Pluralistic: Real innovation vs Silicon Valley nonsense (30 May 2024)

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Real innovation vs Silicon Valley nonsense (permalink)

If there was any area where we needed a lot of "innovation," it's in climate tech. We've already blown through numerous points-of-no-return for a habitable Earth, and the pace is accelerating.

Silicon Valley claims to be the epicenter of American innovation, but what passes for innovation in Silicon Valley is some combination of nonsense, climate-wrecking tech, and climate-wrecking nonsense tech. Forget Jeff Hammerbacher's lament about "the best minds of my generation thinking about how to make people click ads." Today's best-paid, best-trained technologists are enlisted to making boobytrapped IoT gadgets:

Planet-destroying cryptocurrency scams:

NFT frauds:

Or planet-destroying AI frauds:

If that was the best "innovation" the human race had to offer, we'd be fucking doomed.

But – as Ryan Cooper writes for The American Prospect – there's a far more dynamic, consequential, useful and exciting innovation revolution underway, thanks to muscular public spending on climate tech:

The green energy revolution – funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS Act and the Science Act – is accomplishing amazing feats, which are barely registering amid the clamor of AI nonsense and other hype. I did an interview a while ago about my climate novel The Lost Cause and the interviewer wanted to know what role AI would play in resolving the climate emergency. I was momentarily speechless, then I said, "Well, I guess maybe all the energy used to train and operate models could make it much worse? What role do you think it could play?" The interviewer had no answer.

Here's brief tour of the revolution:

  • 2023 saw 32GW of new solar energy come online in the USA (up 50% from 2022);
  • Wind increased from 118GW to 141GW;

  • Grid-scale batteries doubled in 2023 and will double again in 2024;

  • EV sales increased from 20,000 to 90,000/month.

The cost of clean energy is plummeting, and that's triggering other areas of innovation, like using "hot rocks" to replace fossil fuel heat (25% of overall US energy consumption):

Increasing our access to cheap, clean energy will require a lot of materials, and material production is very carbon intensive. Luckily, the existing supply of cheap, clean energy is fueling "green steel" production experiments:

Cheap, clean energy also makes it possible to recover valuable minerals from aluminum production tailings, a process that doubles as site-remediation:

And while all this electrification is going to require grid upgrades, there's lots we can do with our existing grid, like power-line automation that increases capacity by 40%:

It's also going to require a lot of storage, which is why it's so exciting that we're figuring out how to turn decommissioned mines into giant batteries. During the day, excess renewable energy is channeled into raising rock-laden platforms to the top of the mine-shafts, and at night, these unspool, releasing energy that's fed into the high-availability power-lines that are already present at every mine-site:

Why are we paying so much attention to Silicon Valley pump-and-dumps and ignoring all this incredible, potentially planet-saving, real innovation? Cooper cites a plausible explanation from the Apperceptive newsletter:

Silicon Valley is the land of low-capital, low-labor growth. Software development requires fewer people than infrastructure and hard goods manufacturing, both to get started and to run as an ongoing operation. Silicon Valley is the place where you get rich without creating jobs. It's run by investors who hate the idea of paying people. That's why AI is so exciting for Silicon Valley types: it lets them fantasize about making humans obsolete. A company without employees is a company without labor issues, without messy co-determination fights, without any moral consideration for others. It's the natural progression for an industry that started by misclassifying the workers in its buildings as "contractors," and then graduated to pretending that millions of workers were actually "independent small businesses."

It's also the natural next step for an industry that hates workers so much that it will pretend that their work is being done by robots, and then outsource the labor itself to distant Indian call-centers (no wonder Indian techies joke that "AI" stands for "absent Indians"):

Contrast this with climate tech: this is a profoundly physical kind of technology. It is labor intensive. It is skilled. The workers who perform it have power, both because they are so far from their employers' direct oversight and because these fed-funded sectors are more likely to be unionized than Silicon Valley shops. Moreover, climate tech is capital intensive. All of those workers are out there moving stuff around: solar panels, wires, batteries.

Climate tech is infrastructural. As Deb Chachra writes in her must-read 2023 book How Infrastructure Works, infrastructure is a gift we give to our descendants. Infrastructure projects rarely pay for themselves during the lives of the people who decide to build them:

Climate tech also produces gigantic, diffused, uncapturable benefits. The "social cost of carbon" is a measure that seeks to capture how much we all pay as polluters despoil our shared world. It includes the direct health impacts of burning fossil fuels, and the indirect costs of wildfires and extreme weather events. The "social savings" of climate tech are massive:

For every mWh of renewable power produced, we save $100 in social carbon costs. That's $100 worth of people not sickening and dying from pollution, $100 worth of homes and habitats not burning down or disappearing under floodwaters. All told, US renewables have delivered $250,000,000,000 (one quarter of one trillion dollars) in social carbon savings over the past four years:

In other words, climate tech is unselfish tech. It's a gift to the future and to the broad public. It shares its spoils with workers. It requires public action. By contrast, Silicon Valley is greedy tech that is relentlessly focused on the shortest-term returns that can be extracted with the least share going to labor. It also requires massive public investment, but it also totally committed to giving as little back to the public as is possible.

No wonder America's richest and most powerful people are lining up to endorse and fund Trump:

Silicon Valley epitomizes Stafford Beer's motto that "the purpose of a system is what it does." If Silicon Valley produces nothing but planet-wrecking nonsense, grifty scams, and planet-wrecking, nonsensical scams, then these are all features of the tech sector, not bugs.

As Anil Dash writes:

Driving change requires us to make the machine want something else. If the purpose of a system is what it does, and we don’t like what it does, then we have to change the system.

To give climate tech the attention, excitement, and political will it deserves, we need to recalibrate our understanding of the world. We need to have object permanence. We need to remember just how few people were actually using cryptocurrency during the bubble and apply that understanding to AI hype. Only 2% of Britons surveyed in a recent study use AI tools:

If we want our tech companies to do good, we have to understand that their ground state is to create planet-wrecking nonsense, grifty scams, and planet-wrecking, nonsensical scams. We need to make these companies small enough to fail, small enough to jail, and small enough to care:

We need to hold companies responsible, and we need to change the microeconomics of the board room, to make it easier for tech workers who want to do good to shout down the scammers, nonsense-peddlers and grifters:

Yesterday, a federal judge ruled that the FTC could hold Amazon executives personally liable for the decision to trick people into signing up for Prime, and for making the unsubscribe-from-Prime process into a Kafka-as-a-service nightmare:

Imagine how powerful a precedent this could set. The Amazon employees who vociferously objected to their bosses' decision to make Prime as confusing as possible could have raised the objection that doing this could end up personally costing those bosses millions of dollars in fines:

We need to make climate tech, not Big Tech, the center of our scrutiny and will. The climate emergency is so terrifying as to be nearly unponderable. Science fiction writers are increasingly being called upon to try to frame this incomprehensible risk in human terms. SF writer (and biologist) Peter Watts's conversation with evolutionary biologist Dan Brooks is an eye-opener:

They draw a distinction between "sustainability" meaning "what kind of technological fixes can we come up with that will allow us to continue to do business as usual without paying a penalty for it?" and sustainability meaning, "what changes in behavior will allow us to save ourselves with the technology that is possible?"

Writing about the Watts/Brooks dialog for Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith invokes William Gibson's The Peripheral:

With everything stumbling deeper into a ditch of shit, history itself become a slaughterhouse, science had started popping. Not all at once, no one big heroic thing, but there were cleaner, cheaper energy sources, more effective ways to get carbon out of the air, new drugs that did what antibiotics had done before…. Ways to print food that required much less in the way of actual food to begin with. So everything, however deeply fucked in general, was lit increasingly by the new, by things that made people blink and sit up, but then the rest of it would just go on, deeper into the ditch. A progress accompanied by constant violence, he said, by sufferings unimaginable.

Gibson doesn't think this is likely, mind, and even if it's attainable, it will come amidst "unimaginable suffering."

But the universe of possible technologies is quite large. As Chachra points out in How Infrastructure Works, we could give every person on Earth a Canadian's energy budget (like an American's, but colder), by capturing a mere 0.4% of the solar radiation that reaches the Earth's surface every day. Doing this will require heroic amounts of material and labor, especially if we're going to do it without destroying the planet through material extraction and manufacturing.

These are the questions that we should be concerning ourselves with: what behavioral changes will allow us to realize cheap, abundant, green energy? What "innovations" will our society need to focus on the things we need, rather than the scams and nonsense that creates Silicon Valley fortunes?

How can we use planning, and solidarity, and codetermination to usher in the kind of tech that makes it possible for us to get through the climate bottleneck with as little death and destruction as possible? How can we use enforcement, discernment, and labor rights to thwart the enshittificatory impulses of Silicon Valley's biggest assholes?

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This day in history (permalink)

2004, 2009, 2014, 2019, 2023

#15yrsago FBI terrorist interrogator on the uselessness of torture and the efficacy of cookies

#15yrsago Basil Wolverton’s Bible: the putting the grotesque into the Old Testament

#10yrsago a new short-fiction imprint from Tor

#10yrsago Sexagintuple Vanilla Bean Mocha Frappuccino: a $55 Starbucks drink

#10yrsago Mysterious announcement from Truecrypt declares the project insecure and dead

#10yrsago Tor founder Tom Doherty on publishing without DRM

#10yrsago Jonathan Lethem and Lars Eidinger’s claustrophobic, Snowden-commemorating short film

#5yrsago Open Insulin: biohackers trying to create a “microbrewery” for insulin as an answer to price-gouging

#5yrsago How DRM has permitted Google to have an “open source” browser that is still under its exclusive control

#5yrsago DARPA’s Spectrum Collaboration Challenge: finally some progress towards a “Cognitive Radio” future

#5yrsago Chinese environment ministry finds widespread pollution coverups and corruption at the local government level

#5yrsago Trump’s new climate czar has repeatedly and unrepentantly compared efforts to reduce CO2 to Hitler’s slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews

#5yrsago The UK grew rich by looting the world; now it launders billions for other looters

#5yrsago What the FTC should do AFTER it fines Facebook $3-5B

#1yrago Monopolizing turds

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Latest books (permalink)

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Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025
  • Unauthorized Bread: a middle-grades graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

  • Enshittification: a nonfiction book about platform decay. Today's progress: 820 words (2457 words total).

Colophon (permalink)

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Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING
  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

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