By Shira Ovide
July 8, 2020
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My friends, I vow to make you care about internet cables and metal poles in the ground. Please don’t immediately unsubscribe from this newsletter.
The magic of the internet requires a lot of very boring stuff behind the scenes. We wouldn’t be able to watch kitten videos on YouTube without an elaborate system of hulking warehouses lined with computer equipment, thick coils of wire that spans oceans and tree-size poles laced with internet cables.
We mostly never see or think about this stuff. But one of the underappreciated ways that today’s technology superpowers like Google and Amazon stay superpowers is their mastery of all the boring stuff that makes the internet possible. This is the kind of advantage the tech superpowers have that is hard for governments to break apart or for rivals to compete with.
The tech giants’ fingerprints, brain power and dollars are all over the invisible backbone of the global internet.
Facebook on Monday talked about undersea internet pipelines it is helping fund in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and other global spots to help improve online access and speeds. My colleague Abdi Latif Dahir wrote this week about Google’s first use of high-altitude balloons to transmit the internet in areas of Kenya.
Google’s internet balloons — like Facebook’s failed attempt at internet-beaming drones — might be pointlessly showy pieces of equipment where conventional cellphone towers are better suited. But no matter. This is the relatively glamorous tip of an otherwise boring iceberg.
Google, Facebook, Amazon and other big American tech companies collectively spend tens of billions of dollars each year on things like massive warehouses of computer and internet equipment that let them speed along your Instagram posts and home shopping purchases.
You might have driven by some of these computing centers and never noticed them. But the tech giants’ efforts to make these boring workhorses more efficient and effective is one of the most important advancements in technology in the last decade.
It doesn’t stop there. Increasingly lining the world’s oceans are undersea cables that are partly or entirely funded by internet companies and are essential cogs in the internet. And there are even way more boring projects like software that Facebook helped design for Wi-Fi hot spots tailored to the demands of places like rural Kenya where internet connections are spotty.
The internet powers aren’t doing this for selfless reasons. They know that if they help improve the world’s internet-carrying backbone, we are likely to spend more time Googling, watching YouTube kittens and pinging friends on WhatsApp.
Few other companies can afford to build undersea internet cables, have the same level of skill in running data centers, or care so much about the internet’s boring backbone. Little companies and all us kitten lovers benefit from the tech superpowers’ mastery over the online plumbing, but the giants benefit more. In some cases, the pipes they’re building carry their digital traffic alone.
We tend to focus on tech companies’ dominance over parts of the internet we can see, like search engines and social media sites. But the superpowers’ command of the invisible infrastructure of the digital world gives them an untouchable advantage. The boring stuff turns out to be incredibly important.
Has technology failed public health?
No, but also a little.
Some U.S. states and countries have released smartphone apps to help notify people if they’ve come into contact with someone who later tests positive for the coronavirus. These digital helpers can’t stop a pandemic, but they’re supposed to be one tool to help public health officials limit the spread of infection.
I’ve written before about a two-question test for any technology like this: Does it work, and is it creepy? No technology can be perfectly effective, so we and our elected representatives have to decide what balance of creepy and effective we’re willing to accept.
In Norway, the government decided the creepy outweighed the effective.
My colleague Natasha Singer wrote about a temporary ban on Norway’s coronavirus-tracking app after officials found it didn’t justify the risk of the app’s collection of large amounts of people’s personal information.
The experience in Norway doesn’t mean virus-tracking apps shouldn’t exist anywhere. Norway is unusual because there are relatively few coronavirus infections in the country. That makes it harder to prove whether the app is effective, and it tilts the creepy-effective balance to the creepy side of the scale.
One way countries could tilt the balance the other way is by putting more attention on limiting the amount of information those apps collect about people.
The reality is that the coronavirus is going to be part of our lives for some time, and we need virus-tracking apps as one tool in our pandemic-fighting toolbox. An official from Norway’s public health agency told Natasha that banning the app was the wrong step, because the country will need a virus tracking app if there is a big outbreak later.
We do need to remember, though, not to overly fixate on either the potential privacy harms or the potential benefits of technology, which can never be a cure-all for disease or any other human problem. And we need to find the right balance between the creepy and the effective elements of these apps.
Before we go …
- Uh, Facebook’s week has not gone well: A two-year, independent audit of Facebook’s civil rights policies and practices repeatedly faulted the company for its lax responses to hate speech and misinformation, my colleague Mike Isaac wrote.The report commissioned by the company suggests that Facebook isn’t just a mirror reflecting our sometimes nasty and divided world, but a site that’s making things worse by pulling people into self-reinforcing extremist beliefs.Greg Bensinger, a member of The New York Times’s editorial board, wrote that a major takeaway from the audit is that “even when Facebook commits to reforms, it almost never does enough.” (Not unrelated: Organizers of an advertiser boycott of Facebook are not happy with the company’s commitment to reforms.)
- Amazon Prime, but from Walmart: The big box store is ready to start its own membership program that will offer perks such as discounts at Walmart gas pumps, unlimited same-day delivery of groceries and some other merchandise, as well as the option to check out at stores without waiting in line, according to Recode, a tech news publication. The question is whether the middle of a pandemic and a related economic crisis is the right moment for Walmart to start a shopper membership program.
- Consider this before you splurge on a new gadget: Can you replace the battery? Will it be easy to fix? Do you need this, really? The Times personal technology columnist Brian X. Chen walks you through things you should consider so you can buy stuff that will last longer.
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Shira Ovide writes the On Tech newsletter, a guide to how technology is reshaping our lives and world. @ShiraOvide