So I dropped by sonnywilkins.wordpress.com a little earlier and read his post about the leakage of private information from major websites. If you’re anything like me, you try not to put too much private info on the web, but in some ways it is unavoidable. I mean, I LIKE buying dodgy bits of audio kit off eBay, right?
Anyway, of particular interest was a remark towards the end of his post where he mentioned that the internet traffic was set to grow 400% by 2015. That’s obscene growth!
Anyway, it got me thinking about one of those economic weasel words – ‘externalities’. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘externalities’ in economist-speak are any unintended consequences of an economic/productive process. They can be positive or negative. For example, building an iron ore mine in an economically depressed remote area of Papua New Guinea (potentially) has the positive externality of increasing employment among indigenous communities and (potentially) greater agency and self-determination for the community; it may also have the negative externality of polluting their local fresh water source and destroying their traditional way of life.
What then could be the externalities associated with exponential growth with internet traffic? Well, in the first instance, it will undoubtedly correlate with exponential growth in power consumption within the IT industry. More servers are needed to accommodate the growth. More servers = more power. More power = more pollutants (since few nations have embraced in any meaningful way the potential of clean energy sources). Furthermore, the demand for bigger/faster/more internet activity will create (and has already created) a market for technology. And technology is increasingly disposable. We’re up to iPhone 4 already – what happened to all the iPhone 1’s, 2’s and 3’s? Well, let’s not mince words – they get shipped to “recycling” plants in China which have been unable to cope with demand for their services (check the reports) and, hence, send up to 80% of their waste to landfill. Now THAT’S an externality!
Make no mistake – this is Industrial Revolution: Redux, the directorless cut. Whoever can make it cheapest and fastest will make the most. The incentive (there’s another fantastic economics weasel word) to produce safe products is not strong enough to counter the incentive to make profit.
Sure, the internet has plenty of positive ‘externalities’. It is undoubtedly the lynch-pin of contemporary culture in the developed world (where people can actually access it). It has been central to numerous reformist and affirmative programs in less developed regions as well as being a worthwhile tool for addressing disadvantage and marginalisation (economic, geographic, cultural) within developed nations. But it is also a truly global system that exists beyond the control of any one nation or group. Many see this as a positive (myself included in certain circumstances) but it can also be a negative. The problem with ‘the powerful equalisers’ and ‘the great democratizers’ is this: unless implemented in the context of a highly informed and proactive society/community they will inevitably cause a race to the lowest possible denominator. And, unfortunately, with the potential for profit so high – few people have an interest in letting their ‘externalities’ show.