This post was originally written by Juhea Kim and appeared here on Peaceful Dumpling, a lifestyle website dedicated to making the world a better place through embracing a sustainable, plant-based lifestyle.
In Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), an eccentric tech billionaire invites a programmer out to his mansion to conduct a Turing’s test on his humanoid robot. No less alluring than the beautiful robot, however, is the scene-stealing house itself: a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque edifice sitting on top of a waterfall in the middle of alpine mountains. It’s both postmodern and organic. Scene after scene feels like the most elevated form of house porn–who wouldn’t want to live in that sanctum of flawless technology?
It appears that tech companies around the world agree, as they churn out their marketing juggernauts promising that their smart home systems will get you living like a sci-fi mogul.
Samsung’s smart home ad could be an outtake of Ex Machina–with a slightly more domestic touch
Unfortunately, the aspirational ads of wall-to-wall glass showing lush greenery doesn’t mean that smart homes are actually environmentally friendly. Far from it – smart homes and by extension, the Internet of Things, is on track to add astronomical amounts of unnecessary emissions in the coming years.
Smart homes and connected devices are essentially little computers, which is implied in the term Internet of Things. Light switch and TV that are controlled by one smart home device is essentially trading data–and data may be invisible, but it’s certainly not free. It’s worth noting that data centers used by Big Tech are gargantuan warehouses of circuitry, cables, and cooling system, and that these are surprisingly concentrated in one area of the world. Little known though it is, Loudoun County in Virginia is the home of data centers of about 3,000 tech companies: it is estimated that 70% of the world’s online traffic passes through this cheap-energy area near Washington D.C. (Just this week, news broke that Amazon may choose Northern Virginia–an area encompassing Loudoun–as the site of one of its two new headquarters).
So what kind of energy does 70% of the world’s online traffic use? It’s generated by a power company named Dominion, and according to a 2017 Greenpeace report, only 1% of Dominion’s total electricity comes from renewable sources, and 98% of it is split between coal, gas, and nuclear power. To justify its use of non-renewable energy, Dominion has cited the insatiable demand from data centers–surely set to skyrocket even more if Amazon moves into the area.
To put our data gluttony into perspective, consider the fact that using a tablet or a smartphone to stream just an hour of video uses the same amount of electricity (largely at the data center) as 2 domestic fridges running continuously for a week. Data centers are on track to produce more carbon emissions than global transportation by cars and trucks (currently at 14% of total emissions).
The growing smart home market is only pouring more fuel to the wildfire that is data explosion. In 2018, global smart home market amounted to $48.7 billion. It’s expected to continue to grow at an annual rate of 25.8% to reach $122 billion by 2022. Currently, 7.5% of households have a smart home device, and it’s expected to hit 19.5% by 2022.
The most ignominious aspect of this may be that smart homes largely provide services that are inconsequential. The “best” functionalities that smart homes offer range from answering what time it is to finding restaurants that are near by: it’s simply not anything you can’t do already without draping your home in wireless technology. Alexa may save you a couple of seconds of typing on your phone or computer, but ultimately it has a pretty small added value of novelty and entertainment. In The LA Times, journalist Michael Hiltzik astutely writes that “it’s not that they don’t have a fair number of functions around the home, but that they do almost nothing that can’t be done just as easily by other means–or more easily.”