In its Insatiable Pursuit of Power, Silicon Valley is Fuelling the Climate Crisis

November 5, 2019

The climate crimes of big tech are legion. This summer the Amazon burned. Why? In part because of the policies of the new anti-environmental, anti-human-rights president, Jair Bolsonaro.

How did Bolsonaro rise to prominence and then the presidency? YouTube, and certain of its algorithms that push people toward more extreme content, played a large part. As the New York Times reported in August, not long ago Bolsonaro was “a marginal figure in national politics – but a star in YouTube’s far-right community in Brazil, where the platform has become more widely watched than all but one TV channel”. Members of the nation’s newly empowered far right – from grassroots organisers to federal lawmakers – say their movement would not have risen so far, so fast, without YouTube’s recommendation engine.

YouTube’s search and recommendation system appears to have systematically diverted users to far right and conspiracy channels in Brazil. Some of YouTube’s algorithms have been connected to the rise of racism, white supremacism and mass shootings. It appears its prime agenda is profit – and extremist content keeps viewers hooked, and hooked viewers bring in revenue.

Google, the owner of YouTube, also appears to help push some users toward more extreme content, and it then collects all our data and sells it. Some of that data is used to target you and me for shopping, but politics is now a kind of shopping in which the targeting and manipulation of voters via personal data is like the manipulation of potential customers, as we learned from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s role in Brexit and the climate catastrophe that was the election of Donald Trump. (It’s worth noting that everything that the Putin regime is charged with doing in the 2016 US election amounts to exploiting new vulnerabilities created by new technologies.)

This erosion of privacy that Edward Snowden warned us about in 2013 when it was the US National Security Agency eroding it, is being violated far more thoroughly by Facebook and Google aggregating data from everything we do and everyone we know. Snowden warned us that privacy is a crucial part of democracy, a sort of fortress each of us owns – or owned – behind which we are free to think, associate and act without governmental intrusion. The many ways in which everything we do is now monitored and the data is aggregated will be – and in many places is being – used to limit the freedoms of ordinary people. And ordinary people have been, all along, what drives the climate movement’s effort to save the planet from the worst effects of the climate crisis.

Citizens have used emerging technologies for justice and equality at least since the activists of Tiananmen Square in 1989 used fax machines and the 1999 shutdown of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle was organised by email, but the liberatory ideals of those who use a technology are often at odds with those who shape and control it. Liberation movements use Facebook, for example, but Facebook has also found itself party to genocide and the corruption of elections.

If you look at the current clashes in Hong Kong or the dire situation in China overall, the new surveillance capacities, including facial recognition, have strengthened the hand – or rather the eyes – of a Big Brother government, making resistance more dangerous and privacy more elusive. China is now exporting its facial-recognition technology, threatening the rest of us with losing what those inside China have already lost.

The ethos behind what big tech offers is usually a libertarian idea of isolation and individualism sweetened with convenience. Take transportation: the ability of big data to understand complex dynamics could have been used – and is, by some minor operators – to make public transit better. But what have Silicon Valley’s titans offered us? Driverless cars for the future, and “rideshare” cars in the present that have undermined the living wages of the taxi industry and flooded cities around the world with more fossil-fuel-burning engines. Elon Musk’s Tesla cars and battery systems may be the one climate-positive to emerge from Silicon Valley proper, but they’re outliers, and Teslas are still private cars.

At the very moment when we needed people to get out of their cars, Lyft and Uber have developed a model to get people back into them. Transit expert Bruce Schaller concluded last year that transportation network companies (TNCs) “compete mainly with public transportation, walking and biking, drawing customers from these non-auto modes based on speed of travel, convenience and comfort. About 60% of TNC users in large, dense cities would have taken public transportation, walked, biked or not made the trip if TNCs had not been available.”

He also concluded, “TNCs have added 5.7 billion miles of driving annually in the Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC metro areas.” In the San Francisco Bay Area, many of the Lyft and Uber drivers live in poorer regions and drive long distances in order to chauffer the more affluent around in increasingly car-clogged metropolises. The dystopia that is Silicon Valley, as it annexes more and more of the Bay Area, shows that the tech overlords have little interest in a better world, as opposed to a more profitable one for themselves.

Big tech itself uses more and more electricity for server farms and networks managing more and more of our activities. A decade or so ago you might have watched a DVD and all the juice involved was on your DVD player and TV monitor; now we stream our entertainment. A recent report concluded that the share of digital technologies in global greenhouse gas emissions has increased by half since 2013, from 2.5% to 3.7% of global emissions. The explosion of video uses (Skype, streaming, etc) and the increased consumption of short-lifespan digital equipment are the main drivers of this inflation. More than that, these technologies that keep us glued to our devices and their corporate-managed content keep us apart from each other.

Human beings are at their best when they live and act as citizens (a word I use without reference to citizenship status). This means decentralised power, democracy as equality and participation, and information systems that are accountable, transparent and reliable. It depends on us being able to experience ourselves and each other as members of the public. I have long believed that means, in part, having unmediated contact with each other in public spaces, on coexisting with strangers and a diversity of human beings.

Human beings are at their worst when they are consumers, locked into the miserable pursuit of satisfaction through the isolation of individual consumption – particularly when that shopping and consuming is done online (and when, as with Instagram, we learn to turn ourselves into commodities). Though many have used technology to further democracy and participation, big tech doesn’t want us to be citizens. It wants us to be consumers. To address the climate crisis we need to be citizens – free, powerful, with our private lives private and our public lives vivid, energised and safe.

If we do what the climate requires of us we will decentralise energy production, breaking up the fossil fuel companies and oligarchies and building solar and wind and other renewable technologies that use resources that belong to no one and everyone. The beautiful underlying metaphor here is that decentralising literal power – as the juice that runs our machines – can and should mean decentralising social and political power. But big tech has been about consolidation of power, and it has created a new billionaire class that advocates in its own self-interest and against those of the deep future and the broad majority. It has chosen to be the problem rather than the solution.


Teaser photo credit: By Steve Jurvetson – Flickr: Tesla Autobots, CC BY 2.0

Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit is a freelance writer. She is the author of Men Explain Things to Me, along with many other books.

Tags: big tech, building resilient societies, Consumerism, social media, Technology