The greening of IT was one of the less remarked on themes of 2007, but give it time. We’re in the early days of a movement that will rise to become one of technology’s dominant ideas.
This is the belief that technology should turn simple things that have been well understood for decades into a cause, cutting needless power consumption, for instance, or ensuring that the materials from which it fashions its latest products are recyclable and don’t poison the environment in their manufacture. In other words, precisely the values that IT has considered beneath it since it since its emergence as an industry over half a century ago.
As revolutions go, this is an odd one. It started among the nay-sayers on the fringe of acceptable science some decades back, moved into the veins of the government and NGO conference circuit around 20 years ago, and then headed for the boardroom. Finally, the marketing guys heard about it, perhaps two years ago, by which time it had become serious and unavoidable.
Don’t just recycle, don’t just stop chucking heavy metals into the earth and don’t just stop wasting electricity – do all three things at once. But make sure people hear about it and are persuaded that all this green stuff isn’t basic engineering at all but somehow adds value.
The car industry reached a similar point with the oil shock of 1973, since which time it has wasted no time telling people how much more fuel efficient their latest engine design is, despite the fact that the average car in the UK does around 30-35mpg on its urban cycle, compared to perhaps 18-25mpg for the same car thirty years ago. That’s a worthy change, but hardly a huge return for a generation of supposed high-tech improvement. Meanwhile, the industry has grown wealthy selling high-performance run-arounds and huge, inefficient 4WDs that in some cases have taken petrol burning back to the 1960s.
You fear that IT’s sudden greening could go down a similar path. The complacent engineering assumptions of the near past – just turn everything on and forget it as long as it’s fast – will give way to a world of boxes that power down when they’re not actually being used, indeed that’s happened to some extent already. They will all satisfy the WEEE regulations on toxicity too, while old kit will be built to be recycled at the end of its life with this cost built into the business model.
But it should always have been like this. Why was leaving a monitor on all night ever a good idea? Why was filling the land with toxins ever a good idea? And where did we all think all those beige PCs went once we no longer wanted them?
The truth is that the IT industry will green itself in all sorts of wonderful ways in 2008 but it will still need to operate according to the fixed laws of incremental innovation and built-in obsolescence. The big IT houses didn’t get rich by selling air to people, and they won’t do in the near future, no matter what green credentials they claim their latest box of flashing lights.
Hopefully, the greenest company will sell the most, but it will still need to sell something. Longer term, there will need to be some sort of change to this cycle of innovation that doesn’t compel businesses to throw away perfectly serviceable products on a meaningless three-year cycle just to keep vendors in business and their accountants happy.
That’s a recipe for a slower, smaller, duller IT industry, you might say. But it would be more environmental even if its signal colour wasn’t green at all, but red – the colour of blood on the carpet.