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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Internet at 40
See Inside Earth 3.0 - Energy vs. Water

Using the Internet's History to Develop Clean Energy's Future

Innovators who aim to create a world of cheap, clean energy should heed some basic lessons

Suddenly the world is racing to find ways to create cheap, clean energy. A study of the Internet’s long development since 1946, arguably when modern computing began, offers valuable lessons that can help keep energy innovations on course for a comparable 62 years:

Hardening of the Categories. In the early days of the Internet there were computers, monopolized by IBM, and there was communications, monopolized by AT&T. The U.S. Department of Justice regulated IBM, and the Federal Communications Commission regulated AT&T. Officials in Washington, D.C., actually had years of hearings to decide which agency was in charge of which: computers versus communications. That turned out to be a silly hardening of the categories; the Internet soon became a merger of computing and communications, not one or the other.

Voice, video and data were once separate categories of communications, too, narrowly construed by their respective monopolies to be telephone, television and the Internet. Over the decades voice became more than telephone, video more than television, and both are now integrated into the Internet. For a long time the goal was to integrate voice, video and data by carrying them on the same copper wires. The old telephone and television monopolies were surprised when voice and video became data on the Internet. So don’t be surprised as we learn not to harden the categories, for example, among feed, food and fuel; corn ethanol is teaching us that right now.

Choosing Laws. Few people remember that during the early years of the Internet, computing resources were centralized. Grosch’s Law said that bigger computers were better, so IBM introduced its big IBM 360 mainframes in 1964. But starting the very next year, Moore’s Law came out of Silicon Valley saying many little computers were better than a few big ones. Then, if I may say so myself, Metcalfe’s Law came along to say that the more you networked computers the better. The Internet’s laws changed. Our way of looking at computing and communications changed. We learned too slowly that cheap and clean communications would be distributed. Personal computers and mobile phones surprised us. What do we think energy’s “laws” will be? Will cheap and clean energy come from centralized power stations? Internet history makes me think not.

We also believed, in the early days of the “information explosion,” that we needed to conserve bandwidth. The huge multibillion-dollar infrastructure of copper wires around the world was limited by some version of Shannon’s Law to carrying not much bandwidth. So our first priorities were on bandwidth conservation, on data compression, multiplexing, buffering and smart terminals—the low-hanging fruit. But after 62 years of building the Internet, do we use less bandwidth now? Was building the Internet mostly about conservation? No. Today we are not using less bandwidth, not twice as much, not 10 times as much, but something like a billion times more.

In 62 years from now, in 2070, are we going to use less energy than we do now? No. Today I do walk more, bike more and take trains more, and I’ve recently switched cars, dropping from 12 to four cylinders. I’ve already ordered my next car, which will move me from 30- to 40-plus miles per gallon. I plan to go all electric after that. And I turn my energy-efficient lights out more religiously. But I don’t think for a moment that we’re going to conserve our way out of the energy crisis. Internet history shows that prosperity depends on abundant bandwidth. Prosperity (gross domestic product, per capita) is proportional to energy use. We are not going to lower per capita consumption of energy in the U.S. We are going to enable the rest of the world to be as prosperous by using not less but more energy. We need to make energy cheap, clean and therefore abundant—really abundant, for a really long time.

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