Digital capitalism and Covid-19

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The supposedly 'free' digital platforms that we are using to stay connected during the pandemic come with huge social and ecological costs.

We need to unite the pursuit of technological sovereignty (free software) with food sovereignty (agroecology). Only in this way can achieve truly sustainable and just living. 

If there is any economic sector benefiting from this new Covid-19 pandemic, it is the digital platforms that have taken advantage of confinement measures implemented by governments around the world to expand their business globally.

Massive companies such as Alphabet (Google), Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Alibaba and Tencent make-up 75 percent of this market.

Read: The privatisation of rivers in Chile

Mainstream media represents these platforms as free, sustainable and secure digital economies for the millions of users who store data in the cloud, especially in this context of confinement and telework. But there is nothing immaterial about that cloud and its increasing ecological impacts.

Impacts

Information technology accounts for 3.5 percent of global emissions, and is projected to reach 14 percent by 2040.

In addition, the supposedly clean cloud is supported by gigantic data server farms, located in Tokyo (130,000 m2), Chicago (102,000 m2), Dublin (51,000 m2), Wales (70,000 m2) and Miami (70,000 m2).

We are told that large IT companies are committed to using renewable energy to reduce the impact of these server farms, but their ecological footprint goes far beyond this purported decarbonisation.

Microsoft's experimental Natick -  a 40-foot long structure that uses compression technology from submarines and has been designed to sit at the bottom of the sea for up to five years - is a case in point. 

This ecological footprint is enabled by neo-colonialism and the extraction of minerals and materials from the Global South. Similarly, e-waste testifies to the digital racism that materialises year by year in Africa, where millions of tons of second-hand electronics and their toxins are shipped. 

These technologies come with a strong component of government surveillance and control. Large digital companies are selling governments monitoring applications as part of plans to reduce the transmission of Covid-19, opening a dangerous path to the sale of big data that can be used for political and economic purposes. 

Democratisation 

We need just, transparent and community-led alternatives to big data. The Free Software Movement is a clear example of how to build a digital democracy in which code is a common good and not a private commodity.

This movement promotes the idea of technological sovereignty, and questions the intellectual property of these large tech companies through the use and free distribution of code.

The Free Software Movement's criticism of digital capitalism is not very different from the peasant way's criticism of agricultural capitalism - both are questioning the same colonial process. As a result, we seek to democratize code, land and water, in the face of large companies looking to appropriate what should be held in common.

By contrast, digital conquest in the midst of the pandemic deepens racism, capitalism and anthropocentrism. A discourse of 'green' economics seeks to sell us the idea of a sustainable world but without changing its underlying structures and inequities. 

We need to unite the pursuit of technological sovereignty (free software) with food sovereignty (agroecology). Only in this way can achieve truly sustainable and just living. 

This Author 

Andrés Kogan Valderrama is a sociologist and PhD student in Latin American Social Studies. He is also editor of the Observatorio Plurinacional de Aguas.

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