Facebook’s data center is a cold mirror. Luleå is a town in Sweden, just below the Arctic Circle. Facebook operates a ginormous data center there because the frigid air helps cool its heat-radiating servers, and there’s a bounty of hydroelectric power to fuel them. Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg posted a set of photos of the Luleå server farm, providing a remarkable tableau of what’s really a kind of modern temple of industry — a data-age Great Pyramid. We think of cloud computing as evanescent bits and ethereal data; these hulking turbines, massive rack arrays, and yawning corridors are the material forms of the cloud, repressed but persistent. The images remind us that there’s really no escape from the corporeal world; we can displace the evidence of our digital media’s physical substrate and tuck it away in the Arctic ice, but it won’t be denied. You’ll also notice how few people inhabit these images. The better we get at maintaining the technology that connects us, the more we disappear from the picture. What stubbornly remains behind: mountains of shredded hard drives. Facebook is showing them off to reassure us about its commitment to privacy, but they’re also a heartbreaking reminder of sheer waste.
Today’s partner is tomorrow’s competitor. Fedex and UPS have thrived as haulers of Amazon’s crates, but now, The Wall Street Journal reports, the Seattle-based online retail giant is weighing bringing the delivery network in house. Running its own fleet of trucks could save Amazon more than $1 billion a year. Taking on its freight-giant partners would also be a vast and risky undertaking for Amazon. Once ubiquitous, this kind of “vertical integration” has fallen out of fashion in corporate circles. But Amazon’s burgeoning, voracious need for speed and capacity is driving it to take all kinds of unconventional steps.
Inflation’s dead — blame, or thank, the internet. Economists generally view low inflation as a sign of a sluggish economy that needs a good kick, via permissive monetary policy. When inflation is roaring, they counsel throwing cold water on it in the form of tight money. But maybe the low inflation of recent decades has little to do with monetary policy at all, and everything to do with technology and the efficiencies it has provided. Policy experts have been arguing this one for years now. One new analysis (from New Constructs) comes down hard on the “it’s all about tech” side. In this argument, pervasive networking hasn’t just made everything more efficient; the network also supercharges competition, holding down both prices and wages. If that’s right, then it might be time to rewrite the whole economics rulebook, because the old model no longer applies.
How free trade lost its consensus. Free trade increases wealth; globalization really works. But it doesn’t work with any guarantee of egalitarianism or inherent fairness. Knowledge workers have tended to prosper, while ordinary workers lose ground — and Brexit, Trumpism, and the rise of anti-immigrant populism in Europe and the U.S. are all reactions (The New York Times). Trade boosts wages in export industries and provides consumers with lower prices and more choices, but it provides more competition for less-skilled workers, while automation is further limiting their options. In the U.S., the government’s safety net for such affected workers is full of holes, and here and abroad, governments have failed to offer meaningful retraining programs. Two centuries after the first wave of the industrial revolution put hand-loom weavers out of business and inspired the original Luddites, we still haven’t learned how to cushion workers from the brutality of economic transitions.
Smartphones could use a little ergonomics. Once again, we’ve completely reorganized our lives around a new technology without paying any attention to what it might be doing to our bodies (Buzzfeed). Ergonomic office practices have barely caught up with the desktop computer and the mouse, but we’ve already outrun them. Now our tiny touch screens have begun wearing out our joints and deforming our spines. For office workers and even more, for youngsters, mobile obsession can lead to physical torment. We need more research on what we’re doing to our thumbs and necks. Meanwhile, one doctor’s advice is: “Keep your head up.” That’s not, like, a call to stay optimistic; it’s practical posture advice.
Featured in NewCo Shift: Throwing Down the Gauntlet: The Diversity Crisis and the Startup Community. Two years after Google’s first diversity report, David Delmar, the founder of Resilient Coders, says that we might not be doing anything to solve the problem — even if we think we are.
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