Platforms versus The Planet?

Big technology companies are a defining part of our economic, political, and social existence, and the dangers they pose are now a regular topic of conversation. But what do they mean for stewardship and governance of the environment?

The intensity of discussion and scrutiny that Big Tech must endure should inspire all of us. Zuckerberg grilled before Congress, and Facebook’s endless wrongdoing documented by the Wall Street Journal. The shocking press coverage of overwork-induced suicides at FoxConn, Apple’s largest supplier. Google execs tangling with their own employees who are standing up against racial bias and the firm’s torment over its work for oil and gas. And Amazon, oh Amazon…its own employee rebellion, on climate generally and on serving Big Oil specifically, the shaming it has received for its eager assistance to police for surveillance, and its occasionally racist algorithms.

With all that, why pile on? Because there are several specific open questions:

  • To what extent are the giant tech companies good stewards of their direct environmental impact?
  • To what extent do activities facilitated by the company’s core platform advance or compromise environmental outcomes outside of the company? In other words, what is the indirect effect of the producers and consumers connected by the platform?

These are big questions, and I can’t answer them for all companies we might consider. I focus here on certain aspects of few firms: primarily Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, with a few choice remarks about others as well. I don’t come to any single conclusion; rather, the purpose here is to start asking a fundamental question: Given the immense concentration of power and resources in so few private-sector hands, what does our continued use of these tools mean for the climate and sustainability?

Wait…what do you mean by platform and planet?

Let’s define these frames. By platform, I mean companies whose tech services or software serve as a unique and nearly unavoidable place for commercial and information exchange. Typically the company is a monopoly or its equivalent, in possession of a seemingly impregnable market position; think of Apple’s hard-to-escapewalled garden” or the sense of inevitability accompanying “just Google it” or “I bought it on Amazon.” Some readers will probably suspect that I’m stretching the definition in order to include some punching bags, but I mean the definition to encompass both literal technology platforms, both in the narrow sense – think Windows, Mac OS for laptop and desktop computing, and iOS and Android on mobile devices – and in the broader sense of de facto platforms whose inescapability results from market position – think Amazon as a retailer, or Microsoft as a seller of MS Office.

By planet, I mean the biosphere – first and foremost the global climate system, but also ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles on which human beings depend. There are plenty of environmental issues related to tech, but I’ll draw mainly on issues related to the climate crisis. I’ll veer off into other performance measures only when I think they are not sufficiently captured by the examination of climate.

Also, I will assume that readers can see people when I say planet. There has been tremendous intellectual convergence in recent years of social concerns and environment concerns – indeed, the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, in effect a consensus statement of the challenges facing humanity now and into the immediate future, makes clear that pursuing human wellbeing and planetary health separately draws a false dichotomy. This is poignantly true for the climate crisis, which threatens all of us, and especially the most economically and socially vulnerable. I hope you carry those connections with you as you read, primarily for making sense of the implications of these platforms’ activities.

Now, let’s take a quick tour of tech enthusiasm for direct environmental action, and then go deeper with individual firms and their respective issues in turn.

Direct impact? Lots to brag about

When we narrow our focus to certain aspects of their operations, many of the platform companies look downright respectable. In some cases, they are unequivocal leaders! That performance deserves a quick summary, focused on renewable energy and other action related to climate change.

Start with investments in solar, wind, and energy efficiency: in the tech sector, 100% is nearly a norm. Apple, Google, and Microsoft have reached that milestone for their operations at home and abroad, and others such as Intel and Amazon aim to do so within a decade. While the boundaries of these goals may differ a bit from company to company – for example, Apple will include its suppliers but only by 2030, while Amazon’s goal naturally focuses on its offices and web infrastructure and excludes the products in its store – the individual achievements are at an impressive scale. (Wired has covered the ins and outs of these goals for a few of the companies, and Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean scorecard ranks internet firms’ achievements and goals.)

Several individual company efforts stand out. Microsoft has declared it will remove from the atmosphere the equivalent of its entire historical carbon footprint – all emissions since the founding of the company in 1975– by 2030. Apple provides unparalleled transparency into the impacts of its products, with individual product-level carbon footprint information for everything the company produces. And although Amazon often appears to be bringing up the rear, it has now become the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world.

But let’s be honest: the direct energy and climate impacts of the Big Tech firms via their own assets and operations are secondary to the effects of their vast businesses and increasingly diverse business models. These firms hold the technologies, tools, marketplaces, and social milieu for much of our consumption and decision making, so let’s turn to a few ways in which they shape our lives beyond the boundary of their operations.

Tech and the City

Cities are the fabric of life for a growing majority of people globally, and the promise of tech to solve urban challenges has been around for a long time. It’s reasonable to ask how the platforms of our digital lives and workplaces play a role in urban environments.

Enter Google in the form of Sidewalk Labs, a project dedicated to “reimagining cities to improve quality of life.” It’s a blend of technology and urbanism, and it clearly holds promise for affordability, livability, health, and taking on climate change. This is a clear extension of the firm’s core competencies with data and design into the urban realm. In some ways it is the fuller vision of the company’s maps, which themselves have acquired urbanist flair in recent years as they warn of traffic congestion, provide predictive transit travel times, and offer (as pictured below).

Reducing carbon emissions…by helping people drive a little better.

There’s no reason that other firms couldn’t leverage their data and computing savviness to improve the efficiency and environmental performance of cities, and indeed a few of them do: Microsoft has a wide range of partnerships and projects that include “smart mobility” and “smart and inclusive charging infrastructure.” During the pandemic, Apple began providing aggregated mobility data from its maps app. Amazon is not conspicuously active in these areas, but it is forging ahead on decarbonizing its owned infrastructure for freight and logistics.

I’m partial to this line of analysis and inquiry. In the spirit of full disclosure: I’ve even done work for a small tech firm working with big data from transportation, so I see the immense promise. Yet this sort of efficiency is clearly at the periphery of these firms’ business models and impact. To the extent that this sort of functionality exists at all, it feels like mere window dressing.

If we consider the companies that represent true urban mobility platforms – that is, the ride-hailing firms – the situation looks much worse. Regarding their direct impact, the ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft have engaged in semi-friendly enviro-competition, with each company engaging with electric vehicles, renewable energy, and carbon offsets. Lyft has declared itself carbon neutral through the purchase of offsets. Both Lyft and Uber have pledged a transition to electric vehicles, though the details of the path to get there are fuzzy. These efforts feel like a straightforward attempt to address the mounting evidence that ride-hailing increases miles, traffic, and emissions.

To their credit, Lyft and Uber have both ventured into shared-use micromobility, offering bikes and scooters on the platforms in certain cities, making the climate case along the way. In certain cities, the ride-hailing firms have offered genuinely shared rides as well, in the form of Lyft Line and Uber Pool, though the pandemic killed off these services. Still, all of these options have remained inconsequential to the firms’ core businesses – such an afterthought that Uber, in a panic, scrapped thousands of bikeshare bikes a few months into the pandemic, confirming that non-car modes were indeed not riding shotgun.

This outcome shouldn’t surprise us: if you’re running a platform, it’s much more straightforward to monetize the car than it is to profit off transit or active transportation modes, and Google’s Waymo and Apple’s Project Titan are additional attempts to do just that. Of course, cities and their residents – and certainly the climate – are often better off in a setting that is less car-dependent; the ride-hailing platforms, less so. I’ve even argued elsewhere that the ride-hailing firms’ business models are so at odds with urban wellbeing that you don’t want to live in a world where Uber is worth anything like its current valuation. And this leads us to consider the platforms more broadly in our daily lives.

Integrating efficiency into our daily lives, our jobs, and what lurks upstream

Big Tech firms offer many new ways to live our lives and do our jobs. What about the impacts of these changes?

In the early 2000s, many observers were bullish about the prospects for web- and data-enabled energy savings and carbon footprint reduction. A couple of decades later, the outcomes are mixed and the future is still murky. Surely the most prominent and successful ‘smart’ and web-connected home devices are Google’s Nest products, with the initial offering a smart thermostat. Nest’s acquisition by Google for $3.2 billion in 2014 thrilled energy nerds everywhere: we’re finally going to realize the promise of energy efficiency through the power of tech and Big Data! While Nest has moved to the strategic center of Google Home, the product line focuses on security (with doorbells and video cameras), safety (with smoke alarms and carbon monoxide sensors), and convenience (with wifi products and Alexa-like hubs). This is all great stuff, but it doesn’t reduce your carbon footprint.

Furthermore, Google and others have not demonstrated a consistent commitment to a home energy efficiency ecosystem. Google even ended its experiment with PowerMeter more than a decade ago, and the current Google Home product ecosystem is focused on delivering services, not efficiency. Apple’s HomeKit product ecosystem has a strange dearth of products – and nearly all third-party – so it has felt like a placeholder of something still to come…for years. And although Amazon’s Alexa has an “energy dashboard” that can track energy use and address it with “proactive AI” by coordinating with “compatible” smart devices, there is precious little evidence that Amazon has made this value proposition visible to consumers, much less a priority. Given the firm’s quest for aggressive integration into consumer decision making in every possible realm, I think we can safely conclude Amazon isn’t even trying.

Before you lose hope, note that the platforms have had more success in serving business. Google and Microsoft have achieved, and have quite persuasively bragged about, the efficiency gains inherent in the move to the cloud. While computers have become generally more efficient, cloud computing has made dramatic gains: the most recent comprehensive study of the trend showed that while datacenter computing quintupled between 2010 and 2018, total energy use rose only 6%. Furthermore, and perhaps counterintuitively, moving computing from on-site servers (located in the buildings where businesses operate) to vastly more efficient datacenters can save a lot of electricity. This point relates disproportionately to Big Tech: ultimately, the companies with a huge presence in the space are seeking to own more of this fast-growing infrastructure and realize those efficiencies.

This point is salient in the platform context because the Big Tech owners of datacenters are increasingly serving up their own products in the cloud. Google Workplace (formerly G Suite) and Microsoft’s Office 365 (including Office apps, Teams, and Sharepoint) together dominate the market for office applications. For cloud services generally, Amazon Web Services (AWS) has been the 800-pound gorilla, though Microsoft and Google have made significant inroads; the three of them dominate cloud computing services.

Again, this traces back to direct impact, where renewable energy sourcing combines with the efficiency gains from the cloud. Of course, all of these ‘gains’ rely on this massive shift in how we do work. Sure, we seem to be doing more and more work with less and less energy and carbon; to ask more deeply about the net environmental benefit of the work itself is more complex. A fuller assessment of the move to the cloud is beyond this analysis, but three points are worth noting.

First, the pandemic has clearly blown open the already-growing possibilities for remote work, and that transformation was possible only because of the cloud. We now take for granted that everything in the white-collar world will be available from any decent wifi connection – an astonishing development in a short time. As for the net effects on our impact – Do you use more energy at home or at the office? Will we really drive less? How much office space will have to exist? – we’re only at the beginning of answering those questions.

Second, the cloud companies themselves have clearly developed a sense of responsibility, and they’re working hard to appear to be…working hard. Amidst the new scrutiny they and the cloud are receiving, they have moved swiftly to offer a dizzying panoply of eco-sexy tools, datasets, and more. AWS partners with NOAA to “to make environmental data easier to access and use.” Google Cloud recently announced “new tools to measure—and reduce—your environmental impact.” Microsoft has launched versions of both, with vast data and diverse analytical tools in its Planetary Computer and its new Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability analytics platform.

Partners in (climate) crime?

Beyond these generic office and cloud services, the tech giants offer many computing services to individual industry verticals. This diversity of offerings to business has led to some fascinating episodes, most notably around services provided to major oil and gas companies. While it is tempting to talk about defense contracting and law enforcement, we can focus here on partnerships in the energy sector.

Amazon’s dedication to working with Big Oil is an interesting, convoluted, and often troubling story. On the one hand, we like efficiency in the economy, and Amazon’s cloud services reportedly generate all sorts of efficiency for a wide range of industries. Indeed, outside of tech, McKinsey has prominently made the argument that, in service of the transition, it works with big polluters because that’s where the emissions are.

On the other hand, making that particular industry more efficient – and even seeking to justify the work publicly based on its positive environmental impact! – feels like the textbook example of putting lipstick on a pig. Amazon’s own employees, not generally a group that is encouraged to speak up, have disagreed with the company’s position.

Google appears to have seen the situation more clearly. It also faced an employee uprising over climate, but it may also have simply understood that working with Big Oil would carry a stigma, and it’s hardly a growing industry.

The Elephant in the Room: Consumer Culture

Perhaps the hardest item to assess is Big Tech’s most pervasive impact: its rewriting of the rules of daily life and consumption, and with that rewriting, a suppression of some instincts and an amplification of others.

Apple provides the tastiest contradiction. On the one hand, the company has exemplary practices when it comes to the stewardship of its directly controlled activities. It has checked all of the boxes: sourcing 100% renewable energy for its operations and starting to help its suppliers do the same; phasing out toxic chemicals in its products; and using recycled and recyclable materials to steadily increasing degree. The firm has even broken new ground outside of its walls by working with supply chain partners to develop dramatically more efficient methods. In one of the most powerful examples in a resource-intensive industry, Apple successfully convened Alcoa and Rio Tinto, bringing two aluminum-industry giants together to create next-generation low-carbon technology.

Yet the company’s products have become almost a symbol of consumerism itself, and the company wields such might in the marketplace that it seems to determine, almost unilaterally, the cadence with which we replace the devices with which we live our lives.

I know what Apple would say in response, because it says it preemptively: in addition to the aforementioned stewardship, its products are more durable and longer lasting than those of its competitors, and it is working hard toward a circular economy, with impressive efforts in takeback and recycling, and even the repurposing of its hardware by selling refurbished items in its online store.

For me, this looks messy: those points ring true and hollow at the same time. Isn’t the company taking all of the most comfortable win-win actions without challenging anything fundamental about its market position? Indeed, the most recent example of Apple’s sustainability progress captures the tension between the firm’s power and responsibility: in 2021, Apple agreed – after many years of complaints from individuals, partners, and civil society watchdogs – to expand the opportunities for others to repair iPhones and iPads, previously notoriously closed product ecosystems.

While it’s hard to pin anything specific on Google, there’s hardly a need to be specific: increasingly, it is the voice in your head telling you what to buy at every turn. The company’s revenues derive overwhelmingly (more than 80% in Q4 2021) from advertising, primarily through its search engine. For scale, total advertising revenue for all U.S. newspapers – the medium whose business model has been hollowed out by internet content and ads – is a paltry 15% of Google’s ad revenue. While Google has dominated online advertising, other platforms – especially Facebook, whose revenues have growth nearly forty-fold in a decade – are the other voices in our heads. In this sense, we should simply consider this stream of advertising to be a louder, closer voice and an associated amplification of existing habits and tendencies. I’ll let you decide whether that’s good for people and the planet, only because we don’t really have data yet on this question.

Amazon’s extension into our personal lives via Alexa is so creepy that the company apparently has no choice but to address it head on (via Scarlett Johannson and Colin Jost). Its voice-in-the-head or mind-reading capabilities are embodied in its Amazon Prime service, which plunges the consumer so deeply into the Amazon marketplace that it creates an entirely new set of opportunities, constraints, and expectations. The cognitive dissonance is fundamental to the experience: We now expect things to arrive quickly, and with no shipping cost, yet we all know that speed and shipping have costs, both economic and environmental. The obscuring of these impacts has become the frame of reference for much of our consumption. Although the effect of this shift is difficult to define, much less quantify, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that it does not move consumers toward patient and thoughtful consumption. In that sense, it’s surely a bad thing.

Amazon has, notably, set out to create trustworthy and reliable opportunities for sustainable consumption through its Climate Pledge Friendly program. The ambition is to do a ton of streamlined product screening via high-credibility certifications, such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, the USDA organic standards, and other certifications covering chemical use (in textile and clothing production), animal welfare, and carbon-neutral claims. Allegedly, the company’s goal is to “increase the number of certified products a hundredfold, in order to scale impact.”

This work feels right, but it falls short in important ways, at least in its current form. The program stands alone; while it is by implication guiding customers toward the best products, it is not accompanied by any parallel effort to root out and cease to offer the worst products. Damningly, the program aims explicitly to offer more products, but not change the composition of Amazon’s sales. And it ultimately relies entirely on consumers.

Closing thought: Is this the trade-off we want?

This is where I invoke the Principle of the Shanghai metro.

Sometimes it seems really great when people and organizations “move fast and break things” and run roughshod over norms and official processes in order to get something big done fast. Usually they’re able to do it because they’re successfully dodging the powers that be, or because they simply have a lot of power themselves.

Why the name? It struck me, while riding the subway in Shanghai during my visit there in 2014, that the entire system – by most measures, the world’s largest – had been built in little more than two decades. Over the same period that Shanghai caught up with and surpassed the venerable century-old systems in London, New York, Paris, and elsewhere by building nearly four hundred stations, a system such as Bay Area Rapid Transit managed to build eleven. And not because there was no traffic to motivate construction.

The breakneck speed of expansion paralleled the meteoric rise of the Chinese economy, but it persisted for two decades for a simple reason: the Chinese Communist Party, the rulers of the country, deemed Shanghai’s transit system a priority. There were no neighborhood meetings to pander to, no elections to deal with, no democracy to get in the way.

So, the core of the principle: sometimes concentrated unaccountable power gets things done, but we’re left to contemplate those achievements side by side with everything else that such power entails.

At the same time, and somewhat confusingly, that power hungers for legitimacy. Just as China’s leaders famously must deliver on economic growth, and the the opportunities it brings for the Chinese people, in order to make the absence of democracy palatable, Big Tech needs what’s known as a social license to operate – not a literal license providing legal permission, but rather the support from society to continue operating. In other words, the assurance that voters and politicians and other policymakers won’t fundamentally change the current rules and thereby undermine the vast profits these companies currently earn. On climate issues, tech companies are clearly competing with each other for the legitimacy that underlies the license to operate.

The possibility of change is not merely hypothetical, with serious discussions underway in the U.S. and in Europe. First in line, Facebook faces a reckoning over its litany of well-documented abuses of democracy, teens, and the truth. It seems clear that we will be better off if certain abuses are regulated away.

But talk of regulating Big Tech might miss the essential challenge: these companies now make up the fiber of our lives, and surely there is no simple way to go back to a pre-platform era. We have accepted, and even embraced these firms’ dominance, and all of the convenience and productivity and entertainment that come with it. And given these firms’ sense of responsibility for the planet, are we maybe getting something good out of them?

Perhaps the real question then is not how or whether to go back, but how best to go forward. We want to embrace and encourage the Big Tech commitment to climate and sustainability, and even see it become a corporate norm. And as it does, we’ll just have to keep examining the trade-off that we’re implicitly making along the way. In other words, keep asking yourself if you’re comfortable with this particular ride on the Shanghai metro.

Postscript: Firm Omissions Worth Considering

There are many large tech firms excluded here, and some of them have immense influence on pockets of the economy. Oracle’s market position with database software and technology gives it platform status. Alibaba is Amazon’s retail peer in China. Didi Chuxing in China and other ride-hailing firms in Asia lead markets there the way Uber and Lyft do in the United States. Despite its Tesla’s obvious hardware ambitions, the firm’s quest for automotive software dominance is every bit a Big Tech play. And Nvidia’s hardware empire has become invisibly essential to activities as diverse as cars, gaming, engineering and design, and cryptocurrency mining.

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