COLUMN: The worldwide ramifications of hitting ‘send’

The reaction I have noticed to the rotating strikes of Canada’s postal workers has been little more than a shrug. Other than bills, there is little thrill left when the postman knocks, or in my case, fills the little metal box at the corner.

In fact, I can’t remember when I last received a personal letter in the mail  … nobody it seems, writes letters any more.

On the other hand, every morning and throughout the day, messages flow into my email inbox. Lots of it is junk, but among the flotsam there is usually a note or two from friends. And should I ever take up the challenge of using Facebook or Twitter, I am certain the daily flow of personal commentary would increase dramatically.

Thus, from a personal point of view and the electronic wizardry we have flocked to, Canada Post is taking on a greater sense of irrelevance with each passing year.

Writing a letter requires paper, pen, an envelope and about 60 cents to send it on its way, to arrive sometime within the next day or two, or occasionally a week or two. Additionally, one must be able to write legibly which my general scrawl is anything but.

However, emails and the Internet send off clear and concise messages, so long as you can actually parse your words, in a flash – almost as quickly as speaking. I wouldn’t be surprised if emails, texting and so on even replace the phone for ‘real time’ conversations.

As someone who advanced from a pencil, to an ancient Underwood manual typewriter, to electronic word processors, to computers, I have seen it all when it comes to putting down the written word.

There is a wide-held belief that computers, emails and the like will create a paperless world, saving the planet’s forests and enhancing the health of all. Fax machines, of course, threw a bit of a twist into that, though today even they are used less frequently.

Regardless, while governments and business still accumulate vast amounts of paper files, and newspapers rely more and more on electronic publishing, it might be true that fewer trees are being sacrificed to the altar of communication.

However, all is not well in the Internet world. It, in fact, relies mostly on ‘dirty power’, and it has an exceptional thirst. According to a fascinating full-page story in Saturday’s Vancouver Sun, the Internet is, if it were a country, the fifth largest consumer of power in the world. The Internet – actually the computer systems that drive it – consumes more power than do the entire populations and industrial outputs of India or Germany.

And much of the power that is consumed, when you and I and a billion others send an email, Google a question, or do anything else on the keyboard of our computers, comes from the generating and pollution-creating abilities of coal-fired power stations.

We in British Columbia, with our abundant lakes, rivers and mountains, enjoy the benefits of power generated essentially pollution-free. The rest of the world isn’t so fortunate, and thus must rely on nuclear or coal-fired generation, and with those come serious health consequences.

Yet despite our relative piousness in this province, we contribute on a personal basis just as much as anywhere else on the planet each time we use our computers, because the servers that drive the Internet, and use all that power, are located in places other than B.C.

And perhaps what makes this issue even more interesting is that it actually isn’t the computers that consume all the energy, but the cooling systems needed to maintain them when they are rushing about at light speed trying to locate an answer to your Googled question.

But even with all that, will we return en masse to the handwritten word slipped into an envelope for the postie to deliver? Not a chance! If not the mailman, at least the trees will thank us.

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