Where does our online data go?

Written by: Christine Taylhardat
Photo Credits: Unsplash by Florian Krumm

Where does our online data go? What happens when I compose a tweet, upload a TikTok, or even make a search on Google? While it is hard to imagine, all this data has to go somewhere. And not only does it stay in the online world, but it also must be supported by physical resources. By this, I mean data centres and related infrastructure, in addition to the natural resources they require to function.

Within these centres, there are servers that store digital data which are powered by the electric grid, and cooled by nearby water sources (Notley 2019). This is where the “cloud” or digital archives live and breathe – the remote servers that are part and parcel of the functioning of the Internet. Some of their functions include the storing, processing, and transportation of data (Sovacool, Upham, and Monyei 2022).

The excessive amount of energy used by the information and communication technology (ICT) sector is highly unregulated (Notley, 2019). Yet, ICT contributes to 10% of global energy consumption and 3% of greenhouse gas emissions (Sovacool et al. 2022). The Covid-19 pandemic contributed to the increased virtualization of social life and work, exacerbating the already high need for data centres (Lee et al. 2020). With this growing demand on the ICT sector and its associated resources, we cannot afford to ignore the material aspect of the digital world.

Data centres are practically invisible in our everyday lives. Yet, they exist and have real impacts; this type of infrastructure uses high amounts of electricity and water, as well as additional resources like precious metals to produce the servers that store the data (Notley 2019). This invisibility is not completely unintentional – companies don’t want us thinking about the physical resources required to maintain the online sphere (Cubitt 2016). Instead, we hear about the amazing progress we have made by ‘connecting the world’. And even when we do hear about the negatives of the Internet, it is mostly associated with what happens within it, such as echo chambers on social media. Even with the accepted negatives of the Internet, public discourse still advocates for the continued growth of online platforms. But what remains hidden is how each byte of data needs to be stored. We talk about the Internet as if it could expand infinitely, but this is misleading given the physical resources needed to maintain it (Johnson 2021).

There are many ways that these data centres and related infrastructure are problematic – from their inefficiency to lack of regulation. For instance, a lot of energy is wasted keeping data centres in an idle state because the servers must always be “on” to provide instantaneous service (Hogan 2015). As consumers, we expect this instantaneity. Likewise, ICT infrastructure is relied on by government services and global corporations. Hence, efforts to reduce service disruptions, like always keeping them on and having backup servers, are now essential to the smooth functioning of other parts of society (Velkova and Plantin 2023).

While I said that data centres are invisible, this is not exactly the truth for everyone. Data centres are connected to displacement of locals from their land for energy infrastructure to support these centres. This happened in Norway and could likewise happen in Greenland – ideal locations for data centres because cooler external temperatures mean less energy has to be used for internal cooling (Sovacool et al. 2022). But cooler environments are not the only place where data centres are located. For instance, in 2016 in South Carolina, USA, Google submitted a proposal to use 1.5 million gallons of water daily from the nearby aquifer to use for cooling purposes in their local data centre (Gilmore and Troutman 2020). While many residents were opposed to the approval, Google used their power to ensure they would acquire the water use permit, which will potentially strain the supply of water for the local community for years to come (Gilmore and Troutman 2020). As such, the digital has tangible effects on local communities.

Corporations like Google and Meta have conflicting interests when it comes to their services and its users, as they tend to prioritize profit and never-ending growth over sustainable practices. At the same time, as users of these ‘free’ platforms, we allow them access to our data. This allows them to continue to profit while disguising the real impacts they have. Technology has progressed far enough for society to not consider the physical implications of the mass amount of infrastructure needed to support it.

As users, what do we do then? Even if some individuals stop using the Internet, or even just social media platforms, there is no denying how embedded and essential they have become to our lives.

A good place to start is to lobby for more regulation. The Internet is still recent enough that regulations have not done a good job of limiting the powers this sector has. In addition, if any regulations are to be made, they will by and large need to be an international effort given that infrastructure is placed around the globe. Policy can begin by forcing companies to be more transparent given that they currently do not report the number of data centres they use or how much energy they require (Hogan 2015). While this is a small start, this lack of information impacts the effectiveness of policies that can be created to target this problem.

Finally, as individuals, one of the most important things we can begin to do is to become aware of this issue and share with others in our lives. This is because the problem is still largely not considered by the public, and without this awareness, pressure on governments to regulate will be hard to come by. Due to climate change and the growing needs of the global population, uncertainties exist regarding energy supply in the future. Natural resources are finite, and the current growth paradigm associated with technology and the digital world is incongruent with the physical impacts they have on the Earth.

So, in this digital era, we must now return to the physical.



Cubitt, Sean. 2016. Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies. Duke University Press.

Gilmore, James N., and Bailey Troutman. 2020. “Articulating Infrastructure to Water: Agri-Culture and Google’s South Carolina Data Center.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 23(6):916–31. doi: 10.1177/1367877920913044.

Hogan, Mél. 2015. “Facebook Data Storage Centers as the Archive’s Underbelly.” Television & New Media 16(1):3–18. doi: 10.1177/1527476413509415.

Johnson, Alix. 2021. “Down to Earth: The Situated Materiality of Digital Media.” Journal of Environmental Media 2(2):185–91. doi: 10.1386/jem_00060_1.

Lee, Habin, Youngseok Choi, Truong Van Nguyen, Yang Hai, Junchul Kim, Mohammed Bahja, and Hakan Hocaoğlu. 2020. “COVID19 Led Virtualization: Green Data Center for Information Systems Research.” Information Systems Management 37(4):272–76. doi: 10.1080/10580530.2020.1818901.

Notley, Tanya. 2019. “The Environmental Costs of the Global Digital Economy in Asia and the Urgent Need for Better Policy.” Media International Australia 173(1):125–41. doi: 10.1177/1329878X19844022.

Sovacool, Benjamin K., Paul Upham, and Chukwuka G. Monyei. 2022. “The ‘Whole Systems’ Energy Sustainability of Digitalization: Humanizing the Community Risks and Benefits of Nordic Datacenter Development.” Energy Research & Social Science 88. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2022.102493.

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