The rise of data imperialism

Imperialism and colonisation have not gone away. They’ve just become more clever in how they present themselves. The essential model is still the foundation of economic success for Europe and North America: Get the cheapest possible raw materials from poor countries. Turn these materials into brands and sell them back to these poor countries at massive profits. Then, if possible, dump the waste in these poor countries. Now, we see the rise of data colonialism, data imperialism.

“So, in Puerto Rico we had Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma right before that in 2017,” data center researcher Steven Gonzalez told me. “And those were the most devastating hurricanes to hit the Caribbean in a really long time. It was a natural disaster that killed over four thousand people. There were tens of thousands of people who were displaced and permanently relocated. In the island, there were people without power for nine months. There were people, including my extended family, who had limited access to water for much of that time as well. But meanwhile, the data centers on this island experienced no interruption to their water or electricity supply. And this is not a bug. This is a feature of data center design. This is political. We have to think about the ways we are prioritizing computers over human beings. In Puerto Rico, while all these people were suffering, this data center was running. It’s a question that we have to ask ourselves. Where are our priorities as a civilization? We appear to be prioritizing computational needs over human rights.”

A data center is like an occupation. They know little and care less about the community that they intend to occupy. They’re there for the cheap land, the cheap water and the cheap electricity, and the tax breaks and other incentives. Big Tech has become so powerful that it’s not enough that they get the cheapest land, water and electricity. From weak, desperate or obedient governments they always demand more. And it’s all done in secret. There is nothing fair about a data center deal.

There is a gathering water crisis in the United States and Europe. In the US, they are pumping up their water at shocking, wholly unsustainable rates. 90% of their watersheds are stressed and, within twenty years, major parts of the country will face severe water shortages. The chip manufacturers and data centers demand huge quantities of cheap water and they are planning for where they can get it in poor, desperate countries.

The idea is to place US and European data in these poor countries so that the water and electricity costs are borne by the local communities. The Berlin teen watching TikTok or the Los Angeles adult streaming Netflix will have their data cooled by Uruguayan water (or perhaps water from some poor part of Spain).

The biggest promise of Big Tech and the Cloud is convenience without consequences, consumption without consequences. The harms are outsourced to the Global South. The harms are outsourced to Nature and the environment. But the Cloud is on the ground and the ground is part of this Earth and what goes around comes around, and the imperialist capitalist fantasy is fast reaching its macabre conclusion. And we will all have to pay dearly, particularly our children and future generations.

Steven Gonzalez Monserrate podcast – Thirsty Data: Data Centers increasing impact on fresh water

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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