Letter to the Editor: Big Tech and Pollution

5 mins read

Computers have been with us for a long time now. My father used them in 1970 while studying Electrical Engineering Technology. They used punch cards to input machine code and output results. Pretty rudimentary things built upon lessons his father’s generation learned while working with radar and sonar technology in World War II. Because of this I was working with computers, and short wave radio, by 1980.

It was interesting to have this background knowledge available because it allowed me to keep track of the fact that the computer, no matter how advanced it became, was always going to an amalgamation of other technologies. The circuit board simply made it possible to combine them and add storage capacity that allowed them to run longer and longer strings of code. That’s all there is at the heart of any of these devices.

We didn’t understand the impact this would have on the population because we assumed the combination of presently existing technology would have the same impact as it always had. Most people weren’t interested in writing 15,000 lines of code, as I was in the 1980’s, just to develop a simple game they could play on a home computer. And, to be honest, we weren’t either, which is how bootlegging became such a big part of early programming efforts.

By 1990, computer technology had advanced enough to be commonplace in offices that had a lot of inventory, sales, or work to manage. Most probably serving the role spreadsheets do now, only you’d have to use the function keys to move from page to page. We learned to use them out of necessity, not because we were having fun, although I did see a guy create a whole aquarium scene by filling pixels individually once. It was a months long effort he engaged in when he had downtime at work.

Had computer circuit boards not advanced beyond this I highly doubt they’d be as popular as they are today. That generally happened when circuitry was reduced to the point the complex functions associated with large scale data transmission across networks became possible. In other words, with the advent of the server. This is when the computer went mainstream.

It was about communication now. People could see and hear each other in real time now, so they got computers. The functional things they did were just a plus really, as we most often used them to socialize.

Since then server farms have grown and grown, so much so come now consume more energy than nation states. Believe it or not, they’ve grown so fast server farms now generate more carbon pollution than the airline industry. (They’re powered by electric grids that remain largely dependent on fossil-fuels.) In fact, they’re growing so fast it’s not likely they’ll ever be surpassed as the single largest contributor to carbon emissions for some time.

It’s ironic really. The computer, smartphone, and all related technologies were supposed to help mitigate the damage we did to our environment, but that’s not how things have played out. Still, we get stuck, think things are as we were told they’d be, and resist the urge to change course. We now think we can’t live without these devices which would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and overall pollution if we just got rid of them.

Remember what happened when COVID slowed air travel for a while? Remember how astounded we were with the visual difference that made to our skies? Obviously, we’d see a greater impact if server farms were shut down and manufacturers stopped producing one iteration of smart device after another just to keep us wanting. Computers are big business, not environmental response, though they’ve often marketed as such.

Jamie Beaulieu
Farmington, Maine

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