The Carbon Cloud That Might Kill Us All
December 1, 2019 7:06 AM   Subscribe

“The collaboration between Big Tech and Big Oil might seem counterintuitive. Culturally, who could be further apart? Moreover, many tech companies portray themselves as leaders in corporate sustainability. They try to out-do each other in their support for green initiatives. But in reality, Big Tech and Big Oil are closely linked, and only getting closer. “ Oil Is The New Data (Logic) previously
posted by The Whelk (29 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
I totally feel this. I've done work for unsavory industries in the past and eventually I kind of burned out, morally. Nowadays I'm working towards trying to take my skills in a more positive direction trying to undo some of the damage I helped companies like this and others cause.

I hope the author of this article (props on the handle btw) inspires others to examine their own role in a larger context and consider how they will feel about the impact of their work when they are older.
posted by some loser at 7:51 AM on December 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


Culturally, who could be further apart?

I see someone has no experience working for “Big Tech” nor “Big Oil”!
posted by sideshow at 8:15 AM on December 1, 2019 [21 favorites]


Big companies have big IT needs and big IT budgets.
posted by interogative mood at 8:24 AM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


After reading the article: WTF, the author must be like 23 and on their first job to be “shocked”.

Also, this is the exactly the same article (and this will be exactly the same discussion) as every one of the countless “AWS is building the WarClould!” type articles we get here on the blue. Just switch out Microsoft for Amazon and Chevron for the Pentagon/ICE/FEC whatever.

I’ll start: The technology (Azure) that allows Chevron to build the stuff mentioned in the article was inspired by the technology (AWS) that powers the very website you are reading right now.
posted by sideshow at 8:30 AM on December 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


Oil has always generated absurd quantities of data. Back in the 90s I knew someone who developed seismic survey analysis algorithms for Schlumberger. Their home office had a colossal multi-core Unix machine for processing and refining the many GBs of data the courier brought on DLTs daily. That may seem laughably small now, but at the same time the well funded engineering research company I worked for had just bought its first 1 GB disk system to many oohs and aahs.
posted by scruss at 8:43 AM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


The technology (Azure) that allows Chevron to build the stuff mentioned in the article was inspired by the technology (AWS) that powers the very website you are reading right now.

Is Metafilter doing 3D seismic reading analyses to dig oil out of the ground? Running a website where people discuss links to other stuff on the web seems qualitatively different from extracting resources that are making the planet uninhabitable, or building a surveillance network over what effectively amounts to slave labor in a country where oil is the dominant economic driver. I guess I don't understand the equivalence, here.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:51 AM on December 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


It's probably hard to see the equivalence, because a lot of what is happening is happening "under the hood" so to speak, but I'd say the easiest way to explain it is as though AWS is a tool, specifically a knife. A knife is an extremely useful tool, and it has plenty of valid, thoughtful, and worthwhile uses for anyone short on other tools.

You can also use that same knife to fucking murder someone. (Hey, you just built a WarCloud!)

The point being the design and implementation of code that is "under the hood" is often able to be easily moved to being used for nefarious purposes without actually changing much about how it works, at its core. You might think that there's a bigger difference, by outward appearance, but much like the knife, often very little has to be changed about how this code works to allow it to become dangerous and dystopian.
posted by deadaluspark at 9:07 AM on December 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


I suspect one difference is that MetaFilter has simpler tool needs than the oil industry. Maybe we're using a knife right now, but if you took the knife away we'd run it on JRun a couple of rocks without terribly much difference. Meanwhile, the oil industry is like "not only do we really need this knife to do business, but we'd better start inventing chainsaws soon or we'll be in trouble."
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:26 AM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


My impression is that my favourite open source database, Postgres, has also had support and contributions from the petroleum industry, though I don't know the extent of it.
posted by clawsoon at 9:29 AM on December 1, 2019


Both the tech sector and petroleum sector have extracted vastly more value from free software than they’ll ever give back.
posted by mhoye at 9:33 AM on December 1, 2019 [16 favorites]


The point being the design and implementation of code that is "under the hood" is often able to be easily moved to being used for nefarious purposes without actually changing much about how it works, at its core.

Well obviously but this is more about tech firms accepting morally bankrupt and highly destructive companies as customers.

I'd say the easiest way to explain it is as though AWS is a tool, specifically a knife.

Another analogy would be: imagine if old man Bezos ran the town general store and kept selling knives to the town gut stabber, who has a known and documented history of gut stabbery because he stabs people in plain sight and keeps going to prison AND YET OLD MAN BEZOS KEEPS SELLING HIM KNIVES BECAUSE KNIVES ARE TOOLS AND BESIDES OLD MAN NADELLA ACROSS THE STREET DOES IT TOO ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Tech - and IT specifically - is corrupt af precisely because the people who work in these industries view technology as "neutral" "tools" when they in fact are political weapons.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:35 AM on December 1, 2019 [16 favorites]


Another analogy would be: imagine if old man Bezos ran the town general store and kept selling knives to the town gut stabber, who has a known and documented history of gut stabbery because he stabs people in plain sight and keeps going to prison AND YET OLD MAN BEZOS KEEPS SELLING HIM KNIVES BECAUSE KNIVES ARE TOOLS AND BESIDES OLD MAN NADELLA ACROSS THE STREET DOES IT TOO ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


An excellent addendum, proven by the arguments Hacking Team used to justify selling its surveillance software to countries with known issues with Despotism.

Their argument amounted to "It isn't our job to ensure the country we sell our surveillance equipment to follows their own laws." So yes, it's exactly like Bezos selling the same knife to the same gut stabber over and over and over and arguing that ensuring the gut stabber stops having access to gut stabbers isn't his market responsibility.
posted by deadaluspark at 9:47 AM on December 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


Where on earth did the oil execs get the idea to use AI to monitor employees on a construction site? Maybe from Microsoft's own tech demos?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:13 AM on December 1, 2019 [7 favorites]


So is Metafilter giving Bezos money that helps fund stabbing people? I’m confused here.
posted by chuntered inelegantly from a sedentary position at 10:25 AM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


So is Metafilter giving Bezos money that helps fund stabbing people?

Yes, and almost literally everyone else on the internet is *also* giving Bezos money that helps fund stabbing people, because Amazon is too fucking big to be avoided at this point, and it is an enormous problem.
posted by halation at 10:34 AM on December 1, 2019 [12 favorites]


The broader tech industry has had Big Oil as a customer for a long time, though some of the names of the vendors have changed.

For example: oil companies have been major industrial customers of the supercomputing industry for decades. The hardware was designed more for simulation than data throughput, and the names of the vendors were more likely to be Cray, HP, or IBM than Amazon or Google. But the relationship between the broader industries is still a long-standing one.

(Microsoft is an interesting case because Big Oil have been their customers for a good long time. They may have been selling back-office products rather than AI, but it’s not like Microsoft is suddenly making new friends here.)

At a higher level, I think the computing industry has trouble recognizing that our history is strongly embedded with the larger military-industrial complex. I could make a strong argument that computers originated as a military technology, and advances in computing have often been driven by its needs. The same fundamental technology we use to simulate the weather, play games, and watch Netflix videos is also used to simulate nuclear weapons, design tanks, and run law enforcement organizations. And the consumer-facing use-cases are the newcomers.

To be clear, it’s good for workers to recognize this, and advocate for change! But God, we need to do better at teaching the history of our industry in more than purely technical terms.
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind at 10:57 AM on December 1, 2019 [15 favorites]


Since people seem to forget that Tech has always been in bed with fascists, lets not forget that IBM literally helped the Nazi's catalogue Jews and other "undesirables," allowing for easier control of the populace.

"Big data" or "Big tech" working with hand-in-hand with fascists has a long history, you can just ask Werner von Braun.

The tech industry in America started when we cracked the code of the Enigma machine and won the war by keeping that fact a secret. In other words, big tech has always been a tool of the state, and like we have been discussing, tools can be used to build AND used to destroy.

I mean, isn't this tech-as-surveillance used by a managerial class basically the entire thesis of Adam Curtis's HyperNormalisation?
posted by deadaluspark at 11:24 AM on December 1, 2019 [8 favorites]


Yet another silicon valley code monkey finds out history exists.
posted by PMdixon at 11:40 AM on December 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


Yes, and almost literally everyone else on the internet is *also* giving Bezos money that helps fund stabbing people, because Amazon is too fucking big to be avoided at this point, and it is an enormous problem.

That's not why, though. It's because AWS is helping MetaFilter and the rest of the Internet by giving them a way to run things that they find cheaper and easier (taking into account labor and flexibility) than the alternative. It has nothing to do with being too big.
posted by value of information at 12:21 PM on December 1, 2019


AWS is...cheaper and easier...It has nothing to do with being too big.

Is there an economist in the house?
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 12:41 PM on December 1, 2019 [10 favorites]


> The broader tech industry has had Big Oil as a customer for a long time, though some of the names of the vendors have changed.

It's as if people don't remember EDS, or even Ross Perot.
posted by at by at 2:13 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


Just a thing to consider in issues like this - China is building a few of these cloud things too.

I don't have anything to add except to say that the cloud/big data weaponization/nefarious use cat is out of the bag, and where petroleum extraction is concerned, the US isn't the only game in town anymore, so we're not about to get out of it. The way you beat oil companies is by legislating them out of existence. With all the extra capacity they're finding, the fossil fuel industry can afford to lobby and undercut most other energy for a long time to come. Market don't seem too likely to save us here.
posted by saysthis at 3:00 PM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


> I could make a strong argument that computers originated as a military technology, and advances in computing have often been driven by its needs.
The modern computer? Yeah, wouldn't even be hard to do - the industry openly admitted it and proudly advertised the fact right up until the early-mid 80's.

And way back in history, before the military uses of even mechanical computers, it was big industry data analysis (e.g actuarial tables) to begin with. Something something full-circle…
> The tech industry in America started when we cracked the code of the Enigma machine and won the war by keeping that fact a secret.
It's sad to see that jingoistic historically-revisionist propaganda has won…
posted by Pinback at 4:47 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


It would be fairer to say "the tech industry in the West," given it weren't the US that cracked Enigma. Still, that and physics simulations for the nuclear weapons programs were the major drivers of the move to fully electronic computers. The development of the integrated circuit was driven by the "need" for lighter guidance computers for the ballistic missile program.

Were it not for the military, relay-based computers and vacuum tubes both would have stuck around a lot longer. Fairchild, TI, and Motorola only had cheap chips for business machines because the government paid for the production lines. That's not to say that there wasn't a lot of ingenuity and innovation on the part of the contractors, only that the punishing economic costs of development were only possible thanks to perceived military need for these new products.
posted by wierdo at 5:03 PM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


>> AWS is...cheaper and easier...It has nothing to do with being too big.

> Is there an economist in the house?

Fair. If you're saying they are big enough that they have some economy of scale for hosting people's websites, sure.

My point was that if you think AWS hosting a ton of the Internet has negative externalities and you want to do something about it, you have to face up to the fact that people are using it because they like it. Unlike some big products, AWS isn't succeeding because it is a natural monopoly, or because it's bundled with other stuff people want, or because it used ruthless tactics to drive all alternatives out of business. (As far as I know.)
posted by value of information at 6:54 PM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Data is the new blood.
posted by doctornemo at 7:14 PM on December 1, 2019


I suspect one difference is that MetaFilter has simpler tool needs than the oil industry.

The original false equivalence is still not getting any less false.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:18 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


AWS isn't succeeding because it is a natural monopoly

All utilities are natural monopolies. Can you help me understand why AWS shouldn't be considered a utility?
posted by PMdixon at 12:23 PM on December 2, 2019


AWS rents out web servers. Companies can run their own web servers (most do), or they could rent web servers from any AWS competitor (there are a lot... this article is about Microsoft's web server rental, not AWS). AWS is winning in the web server rental space in a normal capitalistic competitive fashion, not through monopolistic means. People are choosing to use their service over other services.

I'm not sure how it could be considered a utility. No one has to use their service. Monopolistic utilities exist because it's not possible to have real competition when running physical pipes and wires to every individual home. There's really nothing like that here.
posted by team lowkey at 1:14 PM on December 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


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