Cloudy Skies


This special, full-page cartoon appeared in last month’s 40th anniversary issue of Alternatives.

When I was 21, I spent a year backpacking in Europe. Like every other tourist who went through Paris, I experienced a brief frisson as I stood before the real, original Mona Lisa. I had probably already seen it over a thousand times in duplication. Its celebrity did make a confrontation with the original intriguing – like running into Scarlett Johansson on the street. But in the end, I felt let down. Why all the hoopla? Somehow, the original felt like a pale imitation of…itself.

This gave me the idea for a cartoon about cheap Mona Lisa reproductions somehow draining the original work of its colour and then literally threatening its existence, sort of as an inverse Dorian Gray. Teams of specialists would be ushered in to try to save it. Reproductions were banned. Other famous artworks began to falter as well. Michaelangelo’s David withered. The Sistine Chapel started to crumble. Picasso’s works became even more cubist.

This loss of the aura or cult of the original was discussed by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I was fresh from reading about him and eager to play on both his ideas and my experience of the Mona Lisa Letdown.

But my cartoon never came to life. It felt, somehow, too fanciful. Back home in Canada, I could find no context.

Flash forward to the digital age, which found me mulling over whether the exponentially expanding universe of digital photographs is draining reality of its colour, of its “realness.” Metaphorically speaking, I felt it was: When more people at a wedding are viewing it on their camera screens than are experiencing it first-hand, does the actual experience lose its authenticity? Are we living for life’s sake or to make a good Facebook post? Is the glut of images, now cheapened because of their metastasizing quantity, also devaluing the memories they capture?

Hardly fuel for a cartoon in an environmental magazine. Unless I could show that photography was actually damaging the natural world, in a manifestation of the observer effect, in which the very act of observation changes what is being observed. Are we observing our world to death?

I started googling the Cloud, and was surprised, sadly, to find evidence to back up my musings. My google trail is below.

So, happily, the cartoon that had been buried like a cicada in larval form can now come forth and make loud, irritating noises.

Cartoon Sources in order of reading

“Is a picture worth even 140 characters anymore? Barely.”

“Facebook users upload 7.5 billion photos per month.”
250 million photos per day x 30 = 7.5 billion per month

This blog, which I found after my cartoon was done, ably illustrates the explosion of images. But its estimation of 3.5 trillion total photos worldwide is, in my opinion, far too low.

“The datasphere has ballooned beyond a zettabye – a million times the content of the largest library or equal to 75 billion fully-loaded 16-gig iPads!”

“This cloud … generates as much CO2 as the world’s airlines.”

“At this rate, by 2020, the Earth’s data load will be 35 zettabytes.”

“Your e-reader has the environmental impact of 30–70 books – and the average American reads only nine a year (Canadians read 20).”

But the greenness of e-readers is hotly debated. This site has a list of links that deal with the topic. Of course, an iPad is far more than an e-book – you can read magazines, watch video and do lots more. Figuring out the environmental impact of using one as opposed to doing it all the old-fashioned way is like comparing apples (pun intended) and oranges using algebra.

“Over 25 million iPads and 5 billion cell phones all use the mineral coltan.”

Virtually any portable electronic device uses coltan, which is used to extend battery life. Just google “coltan,” and you’ll find oodles on information on it. You can start at Worldwatch and Foreign Policy. It’s mining doesn’t only threaten gorillas – millions of humans have also died in wars fueled by this dirty metal.

I first heard about coltan almost a decade ago on a short-lived but excellent Canadian TV drama, The Eleventh Hour. I thought it was fiction, as the word “coltan” sounded so sci-fi. But it wasn’t. (It’s short for columbite-tantalite). Think twice before ditching your cell for a new, equally dirty one. (How many times did you use to replace your old land phone? And how many cell phones have you ever owned?)

“We’re shredding biodiversity – nature’s cloud – to grow our zettacloud.”
Media headlines have disputed that species are disappearing as fast as has been reported. But that is a sham. Biodiversity, which when you come down to it is an unimaginably complex form of information, is disappearing faster than our own data is accumulating.

I didn’t have space in the cartoon to open this can of endangered worms, but the crux is that our cloud of information is metastisizing at the expense of nature. Reality is fading in part due to the digital photography boom. Our digital world is becoming richer and denser as nature is becoming poorer and scarcer. Digital feels effortless, footprintless and eco-friendly. But the infrastructure – energy for cooling huge data-centres, mining, disposal of heavy metals – is not.

Used well, fueled by renewable energy, the Cloud could be part of the solution. But it’s being predominantly used to transmit nude photos of Scarlett Johannson millions of times.


This story just appeared in the Globe on a plan to regular conflict minerals.

2 thoughts on “Cloudy Skies

  1. Arthur Kilgour

    I once saw a British drama — it was 1999 — called "Shooting the Past", about the curators of a threatened photo archive. They had 10 million black and white photos, which seemed like a lot, and they knew the collection intimately, such that they could connect photos and stories across generations. It was improbably, but a gripping story nonetheless. This was before Facebook and it was fictionalized, but the collection resembled the UK Hulton Collection, which is now part of Getty Images. And you say there are 250 million photo uploads to Facebook, PER DAY? // Shooting the Past:

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