Engineering Illusions Part III: Private Enterprise and Technology -I
Pre-programmed Climate Disruption
When Amazon, Inc. launched its private-label motor oil in 2018, a drop in the share price of engine oil maker Valvoline was not surprising. Instead, Amazon’s sudden entry in the oil business held all claims to surprise at the time. As Forbes observed then, “The fact that Amazon has released a private label product in a category most analysts and consumers believed Amazon wouldn’t compete, will become a big story.”
A far larger story for the oil and gas industry was on the horizon. At the 2019 Amazon Web Services (AWS) re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, British Petroleum’s (BP) vice president of IT and services, Stewart Fry, took the stage. Reflecting on BP’s decision to become a cloud-first company in 2016, Fry noted that migrating the company’s expansive digital infrastructure to AWS had yielded dramatic business improvements. For instance, calculations that would ordinarily take the company seven hours could be completed in four minutes by utilizing certain “refinery optimization” tools. Fry noted that BP had observed a wide range of benefits, “the most notable being around cost agility, reduced capital, and improved performance.” Amazon’s systems had helped accelerate oil production by automating various steps in BP’s operations.
This led BP to move all its data and nine hundred key applications from European datacenters to AWS. As BP’s chief information officer Steve Fortune said at the time, “Exiting our European data centers and migrating to AWS supports our digital transformation agenda, and we’re excited about the possibilities for increased flexibility, operational efficiencies, and opportunities to innovate while helping to advance the energy transition.” This marked a major milestone for Amazon and its aggressive program to deploy its technologies for the fossil fuel industry.
AWS Oil and Gas is Amazon’s cloud computing services offering for oil and gas companies. It promotes its advantages by noting that it allows fossil fuel companies to “thrive despite shrinking margins, and market volatility.” Highlighting the system’s provisions to boost fossil fuel production and profits, it proudly declares that “explorers can extract insights faster to improve field planning, geoscientists can run more demanding workflows and identify reservoirs faster and cheaper, and refineries can optimize with predictive maintenance and inventory planning.” Amazon provides its services to many clients, including Shell and Halliburton.
AWS utilizes various techniques to help accelerate and maximize oil and gas production. For instance, its “data lakes” allow for rapid storage of field data such as seismic survey information and factory sensor data. This boosts the fossil fuel industry’s production and operation speeds. As AWS notes, it “speeds up time to first prospect or oil; and knowledge mining.”
AWS also deploys various AI models to accelerate the discovery-to-digging process. As it promotes, “AWS advanced machine learning and [High-Performance Computing] tools allow oil and gas companies to reduce the time required for seismic data processing from several months to a few days, creating more accurate 3D models of rock and fluid properties that far surpass traditional methods.” Subsequently, these models can then be used in a “variety of applications that lead to improved efficiency and speed of exploration, drilling, and production.”
A wide range of oil and gas customers endorse the benefits of AWS cloud services, such as optimizing pipelines, and improved control over wells and reserves. The deployment of cloud services, advanced data analysis and AI in a traditionally heavy industry has unlocked billions in new markets for Amazon, spawned various tech-fossil fuel conferences, and of course, pulled more fossil fuel out of the ground in record time. This new market plunged the top three US cloud services companies — Amazon, Microsoft, and Google — into a venture that grants intelligence to a very unintelligent global indulgence, effectively automating carbon emissions and climate breakdown.
At a time when our most advanced technologies should be deployed to address anthropogenic climate disruption and environmental degradation, the world’s premier technology companies are diligently developing algorithms that ensure catastrophe manifests as quickly as possible. With these techniques, various reserves that may have been deemed too expensive to exploit can be rendered accessible. Entirely unknown reserves can be discovered much faster. These harrowing concerns are not lost on Amazon employees, who have voiced their protests against the use of these technologies that flouts the scientific consensus around climate change.
In 2019, a group of Amazon employees called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice wrote an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos and the Amazon board of directors demanding a stop to the company’s oil and gas cloud service offerings. The letter, signed by 8702 employees, also noted that Amazon did not set concrete timelines for its announced 100% renewable energy goals. (Incidentally, employees working on indefinite timelines is not acceptable.) Since then, Amazon has committed to becoming net carbon neutral by 2040. However, as the letter observed regarding Amazon’s Shipmen Zero initiative, a net-zero emissions goal “does not commit to a decrease in emissions compared to current levels. Given Amazon’s rate of growth, reaching 50% net-zero shipments by 2030 could still be an increase in emissions compared to today.”
Indeed, it allows Amazon to continue polluting. For instance, at the time the company had added 20,000 diesel vans in its fleet, emissions from which would have to be offset with carbon credits. These offsets would “entail forest management policies that displace indigenous communities, and they do nothing to reduce [its] diesel pollution which disproportionately harms communities of color,” the employees noted. In addition, Amazon’s sustainability goals are without context. While the company has “set a goal of at least 50 solar installations in warehouse facilities by 2020,” it “represents only 6% of buildings in [its] global fulfillment network and a fraction of [its] overall carbon footprint.”
The letter also lambasted the company for reliably donating to climate action delaying legislators, even though it is a part of sustainability organizations such as the Corporate Eco Forum and the American Council on Renewable Energy. Amazon “donated to 68 members of Congress in 2018 who voted against climate legislation 100% of the time.” The employees instead called for policy advocacy on the local, federal and international levels, and “withholding of support from policy makers who delay action on climate change.”
Various suggested climate action plans were translated into a climate resolution for the company in 2019. However, noting that the company had already taken voluntary steps commensurate to the demands, Amazon recommended that its shareholders vote against the resolution. While the resolution did better than every environmental and social resolution voted on between 2015 and 2018, it was defeated. It was defeated again in 2020.
In May 2020, environmental advocacy group Greenpeace released a study on the effects of automating the fossil fuel industry. Following the study, Google announced that it would no longer provide AI and machine learning tools to its oil and gas clients. Like Amazon, Google employees had also mounted a campaign to force Google to stop its AI and cloud programs for the fossil fuel industry. An AWS representative gloated in a sales pitch to potential fossil fuel industry clients, “If you’re an [Oil & Gas] company looking for a strategic digital transformation partner, we would recommend choosing a partner who actually uses your products and can help you transform for the future — instead of the non-existent Microsoft and Google planes/trucks/vans purchasing your products. $0 top-line value.” The representative elaborated, “Amazon buys jet fuel for our Amazon Prime Air planes! Amazon Middle Mile buys diesel for our 18-wheeler trucks! Amazon Last Mile buys gasoline for our blue Mercedes sprinter vans which you see in your neighborhoods!”
Renewable energy is rapidly expanding around the world. For instance, the energy capacity of solar power installed in 2017 exceeded the combined increases from coal, gas and nuclear power in the same year. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected in 2019, “Renewable power capacity is set to expand by 50% between 2019 and 2024, led by solar PV. This increase of 1,200 GW is equivalent to the total installed power capacity of the United States today. Solar PV alone accounts for almost 60% of the expected growth, with onshore wind representing one-quarter.” Renewable energy share in global energy generation is projected to grow from 26% in 2019 to 30% in 2024.
However, IEA also projects that with no changes to our global energy policies, the world’s energy demand will rise by 1.3% annually to 2040. It notes that “while this is well below the remarkable 2.3% growth seen in 2018, it would result in a relentless upward march in energy-related emissions, as well as growing strains on almost all aspects of energy security.” Furthermore, BP’s 2020 statistical review of world energy determined that global primary energy consumption increased at an annual rate of 1.6% from 2008 to 2018. This trend attenuates the resulting optimism from the increasing share of renewables in the energy mix, as the total energy consumption continues to rise. Carbon emissions, the key factor driving rising temperatures, are increasing even though renewable energy sources continue to expand. Indeed, even if 99% of our energy were drawn from renewable sources, but the total energy consumption was sufficiently high, the resulting scenario would be less desirable than one in which 30% of our energy was drawn from renewables and the total energy consumption were significantly smaller — as this would produce far less emissions.
As renewables continue to expand and our energy consumption continues to rise, Amazon and other tech companies are working hard to contract the first trend by automating cheaper fossil fuel production, while ensuring the perpetual increase in our energy use as they continue to meet their mandates of incessant growth. As a 2017 Carbon Disclosures Project report showed, 100 fossil fuel companies accounted for 71% of emissions since 1988. This accounted for the downstream emissions caused by the companies’ customers. As we were reminded, “Amazon buys jet fuel for our Amazon Prime Air planes! Amazon Middle Mile buys diesel for our 18-wheeler trucks! Amazon Last Mile buys gasoline for our blue Mercedes sprinter vans which you see in your neighborhoods!”
For corporations like Amazon that control our scientific and technical enterprise, science and technology are useful only in so far as they can be alchemized to maximize returns for shareholders. After all, it would be irresponsible to stop the use of machine learning and cloud services in a market worth billions. It would be reckless to ignore the ambitions of investors who harbor dreams of amassing immense fortunes. That it would lead to ecocide is hardly of any concern. Employees propounding the scientific consensus, citing environmental costs, and offering creative solutions to utilize our technical prowess in constructive ways must be silenced. Their creativity is useful only in so far as it can aid the mad dash to the commercialization of every last technique. It is irresponsible for the employees to shirk this duty, express concerns about the direction of technologies built by them and pursue rational and constructive use of our technologies.
A technology enterprise that purports to be scientifically sound sheds all pretense when institutional demands of profiteering are at stake. The ravenous nature of private business, and the infinite appetite of its benefactors set the imperatives for production, consumption, and waste cycles. Technology becomes but a means to satiate this appetite, and when menacing questions of environmental sustainability arise, it serves to create quasi-solutions that fend off challenges to its underlying doctrines.
A May 2020 AWS Oil and Gas blog post expressed deep concern for the oil and gas business climate, while ignoring the other climate. It noted, “It’s not news that the global energy sector is facing its biggest challenge in recent history, driven by simultaneous demand and supply shocks that have driven the cost of energy to its lowest levels in history.” Exhorting potential fossil fuel industry clients to begin running at digital speeds, it asked that the sector “keep an eye on new technologies that can realize innovative but previously impractical ideas.” “For example, a decade ago, futurists first talked about self-optimizing oil fields, which use sensors to record, analyze, and regulate information to and from individual wells and production systems in remote locations. Today that blue-sky thinking has become reality,” it declared, promoting AWS’s capacity to boost fossil fuel production and profits. A month later, in a statement on merely launching, not achieving, its net-zero carbon initiative, the company declared, “The challenge seemed audacious, but we committed to raise the bar and use our passion, as well as our size and scale, to make a meaningful impact in addressing climate change.”
After its first shareholder resolution defeat in 2019, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice had declared, “The climate crisis is not going anywhere, and neither are we.” By the second defeat, this was revised to better describe the problem. As one advocate noted a year later, “Amazon isn’t going away, and neither are we.”
Adam Smith Sided with Amazon Employees
Eighteenth-century economist and philosopher Adam Smith is a sacrosanct figure in highly educated business circles. Often recited with passionate zeal is his conception of free markets, and division of labor in his The Wealth of Nations. The inspiring tale of entrepreneurs competing diligently in free and fair markets is a gratifying narrative for tech industry entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and business professors in MBA classrooms. The idea of dividing human labor to perform specialized tasks for greater efficiency has a mystical magnetism for those who hold up their electronic tablets inscribed with management theory and industrial psychology. Adam Smith is that guiding light for the valiant adventurers building the future through commercial technology. Elon Musk once tweeted, “Adam Smith [for the win, obviously].”275
Smith studied English society at the infancy of the industrial revolution, before the effects of industrial capitalism fully manifested in the political economy. Early egalitarian movements long before the industrial revolution saw in property rights and free trade the dismantling of hierarchies that sought to subordinate large parts of society. Such subjugation included the rule of lords over tenants, masters over minions, captains over sailors, and husbands over wives, children, and servants. For instance, as political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson notes in Private Government, “Under the common law of master and servant, regular employees had to work an entire year from sunup to sundown before acquiring entitlement to wages.” This meant that masters extensively engaged in wage-theft, withholding pay, “without prorating, if their servants missed even a single day of work, or if they judged any part of their employees’ work substandard.”
Hence, the egalitarians concluded that a burgeoning market society that dissolved such subordination held emancipatory potential. “The personal independence of masterless men and women in matters of thought and religion depended on their independence in matters of property and trade.” As the hypothesis went, dissolving monopolistic power would result in free trade and contracts that would free the subordinated from these scattered regimes of rule. In the process, social hierarchies would dissolve, creating the conditions for a free workforce.
It was in this liberating potential that Smith postulated the worth of markets. In the context of the contemporary repressive human relations, Smith advanced the cause of dismantling the monopoly power of merchants, lords and masters by hypothesizing greater access to the protections of law for a broader population. This would theoretically begin to dissolve the three types of social hierarchy: “authority, esteem and standing,” as Anderson notes. With hierarchy of authority, superiors “exercise arbitrary and unaccountable power over their inferiors.” With the hierarchy of esteem, superiors show contempt for their subordinates and “extract tokens of deferential honor from them,” including sycophancy, groveling, and other humiliating liturgies. Lastly, with the hierarchy of standing, superiors’ interests simply matter more than those of their subordinates.
In modern times, it is Smith’s work that has been subordinated without consequence. Correction: there have been grave consequences — of bolstering the very monopolistic, unfree conditions that Smith warned against. Today’s consecrated platitudes around jobs, market efficiency and economic growth driven by monopolistic corporations were not considered to be the desirous outcomes of markets. The desire for a revolutionary shift from post-feudalism to a market society was driven by a far simpler principle than today’s ubiquitous worship of corporate power and pioneering tech entrepreneurs. As Smith noted in Book III: On the Different Progress of Opulence in Different Nations, “Commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country, who had before lived almost in a continual state of war with their neighbors and of servile dependency upon their superiors. This, though it has been the least observed, is by far the most important of all their effects.”
Counterfeiting a philosopher and economist whose pre-capitalist work reflects strong criticisms of modern monopolies and worker subordination, into a spokesman for today’s state-corporate complex is tragic mutilation of history. Indeed, Smith casually observed various violations of egalitarian principles in the emergent conditions at the time. Referencing the control of national policy by organized capital, he noted in Book IV: Systems of Political Economy, “It cannot be very difficult to determine who have been the contrivers of this whole mercantile system; not the consumers, we may believe, whose interest has been entirely neglected; but the producers, whose interest has been so carefully attended to; and among this latter class our merchants and manufacturers have been by far the principal architects.” “In the mercantile regulations,” he observed, “the interest of […] manufacturers has been most peculiarly attended to; and the interest, not so much of the consumers, as that of some other sets of producers, has been sacrificed to it.”
Today, this peculiar attention to the policy needs of the master class at the expense of others is demanded as a precondition to efficient market operation, lest the market cease lavishing its wonders upon us. Smith, today’s eminent exemplar of free-market ideology, noted in Book I: On the Causes of Improvement in the Productive Powers, “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counselors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favor of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favor of the masters.”
Foreseeing the destructively incessant wealth-seeking private interests that twist society, and by extension, technology, for their infinite profits, Smith observed in Book III: On the Different Progress of Opulence in Different Nations, “What all the violence of the feudal institutions could never have effected, the silent and insensible operation of foreign commerce and manufactures gradually brought about. These gradually furnished the great proprietors with something for which they could exchange the whole surplus produce of their lands, and which they could consume themselves without sharing it either with tenants or retainers. All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
Today, the control of advanced technologies by the “masters of mankind” has further intensified the “vile maxim,” indeed even automating the maxim with clever algorithms. Computerized high-frequency trading is a fine illustration. Under the malignancy of this maxim, employees, contractors, and other labor must be regimented. The actual creators of technology must be reduced to only their profession; their entire existence comprehensively summarized in only their craft. In this way, they cannot harbor sentiments in other social, economic and political domains, lest the maxim be interrupted. Critiquing such unfettered division of society into owners, managers and human machines, Smith had observed in Book V: On the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth, “In the progress of the division of labor, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labor, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” A far cry from the happy farmer, baker and butcher trading freely in an egalitarian society.
Later, similar sentiments were echoed by Arthur E. Morgan, civil engineer and the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s. A proponent of social cooperative enterprises under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, Morgan noted that the engineer employed in an industrial bureaucracy “tends not to be a free agent, but a technical instrument of other men’s purposes.” In Silicon Valley, the religion of technology drips again as a soothing potion to ensure that the “other men’s purposes” appear as a communal north star for an entire population to strive towards. After all, the legions of faceless employees working under the mandates of the technical enterprise that seeks to create Adamic perfection are but insignificant stepping stones to the glorious apotheosis that awaits. Immaterial is the fact that the other men’s ambitions are tangled with more pertinent matters of profit and power.
The cold calamity here is that under the hallucinations of approaching divine ascension brought forth by technology, there is a definite descent that violates the most elementary human instincts of creative, self-determined and cooperative work. In their attempt to bend the path of technical work away from the destructive outcome of accelerating climate breakdown, a wide range of professionals signed the Amazon protest letters, from software engineers to writers to associates to research scientists to recruiters to product managers to operations planners to designers to technicians. However, these skills and creative pursuits must instead bend to the whims of the private enterprise, demonstrating their worth only to the extent they can expand the net worth of investors.
Smith’s propositions sought humanitarian and emancipatory outcomes for the greater population that lived in a state of “servile dependency upon their superiors.” His analysis proceeded by using a pin factory as a model, introduced in the first chapter of the book. In those times, such an enterprise would ideally employ only about ten workers. The rise of self-employment would serve as a great leveler against the prevalent commissars that created a range of private tyrannies in all facets of life, he hypothesized. Governance did not begin and end with the state, but lords, masters and husbands all operated their own personal regimes of rule. While Smith endeavored to challenge such relationships to advance equality, today his work serves as intellectual scaffolding for very inequality and unaccountability in institutions he sought to oppose. As is the case with industry at large, it is worth heeding Smith to understand the modern technological enterprise. What of technology if the technologists are simply regimented to the desolate rhythm of the vile maxim?