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Secret No More: Google and Power

Just last month, in an essay for the New York Review, I wrote the following sentence about Google and secrecy:

None of these books can tell you how many search queries Google fields, how much electricity it consumes, how much storage capacity it owns, how many streets it has photographed, how much e-mail it stores; nor can you Google the answers, because Google values its privacy.

As of today, that’s out of date. Google has decided to reveal the answer to two of those questions. James Glanz reports in the New York Times that the company’s data centers worldwide consume just under 260 million watts of electricity and field something over a billion searches a day.

This works out (Google says) to about three-tenths of a watt-hour per search. Google had given out that per-search figure before, in hopes of quieting people who wildly estimated that a single search consumes as much energy as bringing half a kettle of water (however much that is) to boil, or running a 100-watt light bulb for an hour.

Now, 0.3 watt-hours isn’t nothing, but it isn’t much. It sounds worse in joules: about a thousand. You yourself, if you are doing nothing more strenuous than reading this item, dissipate that much energy every twenty seconds or so. Google points out (with considerable justice, in my opinion) that any one search has the potential to save vast amounts of energy—a gasoline-powered trip to the library, for example.

It may feel as though there’s something apples-and-orangish about all this. Energy and information. I hear an echo of something I noted in The Information: that at the dawn of the computer era, in 1949, John von Neumann came up with an estimate for the minimal amount of heat that must be dissipated “per elementary act of information, that is per elementary decision of a two-way alternative and per elementary transmittal of one unit of information.” It was a tiny number; he wrote it as kTln 2 joules per bit.

Oh, and by the way, von Neumann was wrong; Charles H. Bennett and Rolf Landauer have explained why. But energy and information are tightly bound. Of that, at least, there is no doubt.



  1. Alastair McGowan says

    Tightly bound indeed, possibly tighter than we may now imagine? The shortest path energy can take is one bit, or maybe we have that wrong, how about a fraction of a bit? Food for future thought…

  2. Gavin Ritz says

    Of course information and energy are tightly bound it takes 0.693kT joules to transmit one bit, where k is the Boltzmann Constant and T is the temperature in kelvins. There is where information theory and physics collide that’s it, you can muck around with the formula at photonic level and it becomes 1.44 (hf/kT) bits per photon.

    But that’s it information theory has nothing to do with biological organisms, this concept is the biggest hoax of this century, there is not one piece of evidence, not one testable model, no propositions to prove. Basically it’s non-sense. How so many people are fooled is just baffling.

  3. ES Dewey says

    Information, by definition, requires the existence of at least one physical construct with the capacity to receive information, which, in all prior human experience, presupposes a functional biological nervous system (if for no other reason than to build the receiving construct).

    The very act of receiving information requires some level of perception, which, in higher organisms at least, means some level of electro-chemical reaction.

    Unless, of course, one has a religious belief in an exclusively objective reality, combined with a religious disbelief in the remotest possibility that any sort of subjective reality could be of survival value to a physical organism.

    In which case, there is absolutely no point in continuing to breathe.

    • Gavin Ritz says

      Information theory is a machine concept, there is nothing to suggest, proof, evidence, models, corroborations, multiple lines of enquiry, method of test to suggest that living organisms have anything at all to do with information. The human nervous system is closed and both nervous systems, Central & Enteric do not receive information they sort of transduce (well not really) sound energy, light energy, nociception, pressure, balance etc. There is no information being received like a machine or telephone channel. To take a machine concept (information theory) and make that isomorphic to a living being is plain crazy at best and dangerous at worst.

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