amazon, Facebook/Meta, Apple, Google, IBM, and Microsoft accounting for over half of them. In Aotearoa (New Zealand) many hyperscale data centers have already been built, with many more under construction8. These servers produce a lot of heat, which requires a lot of water to keep them cool. A single data center can consume between 11 – 19 million liters of water per day (the same amount as a city of 30,000 – 50,000 people)1.

The internet is more than just servers in datacenters though. If you look at the energy requirements of the “servers”, “end-use devices” (“clients”) such as desktops, laptops and smartphone as well as the “network infrastructure” which transmits digital information between servers and clients, the electricity consumption of the internet is estimated to consume around 10% of global electricity production3.

Local Making Infrastructure

Below are descriptions of the platforms that we use to run Local Making and links to further resources:

Local Making Server:
Hardware: HP 14-bw0xx laptop (featured in the second image), courtesy of Cua Berthelsen
OS: Ubuntu Linux 20.04.3
SW: Apache HTTP server

CMS: WordPress
Theme: Aino by New Zealand based ElmaStudio
Typeface: Kulim-Park by New Zealand based designer Dale Sattler.

Video conferencing:
Jitsi-Meet: self hosted on the Local Making Server

Nextcloud: Self hosted locally with aroha9 in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Wellington, New Zealand by Walter Langelaar

Further reading:
How to Build a Low-tech Website? (This website is located in Barcelona, Spain and is solar powered, therefore access to it depends on the weather in Barcelona)
Feminist Server Manifesto
Second Nature Lab

1 Drought-stricken communities push back against data centers
2 Second Nature Lab – Eco Panel
3 Why We Need a Speed Limit for the Internet
4 “Kaupapa” is a Māori word which can mean “theme” or “purpose”
5 “computer software that allows anyone to use, study, change and re-distribute the software and its source code” Open Source – Wikipedia
6 An IP address is a unique string of numbers given to each device that is connected to the internet
7 Microsoft, Amazon and Google Account for Over Half of Today’s 600 Hyperscale Data Centers
8 Why hyperscale data centres are blossoming in NZ
9 “Aroha” is the Māori word for “love”

Finding new uses for obsolete data cables

Finding new uses for obsolete storage media