Can we imagine a better Internet?

The convenience of thinking together

by Alina Utrata and Julia Rone

Reflecting on our recent tech and environment workshop, two of our workshop hosts, Alina Utrata and Julia Rone, explore the questions from the event that are still making them think.

On June 17, over 40 participants from all over the world joined our workshop exploring “the cost of convenience” and the opaque impact that digital technology has on the environment.

Instead of having academics presenting long papers in front of Zoom screens with switched-off cameras, we opted for a more dialogic, interactive and (conveniently) short format.

We invited each participant (or team of participants) to share a provocation across the environmental impact of technology/the political economy of the environment/technology nexus and discussed in small groups. Then, in panel sessions we discussed the provocations (what we know already), the known unknowns (what we don’t know yet), and ideas for an action plan (what could we be doing). 

Below are our reflections on the workshop.

A visual representation of the workshop, produced by artist Tom Mclean.

There is no real technical or technological “fix” for the climate crisis

By Alina Utrata

I am currently working on the relationships between technology corporations and states.

For me, what stood out about the discussions was the sense among all participants that there was no real technical or technological “fix” for the climate crisis.

Instead, the conversations often revolved around globally embedded systems and structures of power—and asking why a certain technology is being deployed, by whom, for whom and how, rather than whether they could “fix” anything.

“I was inspired by how participants immediately recognised the importance of these systems, and instead focused our conversations on how to change them.”

Alina Utrata

In fact, it was pointed out that often the creators of these technological innovations deliberately promoted certain kinds of narratives about how they wanted the technology to be thought of—for example, the “cloud” as a kind of abstract, other place in the sky, rather than a real, tangible infrastructure with real costs.

The same could be said of the metaphors of “carbon footprint” or “carbon neutral”—the idea that as long as discrete, individual corporate entities were not personally responsible for a certain amount of emissions, then they could not be held culpable for a system that was failing the planet. 

Credit: Alex Machado for Unsplash

I was inspired by how participants immediately recognized the importance of these systems, and instead focused our conversations on how to change them.

Although many political concepts today are so commonplace that they seem ordinary, we discussed how they are often really quite modern or Western in origin.

For example, the idea of the shared, communal commons is an ancient one, and can be used as a political framework to tackle some of the harmful systems humans have put in place on our earth. 

Finally, we acknowledged that we all have a role to play in this fight for our future—but not all of us have or need to play the same role.

Some of us will be activists outside these systems of power, and some of us will be sympathetic voices from within.

The participants reaffirmed the need to both communicate and coordinate across disciplines within academia, and more broadly in sectors across the wider earth.


Should we abolish the Internet?

By Julia Rone

 Credit: Denny Müller for Unsplash

I am currently working on the democratic contestation of data centre construction.

John Naughton often says during our weekly meetings that the most interesting conversations are those that finish before you want them to end. That was definitely the case for me at the workshop since of each the sessions I hosted ended with a question that could be discussed for hours and that still lingers in my mind.

Concepts and conceptual problems

If I have to identify the key common threads running through the three sessions I hosted, the first one has to with concepts and conceptual problems. 

Several participants posed the crucial question how do we think of “progress”.

Is progress necessarily synonymous with growth, increased efficiency, better performance?

What are we sacrificing in the name of “progress”?

One participant asked the painfully straight-to-the-point question: “Should we abolish the Internet?” (considering the massive toll of tech companies on the environment, the rise of hate speech, cyber-bullying, polarization, etc.)

Do we feel loss at the thought? 

“Yes!” – I immediately said to myself.- “How could I talk to my family and to my friends”.

This question really provoked me to think further.

If I can’t live in a world without the Internet, can we think of a different Internet?

How can we re-invent the Internet to become more caring, accessible, more Earth-based and less extractive (as one of the provocations suggested).

Credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona for Unsplash

What does it mean to be sustainable?

Another, similarly important conceptual question was posed at the very end of the second session by a collegue who asked “What does it mean to be sustainable?” Why do we want to be sustainable? What and whom are we sustaining?

Should we not rather think of ways to radically change the system?

Our time ran out before discussing this in depth and therefore this question has also been bothering me since then. 

Ultimately, as another participant emphasised, research on the environmental impact of tech is most problematic and underdeveloped at two levels – the levels of concepts (how do we think of abstraction and extraction, for example?), but also at the lowest level of what individuals and communities do.

This latter question about on-the-ground labor, work and action is actually the second common thread between several of the contributions in the sessions I attended.

“It is difficult to disentangle the economic aspects of repair from the environmental ones.” 

A colleague studying workers who do repair for their livelihood (not as a hipster exercise) rightly pointed out that when discussing the environmental consequences of tech, and practices such as repair in particular, it is difficult to disentangle the economic aspects of repair from the environmental ones. 

Indeed, in a different context, scholars of the environmental impact of tech have clearly shown how tech companies’ extractive practices towards nature go hand-in-hand with dispossession, economic exploitation and extraction of value and profit from marginalised communities.

“In order to understand and better address the environmental consequences of digital tech, we need to be more open to the experiences of individuals and communities on the ground who often “know better” since they live (and occasionally also cause) the very consequences of tech we research.”

Julia Rone

Another colleague had studied the ways in which local leaders participate in decision-making about data centres in Thailand and controversies around water use – a topic very relevant to my own current project on data centres in the Netherlands.

Another participant yet had studied how participatory map-making not only consumes electricity but also changes the very way we see nature.

The reason why I found all these contributions so fascinating is that they challenged simplistic narratives of Big Tech Vs the Environment and showed how many players (with how many different intentions, principles and economic interests) are actually involved in the increasingly complex assemblage of humans-nature and tech. 

So to sum up – in order to understand and better address the environmental consequences of digital tech, we need to be more clear about the concepts we use as researchers but also to be more open to the experiences of individuals and communities on the ground who often “know better” since they live (and occasionally also cause) the very consequences of tech we research. 

To summarise…

Ultimately, each of us who attended (and hosted) the sessions of the workshop have a rich but still incomplete overview of the workshop.

By attending different sessions, there were provocations that individually we missed as sessions intertwined and overlapped (a bit like tectonic plates readjusting meaning, ideas and new perspectives for research).

We would love to hear from other attendees from the workshop, the ideas that struck them most during the sessions.

Luckily, some participants have submitted their provocation to our Zine, a unique document that we will share soon to help guide us forward in our thinking.

We can’t wait to share the Zine with you… stay tuned.

In Review: The Cloud and the Ground

By Julia Rone

In this literature review, Julia Rone outlines the key trends and logics behind the boom in data centre construction across the globe.

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By th’ mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.

The cloud – this fundamental building block of digital capitalism – has been so far defined mainly by the PR of big tech companies.

The very metaphor of the “cloud” presupposes an ethereal, supposedly immaterial collection of bits gliding in the sky, safely removed from the corrupt organic and inorganic matter that surrounds us. This, of course, can’t be further from the truth.

But even when they acknowledge the materiality of the “cloud” and the way it is grounded in a very physical infrastructure of cables, data centres, etc., tech giants still present it in a neat and glamorous way. Data centres, for example, provide carefully curated tours and are presented as sites of harmoniously humming servers, surrounded by wild forests and sea. Some data centres even boast with saunas.  

Instead of accepting blindly the PR of tech companies and seeing “the cloud” as whatever they present it (similarly to the way Polonius accepts Hamlet’s interpretations of the cloud), we should be attuned to the multiplicity of existing perspectives on “the cloud”, coming from researchers, rural and urban communities, and environmentalists, among others.

In this lit review, I outline the key trends and logics behind the boom in data centre construction across the globe. I base the discussion on several papers from two special issues. The first one is The Nature of Data Centres, edited by Mél Hogan and Asta Vonderau for Culture Machine. The second: Location and Dislocation: Global Geographies of Digital Data, edited by Alix Johnson and Mél Hogan for Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies. I really recommend reading both issues – the contributions read like short stories and go straight to the core of the most pressing political economy problems of our times.

Credit: Zbynek Burival for Unsplash

The “nature” of data centres

Data centres as key units of the cloud are very material: noisy, hot, giant storage boxes containing thousands of servers, they occupy factories from the past or spring up on farm land all over the globe. Data centres are grounded in particular locations and depend on a number of “natural” factors for their work, including temperature, humidity, or air pollution. In order for data centres to function, they not only use up electricity (produced by burning coal or using wind energy, for example). They also employ technologies to circulate air and water to cool down and emit heat as a waste product.

But data centres are not only assemblages of technology and nature. Their very appearance, endurance and disappearance is defined by complex institutional and non-institutional social relations: regions and countries compete with each other to cut taxes for tech corporations that promise to bring jobs and development. Some states (e.g. Scandinavian states) are preferred over others because of their stable institutions and political “climate”.

No blank slate

To illustrate, the fact that data centres are built in the Sweden’s Norrbotten region has to do a lot with the “nature” of the region conceptualized reductively by tech companies as cheap energy, cheap water, cheap land and green imagery (Levenda and Mahmoudi, 2019, 2). But it also has to do a lot with the fact that Norrbotten is filled with the “ruins of infrastructural promises” (Vonderau, 2019, 3) – “a scarcely populated and resource-rich region, historically inhabited by native Sami people, the region was for a long-time regarded as no-man’s land” (ibid). Not only is Norrbotten scarcely populated but it also has an “extremely stable and redundant electricity grid which was originally designed for […]‘old’ industries” (ibid, 7).

A similar logic of operation could be discerned in the establishment of a data centre in the Midway Technology Centre in Chicago, where the Schulze Bakery was repurposed as a data centre (Pickren, 2017) Pickren was told in an interview with a developer working on the Schulze redevelopment project that “because the surrounding area had been deindustrialized, and because a large public housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes had closed down in recent decades, the nearby power substations actually had plenty of idle capacity to meet the new data centre needs” (Pickren, 2017). As Pickern observes, “there is no blank slate upon which the world of data simply emerges”(ibid.) There are multiple “continuities between an (always temporary) industrial period and the (similarly temporary) ascendancy of digital capitalism” (ibid).

Extraction and the third wave of urbanization

What the examples of Norrbotten in Sweden and the redevelopment of Chicago by the data industry show is that despite a carefully constructed PR around “being close to nature” and “being green”, decisions on data centre construction actually depend on availability of electricity for which depopulation is only a plus. Instead of “untouched” regions, what companies often go for are rather abandoned or scarcely populated regions with infrastructure left behind. Data centres use resources – industrial capacity or Green energy – that are already there, left from previous booms and busts of capitalism or from conscious state investment that is now used to the benefit of private companies.

“Urban interactions are increasingly mediated by tech and leave a digital trace – from paying your Uber to ordering a latte, from booking a restaurant to finding a date for the night.”

Both urban and rural communities are in fact all embedded within a common process of a “third wave of urbanization” that goes hand in hand with an increase in the commodification and extraction of both data and “natural” resources (Levenda and Mahmoudi, 2019). What this means is that urban interactions are increasingly mediated by tech and leave a digital trace – from paying your Uber to ordering a latte, from booking a restaurant to finding a date for the night.

Credit: Priscilla Du Preez for Unsplash

This urban data is then stored and analysed in predominantly rural settings: “[T]he restructuring of Seattle leads to agglomerations in urban data production, which rely on rural data storage and analysis” (ibid, 9). Put simply, “[J]ust as Facebook and Google use rural Oregon for their ‘natural’ resources, they use cities and agglomerations of ‘users’ to extract data”.

Ultimately, data centres manifest themselves as assemblages for the extraction of value from both people and nature.

As if in a perverse rendition of Captain Planet, all elements – water, air, earth, human beings and technology – unite forces so that data centres can function and you can upload a cat photo on Facebook. In this real life data-centre version of Captain Planet, however, all elements are used up, extracted, exhausted. Water is polluted.

People live with the humming noise of thousands of servers.

Taxes are not collected and therefore not invested in communities that are already deprived.

What is more, data centres often arrive in rural regions with the promise to create jobs and drive development. But as numerous authors have shown, actual jobs created by data centres are less than what was originally promised, with most jobs being precarious subcontracting (Mayer, 2019). As Pickren notes, “If the data centre is the ‘factory of the 21st century,’ whither the working class?”

Abstraction

Data centres do create jobs but predominantly in urban areas. “[W]here jobs are created, where they are destroyed and who is affected are socially and geographically uneven” (Pickern, 2017). Where value is extracted from and where value is allocated rarely coincide.

And if from a birds view perspective, what matters is the total number of jobs created, what matters in Sweden’s Norrbotten or The Netherlands’ Groningen, where data centres are built, is how many jobs are created there and furthermore, what types of jobs (Mayer, 2019). In the same way, while from an abstract point of view tech companies such as Microsoft might be “carbon neutral”, this does not change their questionable practices and dependence on coal in particular places.

The Introduction to the “Location and Dislocation” Special Issue quotes a classic formulation by Yi-Fu Tuan according to whom “place is space made meaningful”(Johnson and Hogan, 2017, 4).

“Whenever we hear big tech’s grandiose pledges of carbon neutrality and reducing carbon emissions, we need to understand that these companies are not simply “green-washing” but are also approaching the problem of global warming “in the abstract””.

One of the key issues with tech companies building data centres is the way they privilege space over place – an abstract logic of calculation and global flows over the very particular local relations of belonging and accountability.

In a great piece on “fungible forms of mediation in the cloud”, Pasek explores how the practice of big tech companies to buy renewable energy certificates does more harm than good, since it allows “data centre companies to symbolically negate their local impacts in coal-powered regions on papers, while still materially driving up local grid demand and thereby incentivizing the maintenance or expansion of fossil energy generation” (ibid, 7).

The impact for local communities can be disastrous: “In communities located near power plants, disproportionately black, brown and low-income, this has direct consequences for public health, including greater rates of asthma and infant mortality” (ibid).

So whenever we hear big tech’s grandiose pledges of carbon neutrality and reducing carbon emissions, we need to understand that these companies are not simply “green-washing” but are also approaching the problem of global warming “in the abstract”, at the global level, paying little attention to their effect in any particular locality.

As Pasek notes, this logic of abstraction subordinates the “urgencies of place” to the “logics of circulation”.

Unsurprisingly, it is precisely the places that have already lost the most from previous industrial transformations that are the ones who suffer most during the current digital transformations.

Invisibility and Hypervisibility

What makes possible the extraction practices of tech companies is a mix between how little we know about them and how much we believe in their promise of doing good (or well, not doing evil at least).

In her fascinating essay “The Second Coming: Google and Internet infrastructure”, Mayer (2019) explores the rumours around a new Google data centre in Groningen. Mayer explores how Google’s reputation as a leading company combined with a the total lack of concrete information about the new data centre create a mystical aura around the whole enterprise: “Google’s curation of aura harkens back to the early eras of Western sacred art, during which priests gave sacred objects their magical value by keeping them ‘invisible to the spectator’” (Mayer, 2019, 4).

Mayer contrasts a sleek Google PR video (with a lone windmill and blond girls looking at computer screens) with the reality brought about by a centre that offered only a few temporary subcontracting jobs. The narrative of regional growth presented by Google unfortunately turned out to be PR rather than a coherent development strategy.

Impermanence

Furthermore, in a fascinating essay on data centres as “impertinent infrastructures”, Velkova (2019) explores the temporality and impermanence of data centres that can be moved or abandoned easily. 

How could such impertinent structures provide regional development?

What is more, even if data centres do not move, they do reorganize global territories and connectivity speeds through the threat of moving: “data center companies are constantly reevaluating the economic profitability of  particular locations in synchrony with server replacement cycles and new legislative frameworks that come into force.

Data centres are above all impermanent – they can come and go. Rather than being responsible to a particular locality, data centres are part of what Pasek called a “logic of global circulation”

Should tax regulations, electricity prices, legislation or geopolitical dynamics shift, even a hyper-sized data center like Google’s in Finland or Facebook’s in Sweden could make a corresponding move to a place with more economically favourable conditions within three years” (Velkova, 2019, 5).

So data centres are on the one hand, hypervisible through corporate PR. On the other hand, they are invisible for local communities that are left guessing about construction permits, the conditions of data centres arrival, their impact on the environment and the economy.

But ultimately, and this is the crucial part, data centres are above all impermanent – they can come and go. Rather than being responsible to a particular locality, data centres are part of what Pasek called a “logic of global circulation”.

Holding each node accountable

Big tech’s logics of extraction, abstraction, invisibility, hypervisibility and impermanence are driving the current third wave of urbanization and unequal development under digital capitalism.

But it is possible to imagine another politics that would “hold each node accountable to the communities in which they are located” (Pasek, 9).

The papers from the two special issues I review here provide an exhaustive and inspiring overview of the “nature” and imaginaries of data centres.

Yet, with few exceptions (such as the work of Asta Vonderau), we know little about the politics of resistance to data centres and the local social movements that are appearing and demanding more democratic participation in decision making.

Would it be possible for us – citizens – to define what the cloud should look like? Not sure. But this is a crucial element of any project for democratizing digital sovereignty. And this is what I work on now.

In Review: How do we avoid the ‘racket’ of sustainable development and green tech?

By Mallika Balakrishnan

Ahead of COP26, can the narrative be shifted away from what Camila Nobrega and Joana Varon describe as a “dangerous mix of ‘green economy’ and techno-solutionism? Mallika Balakrishnan explores the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy’s reading & discussion of Nobrega, Camila & Joana Varon. “Big tech goes green(washing): feminist lenses to unveil new tools in the master’s houses.” GISWatch: Technology, the environment, and a sustainable world. 2021.

On June 17, the Minderoo Centre will be hosting thinkers from academia, civil society, and industry for our workshop on Technology & the Environment.

In the lead up to COP26, we’re keen to spark discussion and amplify action at the nexus of technology and its impact on the environment.

One of the themes we’re hoping to explore more is the environmental cost of technological convenience. 

Frankly, critiques of convenience are often the place my brain starts to tune out: “convenience” frequently serves as shorthand for a framework of climate destruction via individual consumption choices.

Several, though not all, of these analyses are ableist and anti-poor, and they refuse to start from a commitment to decoloniality. 

Nevertheless, the environmental and social costs of convenience are staggering, and will be crucial to understand on the road to environmental justice.

I proposed reading Joana Varon and Camila Nobrega’s recently published article because I resonated strongly with their feminist, power-based analysis of technology and the environment, specifically around the role of big tech companies and intergovernmental meetings such as COP.

Their work articulates the dissonance between big tech’s stated commitments to climate justice and actual consolidation of power, in a way that helped me start to think about convenience at a level of analysis that doesn’t feel disingenuous. 

“Especially in high-level fora such as COP26, it might be difficult to shift the narrative away from what the authors call a “dangerous mix of ‘green economy’ and techno-solutionism.” “

Some themes and remarks that surfaced in our discussion: 

When it comes to the environment, Big Tech companies are eager to centre themselves in policy-setting debates.

This article highlighted how tech companies have already positioned themselves as having useful tools to help solve the climate crisis, sweeping under the rug the ways they are exacerbating environmental destruction. As brought up in our discussion, this feels reminiscent of tobacco companies’ roles in shaping narratives around the risk of lung cancer. Especially in high-level fora such as COP26, it might be difficult to shift the narrative away from what the authors call a “dangerous mix of ‘green economy’ and techno-solutionism.” 

Solidarity with local resistance reminds us to avoid consumer/market-centric framing.

So how might MCTD work to address the gap between policy discussions and tangible justice for impacted communities? We discussed the importance of amplifying—and not tokenizing—voices in movement, recognizing many who have been doing this work for years.

There’s a connection to be made to the twin logics of extraction and abstraction (as highlighted in Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI). The relationship between technology and the environment is easily abstracted to technocratic language or boiled down to carbon footprint. This abstraction eschews an explicitly anti-accumulation, structural analysis, and in turn makes it easier for tech companies to position themselves as “green” solutioneers.

We should be in solidarity with real-time resistance and reject framing issues in ways that suggest:

1) the only relevant harms are consumer harms

2) the only relevant solutions are market solutions

3) everything is consumable and replaceable.

As far as tactics for socio-environmental justice go, planting a tree for every square mile of land destroyed leaves a lot to be desired. And as Varon and Nobrega remind us in this article, we should be thinking about the human, social, and environmental costs of environmental destruction as linked.

We also talked about the relationship between environmental destruction and the destruction of the commons: while there were some reservations around the concept of the commons, folks discussed the emancipatory potential of bienes comunes in challenging companies’ privatization and ownership of (often unceded) land. 

We need to look beyond “effectiveness” and remember structures of power.

How do we avoid the “racket” of sustainable development and green tech?

At one level, we need to push back on the claim that Big Tech can effectively parachute in and solve problems of environmental injustice. But whether or not a tech company’s proposed solutions do what they promise, we should remember that the consolidation of power to these companies is the broader context in which this is taking place. 

Drawing from insights around online advertising ecosystems, we discussed how a lack of transparency can make it difficult to hold power to account, especially in terms of regulation. Nevertheless, we emphasized that whether or not a company’s tech solution works is incidental to the power the company has: rather, it’s about how Big Tech companies have consolidated restructured capacity and centered themselves infrastructurally.

Convenience is costly. We need to be asking why, and for whom.

When we think about convenience, it’s worth remembering to question what is convenient for companies, for workers, and for frontline communities—we should think beyond convenience as ascribed only to the individual consumer. Analyses that treat people as totally separate individuals forego possibilities for power through collective action. 

Have a different perspective to add? There’s still time to submit your provocation to our Technology & the Environment Workshop before the May 15 deadline!

Read our call for provocations (no set format; we just want bold questions)here

Call for provocations – Technology and The Environment Workshop

Every day, consumers around the world utilise digital technology with unprecedented convenience, but at what environmental cost?

The Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy is examining the environmental impact of digital technology to acquire and disseminate an informed, independent assessment of the planetary consequences of the industry’s continued rate of expansion.

Using the resources of leading academic research, we want to expose the tremendous environmental impact of our relationship with digital technology. For example, what is the carbon footprint of a Google search? What are the real-world ramifications for our communities and our planet of the click-to-delivery process of an Amazon order? How does tech ‘progress’ drive planned obsolescence in the smartphone market?

Call for provocations – Technology and the Environment workshop –17th June – 12pm BST (7pm AWST/7AM EDT)

The Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy is calling for participants to provide provocations for a workshop to further explore the ‘cost of convenience’ and the opaque impact that digital technology has on the environment.

The workshop aims to provide a forum for emerging researchers to enter into speculation, critique, exchange, and dialogue on the topic. Although it is primarily aimed at international academic researchers and PhD students, the workshop is also open to journalists, tech workers and those pursuing research outside an academic context. 

Apply now by email – Technology and the Environment workshop

Applicants are asked to produce a 150-word provocation on a topic across the environmental impact of technology/the political economy of the environment/technology nexus, that they would like to discuss at the workshop.

To submit a 150 word provocation or to ask any questions aheads of application, please email: minderoo@crassh.cam.ac.uk

Applications are accepted until May 15.