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Paul Dolan, James Davoll +
Dr Pete Howson

Paul Dolan  (Website     Instagram)

Artist/Senior Lecturer of Animation, Northumbria University 

 

Dolan explores the material properties of "immaterial" digital images using photography and computer simulation. His research is currently focussed on exploring sites of mass digital image production such as render farms, their environmental impact, and the subsequent entanglements with the data centre economy.

James Davoll  (Website)

Artist / School of Arts and Cultures Technical Manager, Newcastle University

 

James is an award-winning artist and filmmaker. His site-specific work explores the historical, political and environmental resonances of landscape via fieldwork, moving image, audio recording and computer processing. In Trace (2018) and Bound (2019) James documented the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, questioning the political function of the border in the Brexit narrative.

Dr Pete Howson  (Website      Twitter)

Senior Lecturer in International Development, Northumbria University 

 

Peter Howson’s research looks at the social implications of technology-enhanced conservation and development. He also considers how these same technologies are deployed to enable more equitable post-growth economies. He leads the MSc in International Development at Northumbria University. He is the Southeast Asia Editor for the journal Asia Pacific Viewpoint. He is part of the UNEP working group on Blockchain for Environmental Sustainability and special advisor to the Asia New Zealand Foundation. He also helps run a small NGO, Latin America Foundation for the Future (or LAFF).

Introduction

During August 2021 the three of us visited Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula to undertake fieldwork for a research project. Pete and Paul were both looking at the energy output of data centres, although for different reasons: digital economy and cryptocurrencies (Pete) and the mass production of digital images (Paul). James connected to the project through an interest in borders and the ways in which the networked global data industry complicates notions of geographical borders.

 

Iceland is often held aloft as a bastion of green, abundant energy, although Pete’s research suggests that the inherent competitive logic of bitcoin mining leads to countries without access to renewable energy needing to burn more coal to compete with Iceland. We also found that data centres tend to insulate larger companies from energy usage responsibility through the use of colocation services. 

Paul’s photographs are intended to provide visual access to hidden or concealed sites of digital labour. James’ 13 minute ethnographic film Tributaries (2022) traces the movement of water through the Icelandic landscape against the visual and sonic sites of data centres and geothermal power plants. Pete’s writing adds an international context to the energy impacts of bitcoin mining in the Reykjanes Peninsula. 

TRIBUTARY
2022, James Davoll

UNDERSTANDING BITCOIN'S ENERGY NETWORK EFFECTS IN ICELAND'S REYKJANES PENINSULA
2022, Dr Pete Howson

Huge concrete data centres, permanently plugged into power plants and telephone exchanges, maintain much of our digital lives. But the infrastructure behind internet-based cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, dogecoin and ethereum relies on smoke, mirrors, and secrecy.

Bitcoin depends on a network of millions of specialist machines, known as miners. Like a never-ending game of Hungry Hippos, each player hammers their mining machines 24/7 to try and scoop up as many bitcoins as possible. With only a few hippos, its easy for everyone to be a winner. But with around 2.5 million miners chasing an ever-shrinking number of prizes, the game is becoming increasingly difficult.

Bitcoin’s booming popularity has caused its electricity demand to swell. The network uses more energy than the whole of Thailand. With no central planning, a perpetual arms race for equipment continues, creating 30,000 tonnes of burned out electronic waste annually. In April 2021, following a massive government crackdown on the industry in China, around 70% of the world’s Bitcoiners hit the road in search of cheap electricity. And some landed here in Iceland, drawn to the country’s cheap geothermal power.

Most of the bitcoin network is powered by fossil fuels in North America, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Kosovo began the new year by banning cryptocurrency mining.  Countries such as Abkhazia, Georgia and Uzbekistan have turned Bitcoiners off with bans and suspensions to contend with increased demand for their cheap coal. Many have lost their lives due to overloaded grids causing winter black outs lasting weeks. In Kazakhstan, 225 people died in January in a violent uprising sparked by fuel price increases. Between 8 and 10% of Kazakhstan’s energy is used for bitcoin mining. 

Even countries with greener grids are struggling to meet the increased demands caused by Bitcoiners. Iceland’s cheap renewables come with significant environmental costs, scaring the landscape with pipes and plumes of steam. Deafening turbine arrays, many times louder than busy airport runways, blight the environment and the tourism economy.

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Unnamed Data Centre 1 . Paul Dolan

Bitcoin mining with renewables in Iceland increases the carbon footprint of the global network. Our research shows that new miners joining the Hungry Hippos contest in Iceland have encouraged miners where there are no renewables to use more machines and work harder with coal and fossil gas. Regulators in Iceland are pushing back against the Bitcoiners, forcing a moratorium on their activities. Some are asking the government to support an EU-wide ban proposed by Norway and Sweden.  

These mining operations are parasitic. With Iceland’s resistance, the miners are on the move again. Many are now heading to the Canadian province of New Brunswick to take and take from them, until their new host eliminates them through regulation, banning or violent uprising. Or it kills the host because it's taken too much. 

There's a common idea amongst cryptocurrency proponents that miners are coming to the rescue in providing a source of income for so-called ‘stranded energy’ that states can't find a buyer for. Iceland has already realised that Bitcoiners are not here to help. Bitcoiners are here to exploit the landscape. The political and environmental ramifications of their presence is of no concern to them.

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Geothermal Bore Hole Nesjavellir . Paul Dolan

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Geothermal Vent Nesjaveelir . Paul Dolan