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Solnit: From Online Networks to Urban Congestion, Silicon Valley ‘Fuels the Climate Crisis’

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From enabling the rise of climate deniers like Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, to boosting the powers of the surveillance state to crack down on climate activism, to luring people off bikes and buses with Internet-dependent services like Uber, Silicon Valley is “fueling the climate crisis,” activist intellectual Rebecca Solnit contends in a post for Resilience.org.

“To address the climate crisis we need to be citizens—free, powerful, with our private lives private and our public lives vivid, energized, and safe,” Solnit writes [1]. In multiple ways, she says the technology industries undermine those abilities.

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As one example, she points to Bolsonaro’s rapid rise from obscurity to preside over the burning of the Amazon [3]. “Members of [Brazil’s] newly-empowered far right—from grassroots organizers to federal lawmakers—say their movement would not have risen so far, so fast, without YouTube’s recommendation engine,” which “appears to have systematically diverted users to far right and conspiracy channels in Brazil”. It wasn’t even that Google-owned YouTube had a stake in the country’s election campaign: its sole ideology was profit, but “extremist content keeps viewers hooked, and hooked viewers bring in revenue”.

As politics degenerates into “a kind of shopping”, where entities like Google collect and sell personal data to everyone from UK Brexiteers to Vladimir Putin and his White House protégé, Solnit recalls whistleblower Edward Snowden’s warning in 2013 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.” 

With climate action by an empowered citizenry dependent on those protections, Solnit foresees a not-too-distant future when “new surveillance capacities”, enabled by the Internet will make “resistance more dangerous and privacy more elusive”.

Big Tech is also reshaping transportation patterns and habits in ways that contribute to the climate crisis, she writes. Whereas “the ability of big data to understand complex dynamics could have been used—and is, by some minor operators—to make public transit better,” Silicon Valley has proffered “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.”

While “Elon Musk’s Tesla cars and battery systems may be the one climate-positive to emerge from Silicon Valley proper,” she adds, “they’re outliers, and Teslas are still private cars.”

Solnit cites American transit expert Bruce Schaller’s conclusion that about 60% of the customers for transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft “would have taken public transportation, walked, biked, or not made the trip if TNCs had not been available”. On that basis, she says, Schaller concludes that ridesharing companies “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.”

Closer to home, “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.”

Meanwhile, digital technologies like Instagram and streaming services like Netflix have seen their contribution to global emissions increase by half since 2013, from 2.5 to 3.7%.

Even more to the point, Solnit warns that “commodifying” technologies that treat citizens primarily as consumers “keep us glued to our devices, and their corporate-managed content keeps us apart from each other.” That apartness undercuts the “decentralized power” of global citizens that sustains democracy by protecting “equality and participation, and information systems that are accountable, transparent, and reliable”.