The Keynote that Shocked Me

This week I went to a very good conference that I would have enjoyed hugely but for how horrified I felt after watching one of the opening keynotes.

The technical speaker was well meaning and clearly cared about the environment and he gave an excellently scary picture of global warming and its effects on humanity. But that wasn’t what terrified me. What was shocking was that he gave me the impression that other than working for Tesla or putting up a solar panel, there was nothing we could do about it.

To a room full of software engineers! One of the most powerful groups within one of the richest and most significant industries on the planet. An industry that influences human behaviour and is itself a huge planetary polluter.

Put up some solar panels, that’s great. But if my only advice to a room full of oil executives was “recycle” that would be a missed opportunity. To tell techies to put up solar panels is similarly unambitious but it’s also dangerous — it encourages the belief that tech folk don’t have much individual power to change the world. That belief is quite wrong. It is the scariest face of imposter syndrome and the world cannot afford for us to think it.

I talk to enterprises and vendors constantly. Their number one tech problem, their top priority, is almost always hiring and retaining good engineers. I have met companies who’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars re-implementing platforms mostly (it seems) to keep their developers happy. Some firms are apparently OK to risk major sexual harassment lawsuits just to avoid distracting a programmer.

All this means that any good engineer has significant power — the power to withdraw, threaten to withdraw, or even mildly hint at withdrawing, their valuable labour and applying it somewhere else.

I love working in tech but that doesn’t mean we should be blind to its flaws. Data centres currently use ~2% of the world’s electricity, often very inefficiently. And that % is growing because we are an expanding industry. We’re on a par with the aviation industry. We are a major polluter.

So is the tech industry a baddie? Unfortunately yes. But, we could easily be a very effective goodie if we chose.

Data centres use loads of electricity. That’s terrible for the environment but also a huge opportunity. Big Tech is a massive customer for electricity — we spend billions on it every year. What if we said that we wanted all that spend to be on renewables? Then we’d be a huge, guaranteed customer for wind farms, solar, hydro and even nuclear.

Does your company have a renewables target for data centre energy use? Why not? Ask for one.

Going to the cloud? Does your list of cloud provider requirements include a renewables target for DC energy use? Why not?

That’s it. Ask, measure and ask for more. We can go from being a baddie to being a massive force for good.

All this sounds really easy so why don’t we do it? I believe there are 2 reasons.

  1. Most of us never think about being in a polluting industry because we never think about servers (serverless anyone)? Servers exist in huge numbers, they require electricity and we often use them really inefficiently. We wouldn’t leave the hot tap running but we leave servers powered up and under-utilised because they are invisible.
  2. I suspect many of us live in a constant fog of imposter syndrome in which we worry that eating too many biscuits in the tearoom is going to get us fired. We therefore lack the confidence to even hint that we might want to see a small change in the way our employer operates. We cannot afford to feel this way. We are highly educated, free, self-aware, relatively healthy, well-paid and secure humans. If we don’t say anything then who will?

Going to the cloud is interesting. Cloud providers run their DCs much more efficiently than on prem (good) and some Cloud providers like Google have 100% renewable energy targets (very good). But, it’s very easy to get more machines in the cloud and that is helping our industry expand. That’s great if it expands using solar or wind but not if it expands using dirty fuels so it really matters how cloud DCs are powered and we should always ask.

SciFi author interested in tech, engineering, science, art, SF, economics, psychology, startups. Chaotic evil.