The Truth about Transparency and What to do Next

With the rise of the technology companies to become some of the most powerful institutions on Earth, the call for transparency has become louder and louder. Transparency in labor practices seems to be a key component of activists’ demands for all companies. In order to appear more worker-friendly and environmentally-conscious, the technology companies have elected to advertise their physical presence. To many, the internet itself feels as if it lacks any sort of physical presence. When I think of a Google employee, I picture a nerdy programmer sitting on an exercise ball in Palo Alto, CA. I certainly don’t think of the workers tasked with keeping the dozens of NC data centers up and running. However, without these very workers, the internet wouldn’t exist today in the capacity that it does.

Even a few years ago, if you were to ask someone where the internet was, you might get some puzzled looks. That’s changed with companies deciding they want to publicize the physicality of their internet servers. Colorful pictures showcasing what seems to be an ideal work environment for employees are great for advertising a technology company’s presence. Combined with environmental statistics claiming that any said data center is “carbon-neutral,” these photos make for a powerful argument in favor of the said company. But let’s be transparent about transparency. There is nothing that requires these companies to be forthright about their data centers. They reserve the right to be as unspecific as possible with regards to their energy consumption as they want. And quite frankly, we as consumers don’t have any right to know their practices. The simple fact that there are very few alternatives to Google, Apple and Facebook means that they can do what they want with their employees, their data centers, and our privacy with little fear of repercussions. Google, as Holt and Vonderau mentioned, is notoriously secretive with regards to their infrastructure. Presumably, they have some trade secrets that they want to keep to themselves. This brings up a whole host of intellectual property issues that don’t seem quite relevant to this discussion. Suffice it to say that this means everything to companies whose entire premise is built on innovation.

So…what’s left for these companies to innovate with regards to their data centers? If they don’t have to be transparent, at least they have to keep coming up with new ideas to maintain their stock prices. Let’s start with energy. The fact of the matter is that these data centers are extremely demanding on the energy grid. So what can be done to reduce their carbon footprint? I don’t want to discuss renewable energy, since that is another discussion in and of itself. I want to show a graph from Gartner, a research and advisory firm.

This graph is known as the 2017 Gartner Hype Cycle. It compares a variety of developing technology and places it at a specific place on the curve based on its expectations and its current stage of development. I want to draw attention to two specific points. The left-most technology is known as SmartDust; essentially, this technology involves using hundreds of microcomputers, some no larger than a grain of sand, to detect variations in light, temperature and location. Each microcomputer can communicate with one another, and thus a network can be created in a space the size of your fingertip. This technology is extremely efficient and could be utilized in the future by companies like Google if development continues. The next point I’d like to show is Quantum Computing, which is essentially using quantum mechanics to perform calculations. This type of computation would allow more data to be stored on smaller and smaller devices as silicon would no longer be used (as a result, transistors could hypothetically be reduced to the size of an electron). Such developments would allow more data to be stored at said data-centers and would presumably reduce tech companies’ carbon footprint. Unfortunately, many of these developments are several decades away, but it seems to me that the answers to tech company woes can be found in these ideas.

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