IT’s the name, and control’s the game

Last Updated 28 November 2021, 00:00 IST

In a scathing article that appeared in the Guardian on the eve of the UN Climate Conference of Parties (CoP-26) in Scotland, columnist George Monbiot held the rich nations responsible for the climate change-induced devastation wrought on earth by tracing it back to the greed and violence which were part and parcel of European colonial expansionist history. Here are some excerpts from the article.

“…A handful of European nations, which had mastered both the art of violence and advanced seafaring technology, used these faculties to invade other territories and seize their land, labour and resources...New doctrines – racial categorisation, ethnic superiority and a moral duty to “rescue” other people from their “barbarism” and “depravity” – were developed to justify the violence…To handle the greatly increased scope and scale of transactions, new financial systems were established…”

I have chosen these particular passages because striking parallels can be found in today’s information society. In all likelihood, 30 years from now, I expect that there will be a UN Internet Conference of Parties where the discussions will focus on the assault of IT on social and geopolitical norms, pernicious use of Artificial Intelligence -- as in drone warfare, cryptocurrencies, deforestation resulting from locating huge datacentres in previously forested areas, and mining for copper, aluminium, cobalt, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel and graphite -- the very minerals needed to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles, computer chips, solar panels, and assorted data storage devices.

About 300 years ago, the storied riches of India and China were coveted by Western nations, which were willing to start wars to gain access to these riches. We now have the US and some European countries using the internet to try to get into the wallets of the almost three billion potential customers, most of them under the age of 45, all of them non-white, who reside in China and India.

China, with its closed society and advanced IT industry, is immune to these efforts, democratic India is not. Also, since India’s IT sector is wholly dependent on imported but mostly Western technology, it is subject to coercion. White privilege shines best when words such as inclusivity, freedom of expression, human rights and democracy are bandied about. As the avowed racist Rudyard Kipling succinctly put it, “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.”

The advanced seafaring technology of the 18th and 19th centuries has been replaced by three inextricably linked 21st century artefacts of information technology -- social media, e-commerce, and cloud computing – which are dominated by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM. These companies have a rich history of anti-competitive and unethical behaviour. Yet, ordinary users and companies across the globe continue to use their services without considering if these IT companies ought to be trusted to protect their privacy or the confidentiality of their business documents.

The art of violence has now evolved into a science; it is mediated through cyberspace and triggered by any challenges, legal or otherwise, to the three artefacts. The violent overthrow of democratically elected leaders, be it in oil-rich Iran (1953) or the copper-rich countries of Chile (1973) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (1961), was facilitated through human intelligence. These days, vested interests can, without leaving a trace, bring down unfriendly yet democratically elected national and local governments using AI algorithms and the internet.

To understand how this is possible, note that social media, e-commerce, and cloud computing are not distinct enterprises in their own silos but a well-connected single enterprise. A telling example is provided by Meta’s (aka Facebook) recent announcement that it was partnering with Microsoft to provide a seamless interface for work-related activities. FB dominates social media but does not sell software. Microsoft sells office software and cloud computing services but does not do social media. With the new partnership, these two companies get to share their data assets.

It is only a matter of time before the partnership expands to include Amazon, Google, and IBM. It would be a partnership just like the ‘Five Eyes’ -- the global intelligence sharing partnership comprised of the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

While it is no secret that Big Tech is heavily involved in digital payment processing systems using real and virtual currencies (e.g., bitcoin), not so well publicised is the fact that verifying a single bitcoin transaction uses 215 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. On average, Amazon processes 1,100 orders per minute, and the typical US household uses 1,000kWh per month.

IT’s the name, and control’s the game. Are you ready?

(Published 27 November 2021, 18:50 IST)

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