The toxic cloud called ‘Internet’

Also posted on Resilience.

The global electronics network is a sort of “bad news, good news” story in Jonathan Crary’s telling.

The bad news is that “the internet complex is the implacable engine of addiction, loneliness, false hopes, cruelty, psychosis, indebtedness, squandered life, the corrosion of memory, and social disintegration”; and that “the speed and ubiquity of digital networks maximize the incontestable priority of getting, having, coveting, resenting, envying; all of which furthers the deterioration of the world – a world operating without pause, without the possibility of renewal or recovery, choking on its heat and waste.”

The good news? The internet complex will soon collapse. 

Scorched Earth, by Jonathan Crary, published by Verso, April 2022.

Crary opens his forthcoming book Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World with these words: “If there is to be a livable and shared future on our planet, it will be a future offline, uncoupled from the world-destroying systems and operations of 24/7 capitalism.”

If you’re looking for a careful, thorough, let’s-consider-both-sides sort of discussion, this is not the book you want. “My goal here is not to present a nuanced theoretical analysis,”Crary writes.

Rather, he wants to jar people out of the widespread faith that because we’ve grown accustomed to the internet, and because we’ve allowed it to infiltrate nearly every hour of our lives, and because it may be hard to imagine a future without the internet, therefore the internet should and will endure.

Do some good things happen on and through the Internet? Of course – but Crary is not impressed by arguments that the internet is a liberating, empowering technology for progressive movements:

“Part of the optimistic reception of the internet was the expectation that it would be an indispensable organizing tool for non-mainstream political movements … [I]t should be remembered that broad-based radical movements and far larger mass mobilizations were achieved in the 1960s and early ’70s without any fetishization of the material means used for organizing.” (Scorched Earth, p. 11)

Likewise he comments that the anti-globalization rallies of the late 1990s happened before the pandemic of smart phones, and the huge protests against the US attack on Iraq in 2003 pre-dated the onset of so-called social media. Since then, he laments, the “stupefying” effects of Internet 2.0 have dissipated people’s energies into clicktivism, leaving less time and energy for the building of personal, in-the-flesh networks that might truly challenge the direction of capitalism.

References to material pollution are scattered throughout the brief book, but Crary focuses more of his attention on the pollution of minds, emotions and perceptions. Some parts of his critique are now shared by many, both within and outside the big tech complex. He calls attention, for example, to a pervasive erosion of self-esteem: “Each of us is demeaned by the veneration of statistics – followers, clicks, likes, hits, views, shares, dollars – that, fabricated or not, are on ongoing rebuke to one’s self-belief.” (Scorched Earth, p. 24)

Less widely understood is the immense effort put into data collection, including eye tracking, facilitated by the acquiescence of hundreds of millions of people who make their self-surveillance devices available to trackers at all times:

“We often assume that internet ‘surfing’ means the possibility of following random, uncharted visual itineraries …. From the standpoint of the bored individual, hours spent in this way may seem to be a desultory waste of time, but it is time occupied in a contemporary mode of informal work that produces value as marketable information for corporate and institutional interests. (Scorched Earth, p. 100)

The value exploited by corporate interests includes finely tuned means to convince people to buy things they don’t need, which neither they nor our ecosystems can afford.

Another section was particularly thought-provoking and sobering to me, as a nature photographer who publishes online. Crary explains that internet researchers collect reams of data on “what colors and combinations of colors and graphics are most or least eye-catching.” That information is in turn funneled back into UXD – User Experience Design – to make screen time as addictive as possible and unmediated experience of nature a fading memory:

“The ubiquity of electroluminescence has crippled our ability or even motivation to see, in any close or sustained way, the colors of physical reality. Habituation to the glare of digital displays has made our perception of color indifferent and insensitive to the delicate evanescence of living environments.” (Scorched Earth, p. 106)

Internet 2.0, in sum, turns us into willing accomplices of corporate consumerism, while undermining our self-esteem, sapping our abilities to appreciate the non-virtual world around us, and sucking up time we might otherwise devote to real community. Facebook, Twitter and their ilk have pulled off one of history’s spectacular cons – getting us to refer to their sociocidal enterprise as “social media” and getting us to believe it is “free”. 

Stockpile of mobile phones for recycling/disposal, September 2017.  Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

‘The Cloud is an ecological force’

In just 124 pages Crary bites off a lot – more, in fact, than he really tries to chew. From the outset, he portrays the internet complex as a final disastrous stage in global capitalism. He notes that “the internet’s financialization is intrinsically reliant on a house-of-cards world economy already tottering and threatened further by the plural impacts of planetary warming and infrastructure collapse.” (Scorched Earth, p. 7)

But what is the physical infrastructure of the internet complex? Crary doesn’t delve into that issue. A recently published article by Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, however, makes an illuminating companion piece to Crary’s book.

Entitled “The Cloud Is Material: Environmental Impacts of Computation and Data Storage”, Monserrate’s research is available here. MIT Press has also published a shorter article adapted from the full paper. Quotes cited here are taken from the full paper.

Monserrate’s central point is that, like a cl0ud of water molecules, “the Cloud of the digital is also relentlessly material”, and further that “the Cloud is not only material, but is also an ecological force”.

Crary refers to the capitalist industrial system, of which the internet complex is now one major component, as “choking on its heat and waste”. Monserrate helps us to quantify that heat and waste.

Discussing what data center technicians refer to as a “thermal runaway event”, Monserrate writes “The molecular frictions of digital industry … proliferate as unruly heat. … Heat is the waste production of computation, and if left unchecked, it becomes a foil to the workings of digital civilization.”

In most of the data centers that keep the Cloud afloat, he adds, “cooling accounts for greater than 40 percent of electricity usage.”

Can’t the network servers and their air conditioners be switched over to renewable energy in generally cool environments? It’s not so easy, Monserrate tells us. Because of network signal latency issues, large portions of the Cloud are located as close to financial and government centers as possible. The state of Virginia’s “data center alley,” he says, was “the site of 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic in 2019”. That degree of concentrated electricity consumption is difficult if not impossible to service without huge coal, gas or nuclear generators.

The energy demands go far beyond air conditioning:

“The data center is a Russian doll of redundancies: redundant power systems like diesel generators, redundant servers ready to take over computational processes should others become unexpectedly unavailable, and so forth. In some cases, only 6–12 percent of energy consumed is devoted to active computational processes. The remainder is allocated to cooling and maintaining chains upon chains of redundant fail-safes to prevent costly downtime.” (Monserrate, “The Cloud is Material”)

Keeping your cat videos available on demand around the world, keeping Amazon’s gazillion products available for your order at 3 a.m., keeping all of Netflix’ and Hulu’s videos ready for bingeing, and keeping this entire data stream transparent to both commercial and military surveillance – well, that results in a lot of coal and gas going up as carbon dioxide emissions.

One result: “the Cloud now has a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry.”

Like the cell phones that Apple, Google and Samsung encourage you to replace every two or three years, every physical component of the internet complex has to be mined, refined, chemically transformed, assembled, packaged and shipped, before it soon becomes outmoded. Monserrate cites a Greenpeace study estimating that “less than 16 percent of the tons of e-waste generated annually is recycled.” And that recycling is often done by the lowest-paid workforces in the world, in enterprises that don’t respect the health of the workforce or the environment.

“The refuse of the digital is ecologically transformative,” Monserrate concludes.

Life without Internet

So is the Internet destined to be but one brief blip in human history? The answer seems clear to Crary – the internet will collapse along with the industrial complex that supports it:

“The internet complex, now compounded by the Internet of Things, struggles to conceal its fatal dependence on the rapidly deteriorating built world of industrial capitalism. Contrary to all the grand proposals, there never will be significant restoration or replacement of all the now broken infrastructure elements put in place during the twentieth century.” (Scorched Earth, p. 63)

Personally I am cautious about making such firm predictions, though I don’t see how the internet will persist long in its current form. Total disappearance is just one potential outcome, however. The current internet industrial complex, as Monserrate describes, includes a vast amount of redundancy, and perhaps that will make it possible to transition to a still-useful internet with only a fraction of the energy and material throughput.

In a transformed economic system, without the built-in impulsion to sell hardware and software “upgrades” to consumers on an annual basis, and without the created “need” to have every video snippet available anywhere anytime, and without the motive to maintain a vast surveillance and behavior modification apparatus – perhaps a future civilization could benefit from many of the significant benefits of the internet without paying a soul- and ecosystem-crushing price. (On this subject, see for example the research by Kris De Decker in “How to Build a Low-Tech Internet”.)

But if we don’t redirect our global economic system, and fast, the whole toxic cloud may crash whether we like it or not. And perhaps, on balance, that will be a very good thing.

“If we’re fortunate,” Crary dares to hope, “a short-lived digital age will have been overtaken by a hybrid material culture based on both old and new ways of living and subsisting cooperatively.”


Photo at top of page: A young man burning electrical wires to recover copper at Agbogbloshie, Ghana, as another metal scrap worker arrives with more wires to be burned. September 2019. Photo by Muntaka Chasant, licensed via Creative Commons, accessed through Wikimedia Commons.

Around the world in a shopping cart

Also posted on Resilience.

Christopher Mims had just embarked on his study of the global retail supply chain when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Quickly, he found, affluent consumers redoubled their efforts at the very activity Mims was investigating:

“Confronted by the stark reality of their powerlessness to do anything else and primed by a lifetime of consumerism into thinking the answer to the existential dread at the core of their being is to buy more stuff, Americans, along with everyone else on Earth with the means to do so, will go shopping.” (page 6-7; all quotes here are from Arriving Today)

Arriving Today is published by Harper Collins, September 2021.

More than ever, shopping during the pandemic meant shopping online. That added complications to the global logistics systems Mims was studying, and added another strand to the story he weaves in Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. (Harper Collins, 2021)

The book traces the movements of a single, typical online purchase – a USB charger – from the time it leaves a factory in Vietnam until it’s delivered to a buyer in the US. Sounds simple enough – but it’s an immensely complicated story, which Sims tells very well.

In the process he dives into the history and present of containerized shipping; working conditions for sailors, longshoremen, truckers, and warehouse employees; why items are scattered around a “fulfillment center” in the same way data files are scattered around on a computer drive; the great difficulty in teaching a robot to pick up soft packages wrapped in plastic film; and why no supercomputer can calculate the single best route for a UPS driver to take in making a hundred or more deliveries in the course of an average day.

How long can this system continue to swallow more resources, more small businesses, more lives? If there is a major weakness to Sims’ treatment, it is in suggesting that the online retail juggernaut must, inevitably, continue to grow indefinitely.

A key issue that is absent from the book is the energy cost of the global supply chain. Sims devotes a great deal of attention, however, to the brutal working conditions and relentless exploitation of working people in many segments of the delivery system. At the very least, this evidence should lead one to wonder when a tipping point will be reached. When, for example, might workers or voters be driven to organize an effective counterforce to insatiably acquisitive billionaires like Jeff Bezos? When, more grimly, might the portion of the population with discretionary income become so small they can no longer prop up the consumer economy?

“Taylorism – the dominant ideology of the modern world”

The unifying thread in Sims’ presentation is this: “Taylorism” – the early 20th-century management practice of breaking down factory work into discrete movements that can be “rationalized” for greater company profits – has now turned many more sectors into assembly lines. Today, Sims writes, “the walls of the factory have dissolved. Every day, more and more of what we do, how we consume, even how we think, has become part of the factory system.”

The factory system, in Sims’ telling, now stretches across oceans and across continents. It finds clear expression in facilities that are owned or controlled by the management practices of Amazon. In Amazon’s sorting, packing and shipping facilities, what makes the company “particularly Darwinian” is the floating rate that constantly and coldly passes judgment on employees.

With warehouse work divided into discrete, measurable and countable tasks, management algorithms constantly track the number of operations completed by each worker. Those who perform in the bottom 25% are routinely fired and replaced. As a result, Sims writes, “most workers in an Amazon warehouse are constantly in danger of losing their jobs, and they know it.”

There is no paid sick leave, so cash-strapped employees often have no choice but to work even when injured or sick. (Free coffee and free Ibuprofen are made available to help them work through fatigue or pain.) But if ill health causes a drop in performance they won’t “make the rate” and they will be fired. Those who are exceptionally physically fit, and who seldom get sick, are still likely to be worn down by the relentless pace eventually.

To replace workers, Sims says, “the company has all but abandoned interviewing new hires.” Screening and training new employees can be expensive processes, but they are processes in which Amazon invests little. A constant cohort of new employees are dropped into the stream and they simply sink or swim:

“Everyone I talked to about their first months at Amazon said that the attrition rate they witnessed was greater than 50 percent in the first two months.” (page 209)

Some companies might regard high employee turnover as a huge liability. For Amazon, Sims explains, high turnover is not a bug, it’s a feature. The turnover allows the company “to grab only the most able-bodied members of America’s workforce” (page 235) and to constantly replace them with new employees who haven’t yet gotten sick or injured.

If that weren’t enough, the high turnover benefits Amazon in another important way: “it makes it almost impossible for workers to unionize.” (page 210) 

UPS trucks in Manhattan, 2010. Photo by Jeremy Vandel, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.

The last mile

“[Amazon’s] relentless measurement, drive for efficiency, loose hiring standards, and moving targets for hourly rates are the perfect system for ingesting as many people as possible and discarding all but the most physically fit.” (page 235-236)

As Amazon’s share of retail shopping grows and it Taylorizes its warehousing, there is another big link in the supply chain in which the company sees opportunity to slash worker compensation and boost corporate profits.

Until recently transportation of packages between sorting centers, and along the “last mile” to customers’ doorsteps, has been controlled by a wide array of trucking companies. One of the biggest of these companies, UPS, is a throwback to a day when most truck drivers were unionized, well paid, and received benefits like paid sick days, company health insurance, and pensions.

A driver for UPS is well trained, often very experienced, and learns to “go from stopping their truck to getting a package out of it in nine seconds.” (page 271) But a full-time driver for UPS also makes more than $30/hour plus benefits. Jeff Bezos, who increased his wealth by $65 billion in the first year of the pandemic, covets the paycheque of that UPS driver, along with the paycheque of anyone else in the supply chain whose job, if it can’t be robotized, could be turned over to a minimum-wage gig worker, aka “independent contractor”.

UPS and FedEx, Sims writes, together have 80 per cent of the US package delivery business. FedEx, along with nearly all other parcel-delivery companies, pay roughly minimum wage, with minimal benefits. Care to guess which company Amazon would like to emulate?

Indeed, as of 2018 Amazon itself has roared into the delivery business. “By the middle of 2020s,” Sims writes, “Amazon Logistics … is projected to take the number one spot from UPS.” (page 252)

Citing the research of Brandeis University professor David Weil, Sims concludes:

“Everything about Amazon’s decision to hire delivery companies that hire drivers, rather than hiring those drivers directly, is about pushing down wages, eliminating workplace protections, evading liability in the event of accidents, avoiding workplace litigation, eliminating the expense of benefits, and eliminating the possibility of drivers ever unionizing ….” (page 278)

In the last sentence of his book, Sims cites the 100 billion packages per year now shipped through the online retail supply chain, and he exhorts us to “imagine a future in which that number has doubled or tripled; imagine a future in which it is the way virtually every finished object gets anywhere.” (page 288)

Let’s imagine: Factory jobs in every sector will have moved to the lowest-wage countries with adequate industrial capabilities. Formerly well-paid factory workers in Rust Belt towns will compete for Amazon warehouse jobs that offer them minimum wage, for as many months as their bodies can sustain the constantly accelerating pace of simple repetitive tasks. Robots will have replaced human wage-earners wherever possible. And last mile delivery drivers will take orders from Amazon but receive their meager paycheques from other companies whose names most of us will never see.

In that paradise of capitalist productivity, who besides Jeff Bezos will still have enough income to fill their shopping carts?


Image at top: Your Cart is Full, composed by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain graphics.

‘Zero crashes, zero congestion, zero emissions’ – the perennial myths of autonomous vehicles

Also posted on Resilience.

For a hundred years the auto industry has held out visions of a trouble-free future for drive-everywhere society – and that future is always about 20 years away. Peter Norton urges us to see the current hype about automated vehicles in the cold light of the failed promises of the past.

American automakers had a problem in the 1920s. Cars were selling well in rural areas, but in the cities – home of a steadily growing share of the population – cars were meeting a lot of resistance.

Autonorama, by Peter Norton, is published by Island Press, October 2021.

Parking was scarce, streets were full of people, drivers usually had to go slow – and they still managed to kill a shocking number of pedestrians. Cars weren’t very convenient in cities, and there was so much public outrage over killings that many cities were considering severe restrictions on car use.

The response, Peter Norton writes in Autonorama, came from the coalition of automakers, car dealers, drivers, oil companies, and road builders he refers to as “motordom”. Their strategy had both long-term and short-term prongs. First, it was necessary to win public acceptance of the radical idea that city streets should be generally cleared of pedestrians so that cars could routinely drive faster. Second, local, state and federal governments had to be persuaded to invest millions, and soon billions, in widening streets and in building entirely new highways, not only between cities but within cities.

These long-term efforts, however, wouldn’t keep sales up in the short term. As Norton explains,

“No matter what the expenditure on roads and highways, in no given year could it deliver marked improvement. What was needed was a clear vision of a more distant and idealized future toward which motordom was striving. The promise of future perfection can buy tolerance of present affliction.” (Autonorama, from Island Press, October 2021, page 29)

To present this “clear vision of an idealized future”, motordom turned to creative minds in advertising, theater and film-making. During the 1930s, GM, Ford and Shell sponsored increasingly elaborate presentations of future cities where everyone drove, everywhere, without a hint of traffic congestion, and in perfect safety. The process culminated in Futurama, by far the most popular exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In Norton’s view, the Futurama template has been revived periodically by motordom ever since. “Autonorama”, the heavily hyped story that “autonomous vehicles” will soon take over our roads, while ending crashes, congestion and emissions, is the latest iteration of a marketing fantasy now several generations old.

By the late 1950’s, one element of the strategy had been largely accomplished: new standards in traffic engineering had enforced auto dominance on streets, and had defined any delay to drivers – caused, of course, by all the other drivers – as an unacceptable cost to all society which should be remedied by public expenditure on roadways. A second strategic element – a vast new highway-building project – had been approved and was under construction.

Yet traffic congestion grew as rapidly as the number of cars on the roads and streets, as did the numbers of crash casualties. It was time for a new round of Futurama, and motordom answered the call with language that remains familiar all these years later.

“General Motors Avenue of Progress” with concept car “GM-X Stiletto” on display at 1964 New York World’s Fair. Photo by Don O’Brien, from Wikimedia Commons.

“Automobile accidents will be eliminated completely”

In a 1958 episode of Disneyland sponsored by the Portland Cement Association, the narrator intones,

“As Father chooses the route in advance on a push-button selector, electronics take over complete control. Progress can be accurately checked on a synchronized scanning map. With no driving responsibility, the family relaxes together. En route, business conferences are conducted by television.” (quoted in Autonorama, page 51)

The specifics of how the nascent electronics industry might accomplish these wonders had to be left to the imagination. No matter. A 1961 Pennsylvania ad campaign assured readers that “the nation’s finest automotive and scientific brains … predict that someday in the future automobile accidents will be eliminated completely.” If that blissful fantasy remained distant, it was not for lack of industry effort. Technology companies, auto makers, and government transportation departments teamed up to construct automated car test tracks in locations around the US. The vision received its most elaborate portrayal in GM’s Futurama 2, the biggest pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

To the extent that newly widened arterial roads were engineered for greater speed, they also became more deadly for all users, including the fewer and fewer remaining pedestrians. And to the extent that officially favored development patterns induced people to live farther away from work, schools and shopping, even more people became car-dependent and the roads filled with congestion as fast as they were built.

As Norton explains, American cars were and remain the least spatially efficient mode of transportation in common use. It never made sense to think that by putting each driver/passenger in a steel box that takes 10 square meters of road space, we would vanquish the problem of roadway congestion. Though a congestion-free car culture could never be achieved, it remained essential for motordom to keep painting the pretty picture – all to keep consumers buying new cars every few years, and to keep politicians authorizing greater public works expenditures.

The road-building boom begun in the 1950s, with “the biggest public works project in history” justified primarily for its supposed traffic congestion benefits. But “Four decades and $100 billion later, GM was claiming that congestion was worse than ever, and getting worse still.” (Autonorama, page 93) The congestion was cited to promote a new round of public spending in what Norton terms “Futurama 3”. Reflecting public concern about the deadly effects of air pollution, the visions also started to promise the elimination of harmful emissions.

In the 1990s the new focus was on “Intelligent Highway-Vehicle Systems”. A decade of work yielded one viable congestion-reducing technology – but it was not a technology the auto industry could support. Electronics had advanced to the point where it was clearly workable to automatically charge road tolls at times of peak use, or within perennially congested areas such as urban cores. Although congestion pricing has now been used to great success in Europe, the practice does not encourage people to buy more cars, and so it was not a strategy American motordom embraced.

The latest and current flourish of car culture futurism is what Norton terms “Autonorama.” Over the past two decades, the emphasis has shifted from “smart highways” to “smart cars,” with a promise that smart cars will soon safely drive themselves everywhere, from the wide-open road to city streets teeming with cars, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians. And today, Norton adds, autonomous vehicle boosters want to sell not just new cars and new roads, but also new data.

Stanford Racing and Victor Tango together at an intersection in the DARPA Urban Challenge Finals. The 2007 contest was the third in a series sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to promote development of automated vehicles. Six of the 11 entrants completed the 96-km course, through a simulated urban environment at the George Air Force Base in Victorville, CA. Photo from Wikimedia Common.

“Social media on wheels”

If you’re one of the tens of millions who start and end each workday with a long, stressful drive, you might not even be aware of one of the major downsides in driving. A 2016 report from consultants McKinsey & Co. highlighted “the greatest single constraint on personal data collection besides sleep: the attentional demands of driving.” There’s the problem: while you are driving you can’t give your full attention to social media!

And that’s no joke, to the huge industry of data collectors and brokers. Time spent looking at the road is time wasted – because while you’re driving, the data hounds are unable to learn much about your likes, dislikes, what you believe, what you watch, what you share, and what you are likely to buy.

In an insightful chapter titled “Data Don’t Drive,” Norton cautions us to think carefully about the business catch-phrase “data-driven.” Data might guide decisions, but data don’t drive decisions – people do. People make decisions through judgment calls, both about the meaning of data, and about which data matter and which data don’t matter.

Where profit-focused industries are concerned, it is not data that matter but monetized data or at least monetizable data. The engines of consumerism are stoked by data from and about people who can spend money, and preferably lots of it. Which data is likely to be worth more: an hour’s worth of smart-phone data from a person standing in the cold waiting for a bus? Or an hour’s data from the in-car digital entertainment system in a state-of-the-art new automated car?

This in-built tendency to reinforce social inequality is at the heart of Norton’s concerns, not only with Autonorama but with the whole history of auto-centered planning. It’s not just that vast sums of public money have been devoted to infrastructure that never comes close to the promise of “no congestion, no crashes.” It’s also that in focusing attention over and over on the needs and wishes of motordom, the needs of those who can’t or won’t drive are systematically downplayed. In the process, industry and government fail dismally to preserve or create safe, efficient, pleasant, healthful, walkable urban environments. The modest expenditures that would make cities safe for non-drivers are declined, while hundreds of billions are spent instead on transport “improvements” that continue to produce more deaths, more congestion, and more pollution.

Norton writes that

“The twentieth century should have taught us that accommodation of expensive transport does not merely neglect affordable mobility; it actively degrades it.” (Autonorama, page 180)

Two decades into the 21st-century, we should heed Norton’s warnings about Autonorama, turn our backs on car culture, and begin the rewarding task of reclaiming urban space for efficient public transit, safe cycling, and healthy and stress-free walking.


Photo at top of page: An official DARPA photograph of Stanley at the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. Stanley, created by the Stanford University Racing Team, won the race and the 2 million US dollar prize. The automated vehicle race was sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Of the 23 vehicles entered in the 2005 running, five managed to complete the 212 kilometer course. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

How we went from “makers” to “trash-makers” – and how to get back

Also published on Resilience


Why do we have so much stuff? Why is it so hard to find good stuff? And when our cheap stuff breaks, why is it so hard to fix it?

These questions are at the heart of our stories in 21st century industrialized nations, and these question are at the heart of Sandra Goldmark’s new book Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet.

As a theatre set designer Goldmark is attuned to the roles that things play in our personal stories. As a proprietor of a New York City “fix-it” shop, she understands why people want to keep and repair broken things, and why that is often unreasonably difficult. 

Fortunately for us she is also a darn good writer, whether she’s discussing the details of a damaged goose-neck lamp or giving an overview of a globe-spanning logistics system that takes materials on a one-way journey first to far-off factories, then to warehouses and stores, then to our homes, and finally, too soon, to our landfills. 

A copy of Fixation is one of the best gifts you could give or receive this season.

Linear Economy. Port trucks lining up for crane at Halifax loading dock.

Early in the book Goldmark asks why we are so attached to things, even when they have broken and it is more work to get them fixed than to buy new. This attachment, she says, is not pathological and indeed is at the very heart of being human. While many animals use simple tools, such as picking up a rock to crack nutshells, only humans make a point to save those tools. Living “in the moment” is great, but making preparations for the future is a key to our evolutionary success. Storing, maintaining, even loving our tools is thus a big part of human cultures.

The balance is seriously tilted, nevertheless, by an economic machine that depends on us buying more, all the time, and in particular buying new. Goldmark uses Ikea as a case study, describing their concerted effort to persuade customers that furniture is fashion, and we should buy new tables almost as often as we buy new clothes.

Then, too, there is carefully planned obsolescence, in products that we otherwise might keep for many years. Apple’s famously hard-to-replace batteries provide one example. Goldmark also describes an almost-durable desk lamp, which can be counted on to break because there is a plastic component where the lamp joins the gooseneck – that is, precisely where there is repeated motion and stress. Goldmark writes:

“Plastic is, very simply, a pain in the butt to fix. It’s hard to glue, and once compromised—cracked, scratched, nicked—it’s very hard to do anything useful with it at all. If you’ve got a plastic finish on something, you can, maybe, paint it or touch it up. But when plastic is used on component parts that take any stress, especially moving parts, it can mean that one small break makes the entire object useless.”

Placement. Loading “boxes” onto container ship, Halifax.

While plastic plays a big role in the factory-to-landfill pipeline, so too does cheap energy and international wage disparity:

“When  a  manufacturer  might  be  paid  three  dollars  per  hour  to  make  a  coffee machine in China or India, when raw materials and fuel for shipping are cheap, and a fixer in the States requires at least minimum wage, and hopefully more, it’s easy to see how making new cheap stuff became the dominant model.”

Thus in the United States in 2018, Goldmark writes, people spent about $4 trillion on new stuff but only $17.5 billion on used goods.

And while Americans like to celebrate their historical prowess as “makers”, not much is Made In America anymore. The makers, Goldmark writes, have been reduced to trash-makers. And unfortunately as the skills in making things atrophied, so too did the skills in repairing things.

Nudge. A tug guides a container ship to the wharf, Halifax harbour.

Getting beyond this unsustainable economy will require changes in attitudes, changes in education, changes in the manufacturing and retail chains, changes in wage allocations. Goldmark addresses all of these weighty subjects in beautifully accessible ways. With a nod to Michael Pollan, she rewrites his food mantra to apply to all the other things we bring home:

“Have  good  stuff  (not too much), mostly reclaimed. Care for it. Pass it on.”

Donating used goods helps, she writes, but “donating alone is not enough. If we’re not buying used ourselves, then we’re just outsourcing the responsibility of ‘closing the loop.’”

Caring for our things is both a simple and a complex undertaking. That means taking time to seek out quality items which will last and which can be repaired. It means promoting and honouring “embodied cognition” – simultaneous learning by head and hands, as practiced by people skilled in diagnosing and repairing. It means supporting companies that repair and resell their own products, and supporting local repair shops so they can pay a living wage.

As humans we will always want, need and have things, but our current way of life is unsustainable and we need to do much better. The good news, she says, is that

“We have the tools. We can build a better, circular model of care, of stewardship, of maintenance. A model where we value what we have.”


Photo at top of page: Freight yard at sunrise. Fairview Cove Container Terminal, Halifax, Nova Scotia. August 29, 2018. (click here for full-screen view)

 

A measured response to surveillance capitalism

Also published at Resilience.org.

A flood of recent analysis discusses the abuse of personal information by internet giants such as Facebook and Google. Some of these articles zero in on the basic business models of Facebook, and occasionally Google, as inherently deceptive and unethical.

But I have yet to see a proposal for any type of regulation that seems proportional to the social problem created by these new enterprises.

So here’s my modest proposal for a legislative response to surveillance capitalism1:

No company which operates an internet social network, or an internet search engine, shall be allowed to sell advertising, nor allowed to sell data collected about the service’s users.

We should also consider an additional regulation:

No company which operates an internet social network, or an internet search engine, shall be allowed to provide this service free of charge to its users.

It may not be easy to craft an appropriate legal definition of “social network” or “search engine”, and I’m not suggesting that this proposal would address all of the surveillance issues inherent in our digitally networked societies. But regulation of companies like Facebook and Google will remain ineffectual unless their current business models are prohibited.

Core competency

The myth of “free services” is widespread in our society, of course, and most people have been willing to play along with the fantasy. Yet we can now see that when it comes to search engines and social networks, this game of pretend has dangerous consequences.

In a piece from September, 2017 entitled “Why there’s nothing to like about Facebook’s ethically-challenged, troublesome business model,” Financial Post columnist Diane Francis clearly described the trick at the root of Facebook’s success:

“Facebook’s underlying business model itself is troublesome: offer free services, collect user’s private information, then monetize that information by selling it to advertisers or other entities.”

Writing in The Guardian a few days ago, John Naughton concisely summarized the corporate histories of both Facebook and Google:

“In the beginning, Facebook didn’t really have a business model. But because providing free services costs money, it urgently needed one. This necessity became the mother of invention: although in the beginning Zuckerberg (like the two Google co-founders, incidentally) despised advertising, in the end – like them – he faced up to sordid reality and Facebook became an advertising company.”

So while Facebook has grandly phrased its mission as “to make the world more open and connected”, and Google long proclaimed its mission “to organize the world’s information”, those goals had to take a back seat to the real business: helping other companies sell us more stuff.

In Facebook’s case, it has been obvious for years that providing a valuable social networking service was a secondary focus. Over and over, Facebook introduced major changes in how the service worked, to widespread complaints from users. But as long as these changes didn’t drive too many users away, and as long as the changes made Facebook a more effective partner to advertisers, the company earned more profit and its stock price soared.

Likewise, Google found a “sweet spot” with the number of ads that could appear above and beside search results without overly annoying users – while also packaging the search data for use by advertisers across the web.

A bad combination

The sale of advertising, of course, has subsidized news and entertainment media for more than a century. In recent decades, even before online publishing became dominant, some media switched to wholly-advertising-supported “free” distribution. While that fiction had many negative consequences, I believe, the danger to society was taken to another level with search engines and social networks.

A “free” print magazine or newspaper, after all, collects no data while being read.2 No computer records if and when you turn the page, how long you linger over an article, or even whether you clip an ad and stick it to your refrigerator.

Today’s “free” online services are different. Search engines collate every search by every user, so they know what people are curious about – the closest version of mass mind-reading we have yet seen. Social media not only register every click and every “Like”, but all our digital interactions with all of our “friends”.

This surveillance-for-profit is wonderfully useful for the purpose of selling us more stuff – or, more recently, for manipulating our opinions and our votes. But we should not be surprised when they abuse our confidence, since their business model drives them to betray our trust as efficiently as possible.

Effective regulation

In the flood of commentary about Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, two themes predominate. First, there is a frequently-stated wish that Facebook “respect our privacy”. Second, there are somewhat more specific calls for regulation of Facebook’s privacy settings, terms of sale of data, or policing of “bot” accounts.

Both themes strike me as naïve. Facebook may allow users a measure of privacy in that they can be permitted to hide some posts from some other users. But it is the very essence of Facebook’s business model that no user can have any privacy from Facebook itself, and Facebook can and will use everything it learns about us to help manipulate our desires in the interests of paying customers. Likewise, it is naïve to imagine that what we post on Facebook remains “our data”, since we have given it to Facebook in exchange for a service for which we pay no monetary fee.

But regulating the terms under which Facebook acquires our consent to monetize our information? This strikes me as an endlessly complicated game of whack-a-mole. The features of computerized social networks have changed and will continue to change as fast as a coder can come up with a clever new bit of software. Regulating these internal methods and operations would be a bureaucratic boondoggle.

Much simpler and more effective, I think, would be to abolish the fiction of “free” services that forms the façade of Facebook and Google. When these companies as well as new competitors3 charge an honest fee to users of social networks and search engines, because they can no longer earn money by selling ads or our data, much of the impetus to surveillance capitalism will be gone.

It costs real money to provide a platform for billions of people to share our cat videos, pictures of grandchildren, and photos of avocado toast. It also costs real money to build a data-mining machine – to sift and sort that data to reveal useful patterns for advertisers who want to manipulate our desires and opinions.

If social networks and search engines make their money honestly through user fees, they will obviously collect data that helps them improve their service and retain or gain users. But they will have no incentive to throw financial resources at data mining for other purposes.

Under such a regulation, would we still have good social network and search engine services? I have little doubt that we would.

People willingly pay for services they truly value – look back at how quickly people adopted the costly use of cell phones. But when someone pretends to offer us a valued service “free”, we endure a host of consequences as we eagerly participate in the con.
Photos at top: Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google (left) and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO. Left photo, “A surprise guest at TED 2010, Sergey spoke openly about Google’s new posture with China,” by Steve Jurvetson, via Wikimedia Commons. Right photo, “Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Facebook, USA, captured during the session ‘The Next Digital Experience’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 30, 2009”, by World Economic Forum, via Wikimedia Commons.

 


NOTES

1 The term “surveillance capitalism” was introduced by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney in a perceptive article in Monthly Review, July 2014.

2 Thanks to Toronto photographer and writer Diane Boyer for this insight.

3 There would be a downside to stipulating that social networks or search engines do not provide their services to users free of charge, in that it would be difficult for a new service to break into the market. One option might be a size-based exemption, allowing, for example, a company to offer such services free until it reaches 10 million users.

Newspapers, running on empty

Also published at Resilience.org.

There isn’t much news in most community newspapers these days. While it’s common to blame the internet for the woes of newspapers, the crisis in the news business is also a symptom of the faltering growth of our fossil-fueled economy.

Our local newspaper carried a headline this week that caught my eye: “Metroland papers in Durham well read”. The self-congratulatory article shared a number of factoids from a Metroland-commissioned survey. For example: “readership topped 82 per cent” (with “readership” defined generously as meaning a person had “read” at least one of the past four issues of the newspaper and/or its flyers). Or this: the typical issue “is kept in the house for an average of almost four days” (which makes perfect sense, since recycling day varies through the region, but on each street the recycling truck comes once a week).

Metroland is a subsidiary of the Toronto Star (the largest newspaper in Canada by circulation). Metroland is responsible for more than 100 small-market papers in Ontario, including Clarington This Week in my town.

Since moving to Clarington a year ago I’ve read every issue of Clarington This Week, looking especially for news of local politics, economic development and planning. Alas, this is not one of the paper’s strong suits, and I studied the news for months before learning the secret of when the municipal council holds its meetings.

For that, I do not blame local journalists. They work in chronically understaffed newsrooms, and if they wrote up each significant development in municipal politics, management would be hard-pressed to free up any space to print the stories.

Let’s be frank: in community newspapers actual journalism is an essential but minor component of the much larger business of distributing ads, especially ads in the form of flyers.

The most recent issue of our local paper, for example is 48 pages. Measuring the amount of news coverage (defined as all photos, articles, and headlines which are not paid advertising) I found that the newspaper itself is just under 30% news, and just over 70% ads. That makes 14.3 pages of news.

But the flyers total 180 pages (and this at a slow time of year for retail; in the month before Christmas the bundle is far thicker). The newspaper and ads together are 228 pages, so the 14.3 pages of news take up just 6% of the total package.

“Free” media and the shrinking news hole

The most recent edition of Clarington This Week is hard to find among all its flyers.

The most recent edition of Clarington This Week is hard to find among all its flyers.

How did the news get buried in an avalanche of ads? The shift to 100% advertising-supported business models marked an inflection point in a process that’s been going on for decades.

Full disclosure: in my own small way I was an accomplice in this process. As a managing editor at the end of the 1990’s, I helped shift a subscription-supported small-town newspaper to 100% advertiser-funded, “free” distribution. For this misdeed I expect I will be reincarnated at least once as some lowly scavenger – perhaps a carp, or a dung beetle, or a homo economicus.

There was a clear business case for free distribution. For many years, the proportion of newspaper revenues from subscription fees had been decreasing while the proportion of revenue from ads had increased. By the 1990s, subscription newspapers typically received only about 20% of their income from subscriptions – basically, subscriptions just covered the cost of delivery, while ad revenue covered all the rent, the printing costs, and the staff salaries.

Most advertisers were happier to pay for ads that reached all local residents, not just subscribers. For small-community newspapers, in particular, the shift to free distribution meant more ad revenue, which could easily replace the diminishing income that previously came from subscription fees.

There was one underlying condition: if advertisers funded ever-greater proportions of the cost of newspapers, they had to sell ever more stuff to make their ad expenditures worthwhile. Through the lifetimes of everyone working in the newspaper industry today, this trend was reliable enough that we didn’t have to think about it, until recently.

Almost continuous economic growth for several generations has lead many people to regard continuous economic growth as the natural order of things. But a minority among economists points out that continuous, exponential growth is not the natural order, but instead is a natural impossibility. They further note the past century of rapid economic growth coincides neatly with the rapid exploitation of most of the world’s easily accessible fossil fuels. In this view, the explosive growth in consumer spending for the past century is in large part an artifact of what James Howard Kunstler calls the “fossil fuel fiesta”.

From "Shifts in Newspaper Advertising Expenditures and their Implications for the Future of Newspapers", by Robert G. Picard, July 2008, accessed from academia.edu (click graphic for link to article)

From “Shifts in Newspaper Advertising Expenditures and their Implications for the Future of Newspapers”, by Robert G. Picard, July 2008, accessed from academia.edu (click graphic for link to article)

For the past 60 years, newspaper ad expenditure growth tracked pretty closely with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. And as long as consumers bought more of the stuff that businesses advertised, these businesses could spend more on ads, and newspapers could reduce or even eliminate subscription fees and thereby boost circulation. Gradually, consumers began to think of news and information as “free”.

When internet information providers started to grow in the late 1990s, most adopted this “free” distribution model. That in turn made this model less successful for newspapers. Total ad expenditures continued to rise, but they had to be shared among more media. Ads got much cheaper, and newspapers found it increasingly difficult to price ads high enough to finance journalists’ (diminishing) salaries. When the effects of the Great Recession of 2008 combined with competition from the internet, the crisis for newspapers intensified. The “news hole” – the space left over for news after the paid ads were slotted in – continued to shrink, as newspapers filled up with lower-priced ads which barely covered production costs.

A blizzard of flyers

Back to our local story. At the turn of the millennium when I managed a small-town newspaper, a news hole of 50% or more of the newspaper was still common. And although flyer distribution was becoming a significant sideline for many newspapers, the volume of flyers was still small compared to the size of the newspapers.

In the paper I worked for, we prided ourselves on keeping the news hole above 50%, and bundling only a couple of flyers with each issue. We felt we were still primarily in the news business, instead of primarily in the ad distribution business.

How quaint that seems now. Over the past 15 years, retailers have been increasingly reliant on volume sales of low-profit-margin junk. A half-page ad inside a newspaper doesn’t suffice – each supermarket or big-box retailer wants multiple pages of their ads landing in consumers’ homes each and every week. (Those 75 different flavours of potato chips don’t sell themselves.)

So they’ve demanded ever-cheaper flyer distribution, and newspapers have been in no position to turn them down.

We reached the point where people referred to a local newspaper as just a wrapper for flyers – but we’re far beyond that now. With many community newspapers the pack of flyers is far too thick to fit inside the paper.

The result: newspapers like the one I received last Thursday, with 6% news, 94% ads.

Is the end nigh?

As unsatisfactory as the current media business is to an avid reader, it is also unsustainable. Whether the news provider is Google or Facebook or the local newspaper, providing “free” information only works as long as readers and viewers keep buying more of the stuff that is being advertised.

When the long trend of economic growth stalls, advertisers will no longer be able to fund media. I’m among those who think this change is already well underway.

The economic turmoil of the past eight years will upend many business models that used to sound prudent, back when abundant and easily-accessible fossil fuels helped us to produce and consume more stuff every year.

Top photo: a single issue of a local newspaper underneath all its ad flyers, on the backdrop of the parking lot of the vacant Target store in Bowmanville, Ontario.