The global network of solar-powered servers shows how it’s done
The energy demands of the internet, the devices & systems that use it, and the servers which support it are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions equivalent with those of the global airline industry, and these carbon costs are increasing rapidly as blockchain-enabled transactions expand: The carbon footprint of one Ethereum transaction is approximately equal to around 329,000 credit card transactions.
A new project, Solar Protocol, developed by a researcher team from NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, aims to highlight how this trans-global trafficking of data via the web is a major energy consumer and driver of climate change, offering a potential solution.
On Tuesday, March 15, 2022, the project, first supported by the Eyebeam Rapid Response for a Better Digital Future program and the Code for Science & Society Digital Infrastructure Incubator, had receive the Mozilla Creative Media Award from Mozilla, that supports the health the Internet by developing open-source technologies in areas such as online privacy, inclusion and decentralization. Mozilla awards the offers to individuals and projects that demonstrate how to re-imagine data in ways that shift power away from large technology platforms and toward individuals and communities.
Developed by NYU Tandon Professors of Technology, Culture and Society Tega Brain, who is also an Assistant Professor of Integrated Digital Media, and Benedetta Piantella, a member at the Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP); and Adjunct Professor Alex Nathanson, Solar Protocol includes a web platform hosted on a network of solar-powered servers installed in locations around the world. Not only this, being a workable system with implications for future servers, it have a global set-up that highlights the politics of the web and various ways to track web traffic.
In stark contradiction to large-scale, high-volume web services, which algorithmically direct network traffic to the server with the fastest response time, usually the closest geographically, the Solar Protocol, with around a dozen server nodes managed by volunteers around the world, uses the interaction of the Sun with the earth as the cornerstone. How the sun shapes the daily behavior, seasonal activities, and decision-making of almost all life forms is becoming the “logic” used to automate decisions on the digital network.
“Solar Protocol is a huge opportunity for us as artists to bring the issues of climate change and how technology is driving it,” said Brain. “The project catalyzed conversations about AI & automation, since user traffic in-network is decided by solar energy, we use natural & dynamic intelligence instead of a data-driven machine learning model; It is an alternative proposition. Why not consider planetary limits as intelligence? After all, they’ll shape the future of life on Earth, whether we like it or not.”
The network takes into account the fact that the servers, each powered-by photo-voltaic cells, are situated in different time zones & seasons with different sun exposure and different weather systems, and directs Internet traffic to where the sun is shining. When a browser makes a request to view the Solar Protocol website, it is sent to the server on the network that generates the most energy.
“It’s not an alternative to the Internet, so the goal here isn’t to scale up. But we’re releasing the system as an open standard, which theoretically means anyone could start a similar network, say an art museum network,” Piantella said.
Brain noted that the project even addresses the language of the internet and how we talk about it, suggesting it has few to do with the concrete realities of our physical environment.
“We speak of the internet as a cloud, for example, and we tend to use the language of magic to describe it, without connecting to how the amounts of resources it actually is,” he said. “So, the people that are getting involved in the project as server stewards and are very in touch with their material reality and what it takes to set up a server that’s powered by the sun. You start making various design decisions; you think about planetary limits and reconsider internet politics.”
Kofi Yeboah, program officer of Mozilla’s Creative Media Awards, added, “In our connected world, conversations about power, inclusion & exclusion, and ownership frequently come down to one thing: data. How data are collected, managed & train AI systems which affects billions of lives. But this effect is often invisible. Creative media awards such as Solar Protocol make the invisible visible, showing how data can impact everything from the environment to personal safety. The Creative Media Awards also provide a way forward by demonstrating how data can be better stewarded to empower people & communities.
An educational component of the project is via the Vertical Integrated Projects (VIP) initiative at NYU Tandon, which allows students to participate in network functional cycle analysis.
Solar Protocol includes multiple collaborators from a variety of communities, which includes faculty members in Chile and arts, cultural and community-based organizations in various areas and indigenous territories in the Caribbean, Australia and Kenya.