We rely on the internet during a crisis. So what if the next crisis threatens the internet?

The modern equivalent of a campfire—except this one requires electricity.
The modern equivalent of a campfire—except this one requires electricity.
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif
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As the last few weeks of major hurricanes hitting the United States and Caribbean islands have demonstrated, climate change is real—and internet access is instrumental to living with its consequences.

During Hurricane Harvey, cell service and 4G/LTE were crucial to rescue efforts, which were in part facilitated on social-media platforms like Facebook and a walkie-talkie emulating app called Zello. Through these digital tools, decentralized networks of volunteers emerged to quickly provide the support that federal agencies and the Red Cross all too often fail to deliver.

While it’s inspiring to see individuals with smartphones step in as first responders, in the absence of a functional network and electricity, those smartphones aren’t much more than a neat assembly of toxic rocks. There’s an eerie irony to the promise that consumer electronics make in helping navigating volatile environments: Though these devices and platforms are intrinsic to the physical world, they tend to be marketed and perceived as entirely external to the environment. Advertising campaigns promote laptops and phones as tools that float in an infinite void, divorced from the realities of manufacturing, infrastructure, and politics. In the face of an uncertain world, the charismatic megainfra of the Google data center endures, an alien stalwart among fields and forests.

As the millions of Floridians left without power or internet access following Irma are well aware, these devices, platforms, and the infrastructure that makes them possible aren’t immune to the effects of climate change. (Nor are they absolved of their contributions to it—but that’s a whole other story). To some extent, affected citizens’ concerns apply to water, food-supply chains, and shelter construction just as readily—the only difference is that network infrastructure is crucial to how those basic survival needs are distributed and allocated. Without the internet, much of the rest is now no longer possible.

Technology is a logistics problem

At the most pragmatic level, climate change poses risks for global supply chains, which can affect the cost and availability of hardware. Most devices feature an array of components, fabricated by a range of subcontractors and made of materials sourced from around the world. Losing one of those suppliers to a natural disaster can grind production and markets to a halt.

The tech industry last experienced such a halt in 2011, when massive floods in Thailand (at the time, the second largest producer of hard-disk drives) contributed to a worldwide shortage in hard drives. The price of these devices therefore increased significantly, and an industry-wide reckoning with the risk of production concentration in a single region become apparent. While some sources in the hardware supply chain may be safer from the effects of climate change than others—a data center in Sweden has less desertification concerns than inner Mongolia, for example, where most of the world’s rare-earth elements are mined—no place is entirely immune.

Climate change might also perpetuate existing disparities in connectivity around the world. Houston and its vast metro area happen to have pretty good cell coverage and network infrastructure, which was a major help during Hurricane Harvey. Other parts of the world aren’t so lucky—or more accurately, other parts of the world aren’t lucky enough to be deemed economically viable by telecoms, who don’t really pursue constructing expensive infrastructure in places with a low return on investment. They’re even less likely to do so in an area with a high risk of extreme weather events, such as parts of Nepal, Bangladesh, and India, which were affected by devastating floods in the past month.

Logistics are an equality problem

Climate change has been good for one major network infrastructure expansion in an under-served area—though it’s unclear how much vulnerable populations are its target market. As warming in the Arctic Circle continues at roughly double the rate of the rest of the world, Quintillion Networks continues to develop the Arctic Fibre project, which will run a submarine cable through the Northwest Passage. The cable ostensibly expands connectivity in rural reaches of Alaska, but it also speaks to a new market opportunity in oil and gas outposts that, thanks to climate change, might be able to plumb entirely new depths of resource extraction. The final phase of the project will create the shortest possible cable route between London and Tokyo, shaving precious milliseconds off financial trades. (As if this scenario wasn’t cyberpunk enough, Quintillion is backed by Len Blavatnik, a London-based billionaire who made his fortune during the collapsing Soviet Union’s privatization of heavy industry).

This is a familiar reality of disaster capitalism. Recall the brilliant glow of the Goldman Sachs offices after Superstorm Sandy while lower Manhattan remained in darkness. The potential risks for tech supply chains don’t really apply to giant corporations or the wealthy. (And if they don’t already have their own parallel resilient infrastructure, they’re probably preparing it now.) At the end of the day, resources have already been allocated to protect network infrastructure in a way they aren’t allocated to help people protect people themselves. This is great for harnessing those same networks to help citizens in need, but cold comfort for those already lacking access.

When large companies and platforms do step in to expand connectivity to vulnerable places and people, such efforts merit healthy skepticism. Initiatives like Facebook’s may be able to fill in the geographic service gaps with mobile services and cool internet-laser drones, but it also offers Facebook yet another consumer market to capture. While I don’t fault anyone for using Facebook for organizing relief efforts, it is hard to shake the fact that more and more of daily life is shaped by a tool that both optimizes crisis support and expertly enables a future of constant crisis.

In its most ideal vision, the future of climate-changed connectivity is one where people work collectively in support of each other, engaging in that brilliant altruism that humans so effortlessly offer in disaster. But as the disasters barrel one after the next and adrenaline stops being enough to live on; as people in power offer mostly cruelty and greed instead of altruism; and as the very same tools used for recovery amplify and legitimize that cruelty, that beautiful altruistic future becomes harder to glean.

Creating more community-owned network infrastructure and communication tools are a way of pursuing that future; a hostile takeover destroying Facebook’s business model and making it a public trust is another. (One of these is a more likely outcome.) The work of technologists and activists in this particular moment requires a careful, crucial balancing act: to use technology to simultaneously attend to the real-time urgent needs of day-to-day crisis while demanding and building something more than a politics of perpetual triage.