Hiding Behind Metaphors: The Ecological Reality Of Our Virtual World
What is the metaphor?
Negroponte’s 1995 dream of Being Digital has today turned into a multibillion-dollar illusion that is sustained by metaphors of clouds and virtuality.
But behind the glossy curtain of the internet lies an infrastructure that is burning up the earth, polluting our rivers, toppling democracies to extract rare minerals in exploitative and toxic working conditions.
The defining characteristic of digital technology has, in the words of many pundits been its 'weightlessness'. Academic proponents of techno-optimism, including the founder of the Wired magazine-Nicholas Negroponte and authors like John Perry Barlow and Alan Greenspan believed in the supremacy of 'bits over atoms'. They believed that the digital age would free information from its material constraints - creating what in 1977 James Martin called the 'Wired Society'. The modern myth of immateriality of the computer industry was born from this academic discourse, sustained over time by high-tech industries through systemic suppression of information.
David Pellow in his book, The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immigrant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy (Critical America), writes about how Timothy Mohn, Intel’s director of environmental affairs approached information transparency as the unthinkable. He reportedly told a number of government, industry, and environmental officials in the United States during the mid-1990s that providing personnel records for the first large-scale study of cancer and birth-defect rates among chip workers “would be like giving discovery to plaintiffs’ lawyers.” He added, “I might as well take a gun and shoot myself.” Plans for the study were then shelved.
What does it hide?
The dream was that as our interactions and activities were more dependent on the movement of bits than atoms, they would eventually stop being limited by the constraints of physical reality. However, in the public imagination the freedom from physical limitations was conflated with freedom from physicality itself. Out of sight, out of mind had never been so literally applicable for an entire public. It should be noted that this erasure of the material reality behind the digital did not happen by mistake. It was a deliberate erasure, built over time by high-tech industry through the language they used, information they controlled and suppressed and offshore-production chains they built this empire on.
For example, Amazon’s Web Services- a commodity computational infrastructure commonly known as ‘the cloud’ is the largest cloud-computational service in the world and the centre of post-industrial revolution today. Bringing in more than USD 46 Billion of sales annually as of 2020, it is the panacea of the digital economy, and in the common imagination, completely invisible.
Using AWS, one can access a range of computational resources via the internet remotely without worrying about the software/hardware maintenance, power outages or data backups. The fastest-growing startups, largest enterprises, and leading government agencies all are today based out of AWS to cut down computational costs. (That ranges from Netflix, to NASA to BigBasket and Samsung). All the equipment and labor is located and performed away from the user, sustaining this myth of seamless invisibility.
The Cost Of the Web 2.0
All infrastructure is ideally invisible- we don’t actively worry about where our electricity or water comes from any more than we think about the computational power behind AWS. But unlike water or electricity whose material infrastructure we know about (power grids and water tanks are mostly visible public utilities), we have sparse notion of server farms out of which AWS functions.
The metaphor of the cloud erases the connection between computer services and the material infrastructures behind it, keeping it out of the public imagination.
Nathan Ensmenger, in his essay ‘The Cloud is A Factory’ details how expansive an average data-centre’s material consumption is. He writes, “A typical large data center of the kind that Amazon operates draws between 350 and 500 megawatts of power; collectively, such data centers consumed 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2016 in the United States alone. This represents close to 2 percent of the nation’s entire electricity consumption—roughly the equivalent to the output of eight nuclear power plants...According to a 2014 Greenpeace report, if the Cloud were a country, it would be the sixth largest consumer of electricity on the planet. As these resources are consumed, they return carbon back into the atmosphere—something on the order of 159 million metric tons annually—and so the Cloud is also one of the world’s largest polluters.”
Data Centres are not just consumers of power, they also require massive amounts of water to function. In a 2014 paper, Mel Hogan places water at the centre of the surveillance infrastructure, explaining how the placement and impact of corporate data centres impacts the environment. The author focuses primarily on the NSA data centre in Utah which consumes millions of gallons of water to cool its servers in one of the driest states in the US and hopes to draw public attention to the material infrastructure supporting the technologies of Big Data. In 2013, the Utah Data Center was seen to expend the same amount of energy as a city of 20,000 people, costing $1 million a month to run.
Where does the exploitation begin?
When we think of environmental catastrophes, we think of oil spills and irresponsible nuclear plant run-offs. The story begins then, where the myth of post-industrial age began- in the Silicon Valley, San Fransisco Bay, California. In 1981, Fairchild Camera and Instrument Company, responsible for making semiconductors found a 60,000 gallon leak of solvents containing TCA (Trichloroethane, a cancer causing volatile organic compound). The toxins had leaked from an underground waste storage tank and contaminated a public water supply well nearby. In 1985, the California Department of Health studied links between the leak and an increased case of miscarriages and birth defects at the same time in the neighborhood of the Fairchild Facility but found no hard evidence. The cause of the increased number of birth defects in Las Paseos remains unknown. Up until the leak, the people of San Jose were under the impression that Silicon Valley was a clean industry. By the end of the 1980s women in Silicon Valley factories began to suffer acid burns, chemical sensitivity and higher than normal rates of cancer. By 1992, one study found that 57 private and 47 public drinking wells were contaminated.
Lecuyer writes in a paper on the silicon valley contamination, how the toxic leaks signified the high-tech industries were more similar to industrial modes of production than a post-industrial clean industry. The industrial era concerns about workers safety and the environmental degradation threw a wrench in the the narratives of the high-tech employers that the information economy was 'immaterial'
Why does no one stop it?
Today the manufacturing activities of this industry is largely relocated to parts of the world that are more laissez faire in their control over hazardous substances. The biggest tech corporations today have consistently obstructed any attempt at conducting a large-scale scientific study of the occupational health impact or ecological disruption by micro-electric productions. Workers in NICs (newly industrialised countries) in factories of US TNCs have little or no information about the comparative labour conditions elsewhere. This restriction of information is one of the key reasons for this industry's lack of public oversight.
By transferring factories and material infrastructures to NICs with more lenient disclosure laws, sparse environmental and labor regulations, high-tech industries have swept the occupation and ecological concerns behind its products far away from the public imagination while burying, ignoring or dismissing the devastation on these countries' land and people. Unionisation of workers in factories in Taiwan or Phillippines has seen the industry's movement to 'more hospitable business climates'. Environmental justice therefore too needs to be imagined globally, as transnational solidarity for people everywhere rather than as localised events. As a first step, then the history of the global supply chain of the digital economy can be used to connect the history of computing to the larger history of ecological catastrophe.
Where does it end?
A record 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21% in just five years, according to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020. Most of this waste was re-directed (despite the presence of e-waste management treaties like the Basel Convention) to third world countries. The Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition’s ground-breaking report in 2002 titled Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing Of Asia, and the subsequent 2005 report Digital Dump: Exporting Re-use and Abuse To Africa reports on how tonnes of toxic e-waste are exported to third world countries for disposal, causing catastrophic environmental damage and hazards to human health.
These stories of ecological disruption sound familiar because they are all based in industrial capitalism. In fact, there is a good reason for the propagation of a sustained myth of 'virtuality' perpetuated by techno-optimists. By cloaking ITs physical presence behind ethereal and impermanence- it hides the fact that underneath the 'cloud' there is only a reconfigured network of industrial era physical infrastructure. In fact, by using metaphors of virtuality, cloud and remoteness, the computer industry has washed its hands off the political, social and environmental controls that other industries are subject to. Their excesses have also gone unchallenged because of the considerable power of these corporations to control information, personnel in their interest of profit, proven by the lack of government regulation and the fact that despite being such mammoth labour intensive projects, these industries have zero-unionization of their workforce.
Techno-optimism need not however be answered by aversion to technology. Infact, our understanding of global climate change would be impossible without the computational powers, programs, simulations and databases facilitated by high-tech. The author therefore does not advocate the regression and abandonment of the digital. She however does ask for a re-evaluation of our understanding of the computer industry as something that is rooted in the material much like any other heavy industry, be it steel or automobile manufacture. Only by that inclusion, by acknowledging that cloud is a factory can its workers have labour rights and the environment justice movement achieve accountability and protection from ecological disasters.
About the author: Sreemoyee is a communication scholar specialising in the impact of technology on society and culture. You can find her on Twitter or read more of her work here.