The most exciting contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are those with the boldest diagnoses of our country’s malaise. On the one hand, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) fixate on the deepening climate crisis and the power of the elite class. Andrew Yang ’96, conversely, focuses on the immense and growing influence of artificial intelligence and big data in the American economy and political sphere (not to mention everywhere else), which he calls the “fourth industrial revolution.”
I empathize with Yang. Two years ago, I helped lead a student group which held talks and workshops on the ethical implications of recent advances in computer science — from predictive policing and Cambridge Analytica to Amazon’s amoebic ingestion of the American economy — that could generate an unprecedented concentration of power. My generation could be the last to remember a life free from what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.”
Some of the most profitable firms in the world subsist entirely on the revenue earned from selling data or data-based behavioral predictions about you and me.
After the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark October 2019 report, I switched gears to focus on the climate crisis, recognizing it as a growing catastrophe that governments and corporations have abysmally failed to solve. Recently, however, it looks like both the climate crisis and the behavior of big tech companies are becoming increasingly entangled. Two of the most important struggles to define the political economy of the twenty-first century — one over our information system, the other over our energy system and the environment — are deeply linked. That’s because the growing technological behemoth of surveillance capital both depends on and exacerbates the patterns of consumption and power that fuel the climate crisis.
The simplest part of this linkage lies in the material connection between our energy and information systems: Computers run on electricity. A friend recently had the unusual opportunity to sit down with an official from the Kyrgyzstani Parliament at a clean energy roundtable. The official explained that Kyrgyzstan sources nearly all of its power from abundant supplies of hydroelectricity, which makes energy incredibly cheap. So cheap, in fact, that until late 2019, Kyrgyzstani officials didn’t seem to notice that a fraction of its national electricity supply, equivalent to the consumption of three regions of the country, was being illegally siphoned off by cryptocurrency miners.
Recent estimates hold that Bitcoin mining alone consumes as much electricity as Switzerland. But the internet’s energy needs extend far beyond cryptocurrency, to producing, powering, cooling and maintaining data centers and servers for corporations such as Google or Facebook: the paradigmatic corporate examples of surveillance capital. This surveillance capital and its associated infrastructure may consume up to 20 percent of global electricity within 10–20 years.
This exponentially increasing consumption deepens the ecological debt that the older generations are leaving the youngest. Nonetheless, tech corporations are far from the worst offenders in this regard. In fact, they appear remarkably ahead of older business sectors when it comes to the adoption of clean energy. Microsoft recently announced its commitment to not only achieve net-zero carbon emissions, but also to retroactively negate its cumulative historical emissions by buying further carbon offsets. Google has announced its intention to increase its world-leading investments in renewable energy. One might easily come to see these companies as staunch allies of a climate justice movement trying to wrest control of the global energy system out of a few oily hands.
This would be an understandable but mistaken impression. If major tech companies green their supply chains, it is often because it makes economic sense and wins easy publicity. At the same time, those companies continue to work hand-in-hand with the owners and exploiters of the world’s biosphere. Microsoft proudly hosts oil supply chain software on its cloud and provides artificial intelligence analytics for fossil fuel companies. It is only one of many cloud companies competing for the nearly $20 billion that fossil fuel corporations spend on cloud computing and storage each year. Across Microsoft, Amazon, Google and others, executives defend lucrative contracts with an industry fighting to hold onto power it should have lost decades ago, claiming that, in Jeff Bezos’ words, “we need to help them instead of vilify them.”
The complicity runs deeper than commercial transactions. Recent reports revealed that these same tech corporations donate substantially to conservative lawmakers and think tanks who publicly deny basic climate science. Google made substantial contributions to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, whose director of their Center for Energy and Environment Myron Ebell proudly takes credit for gutting the Environmental Protection Agency as part of President Trump’s 2016 transition team. The combined effect of this collaboration between tech and fossil fuel giants is difficult to quantify, but it likely outweighs any benefits from tech companies’ direct emissions reductions.
Workers at those companies already know this — that’s why organizers at Google, Amazon and Microsoft launched campaigns in 2019 demanding that their companies end contracts with fossil fuel producers and stop donating to climate-denying entities. These are inspiring movements with clear-eyed understandings that their employers are anything but innocent purveyors of electronic goods. Any Brown students entering the tech world should join one of these campaigns. But the entanglements between the technology and fossil fuel capitalists arguably go deeper even than these campaigns realize, for reasons that relate back to Zuboff’s definition of surveillance capital. First, we need to understand the context and importance of this term.
The advent of the internet, followed by its rapid domination by a few large entities, has dramatically reshaped the grounds of public discourse throughout much of the world. In the past, groups seeking to influence public opinion had to work through relatively impersonal channels such as the news media, TV or (further back) mass-produced political pamphlets. Any greater level of personalization typically required sending out political organizers: a high-cost and hard-to-manage system. Those days are gone. Recent articles in the New York Times give sobering insight into the amount of information a willing buyer can collect about nearly any individual with a smartphone: from daily travel patterns to content preferences and even emotional states. Campaigns seeking to influence public opinion now have access to an immense trove of information and tailored individual predictions — if they can afford it. Running a serious data-driven campaign can cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Those who can afford access to that data include those least disposed to upset the capitalist status quo: conservative political campaigns and, of course, corporate marketing campaigns. The people exploiting the power of surveillance capital are not the labor unions, the climate strikers or the indigenous rights campaigners, partly because none of those groups have enough money. Instead, surveillance capital serves mostly as a tool for the Mercer family and the Trump campaign. Trump’s electoral victory was aided by advanced data-driven campaigns that micro-targeted voters and made creative use of social media, often in ways eerily similar to modern corporate public relations strategies.
There is probably not a shadowy cabal of tech CEOs and Bolsonaro-esque figures conspiring to take over the world. But the underlying problem is simply that platforms like Facebook or Google provide another means of consolidating power, and the people best disposed to take advantage of those means come from the same group of mostly old, rich white men who have benefitted from fossil-fueled capitalism. If the broad coalition of young people, union members, racial and indigenous rights activists and others who comprise the climate justice movement are to achieve a transition away from carbon, we will need to confront the power of surveillance capital.
Galen Hall ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.