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Guillaume Pitron on Digital Pollution

Author - "The Dark Cloud"


Guillaume Pitron Author Photo
Guillaume Pitron

Journalist and documentary filmmaker Guillaume Pitron discusses his new book- The Dark Cloud.



TRANSCRIPT:



Lori Messing McGarry

Welcome to Real Fiction. I'm Lori Messing McGarry. Have you ever thought about what happens when you press the like button on a Facebook post, or that cute little heart button on Instagram and TikTok? As it turns out quite a lot is triggered in the Digital Cloud and on the ground. Author and journalist Guillaume Pitron returns to Real Fiction to break this down.


Joining me from Paris to discuss his latest book, The Dark Cloud, we get into the geography of that like button. With his investigative reporting, he challenges narratives about dematerialization. It's all up in the cloud, right? Well, not really.


Real Fiction is part of Real Fiction Forum. You can find that website online. And this episode all episodes wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you so much for being here, I'll be back in a moment with journalist Guillaume Pitron.


Lori Messing McGarry

My guest today is Guillaume Pitron. He is the author of The Dark Cloud - The Hidden Costs of the Digital World. He is a journalist and documentary filmmaker and was last here on Real Fiction to discuss his first book, The Rare Metals War. I received a lot of comments about that conversation. This new book challenges us to think about the material impact of digital technology, even something as simple as pressing the like button when you're on social media platforms. He joins me from France to discuss his new book, Guillaume. Welcome back to Real Fiction.


Guillaume Pitron

Thank you, Lori, for inviting me again.


Lori Messing McGarry

The question I’ve had from our last conversation in your last book is something you've said, “We have gained buying power, but we've lost buying knowledge.” That was as it pertained to sort of green energy. And I feel like it's really relevant in this book as well, because you are challenging us to think a little differently about the material impact of digital technology. It's all up in the cloud, but it's very real on Earth. Can you tell me how this book came to be?


Guillaume Pitron

Sure. In my former book, as you mentioned, The Rare Metals War, I was finishing the book with one fascinating figure, which you may remember. For the next 30 years, the humankind will have to extract from the ground, more metals and minerals than all the metals and mineral it has extracted for the last 70 years. And now we're talking about dematerialization. I'm going to put my paycheck in the cloud. I will live a virtual life on the metaverse. I can turn my life from its physical reality towards kind of digital realities that has no impact on the earth. And that I will be able to, you know, keep getting richer, enjoy my life as a consumer without having any environmental impact. And I'm going to get the best of the two worlds.


I want to challenge this dematerialization stuff, especially because I had this figure in mind, which had just told you, the reality is that everyone knows that we're going to get more material and material in the future, that our daily lives will become even more materialistic.


And, so, I want to challenge this dematerialization narrative. And I said to my editor, what if we perform an investigation, a two-year investigation all around the world, questioning the paradox of dematerialization? And what if I follow the trail of like, whatever, like if, what if I literally follow the trail of data around the world? Let's assume that I sent an email or a “like”, or Facebook notification, from my phone to someone else's phone who was sitting just two meters away from me in office. Does this notification from this data literally travel from my phone to such a person's phone two meters away from me? And actually, that's not the case. The reality is that this like will travel all around the world, passing through all the strategic points of the internet infrastructure and travel for thousands of kilometers until we arrive into someone else's phone.


Lori Messing McGarry

You have traveled all over the world looking at this, including in the Washington DC area. Northern Virginia has a massive complex of data centers, part of the cloud infrastructure. So, in other words, when I press “Like” – when I think I'm being a nice person responding to somebody who posted something cute on the internet, it's actually triggering something in these big data centers, right?



Definitely, yes. Let me explain. Your Facebook, WhatsApp account, Instagram account is not on your phone. It's in a data center. So physically speaking, literally speaking, your account is literally stored in a server and the server is stored with many other servers in what we call the data center or warehouse. There are 3 million data centers, where all the data is getting stored. It was a fascinating discovery that due to its primacy in the world geopolitics of digital technologies, the United States have, there's a city south of DC, which is Ashburn in Northern Virginia, where 70% of the world's data is passing through every day, every single day. And because of what well, because United States have been a leader in the development of the infrastructure. And because many data centers from the US ecosystem, have been gathering in this specific city, which is sometimes nicknamed a Cloud City. Why specifically, Ashburn it's because taxes are less than other cities. Electricity is quite cheap and available. And this is needed for data centers for running data centers. So when you go to Ashburn you are in a “cloud city” with huge warehouses, where literally 70%, again, of the world data is getting treated and stored. As you mentioned, there is no cloud without electricity, the electricity is needed for running the cloud. Basically, most of the report, not much, but 30 to 50% of electricity is needed for refreshing the servers, you need to operate the servers in a cool environment. So, you need air conditioning systems. So how do you get this electricity? Well, you get it by obviously asking to companies such as Dominion Energy in Northern Virginia, to produce the electricity. And that brings a question, how much of electricity is being needed for running the cloud? And where does electricity come from?


Lori Messing McGarry

I did not realize 70% was based in Ashburn, Virginia. That's, that's an astonishing figure. Let me pull back for just a moment and ask you about what you learned with regard to government policy. You just mentioned that the United States has obviously put a lot of emphasis on the digital infrastructure. You also looked at the tiny Baltic country of Estonia, which is now called the most digitalized country in the world. From a policy standpoint, what do you see happening in Europe, maybe relative to the United States?


Guillaume Pitron


Well,the United States is very much an advance and the European countries are obviously lagging behind. I really believe that, in a way, European countries are a digital colony of the United States, which means we consume US web services. Our data is getting stored somewhere else from the than the European continent. That is a big, big issue in terms of sovereignty. The thing was Estonia is when Estonia separated from the USSR. In the 90s, there was a state to rebuild from scratch, and the motto was transparency. They wanted to rebuild a transparent state, contrary to what they had been experiencing. In the in the decades before, and the idea of building a state based on digital technologies was very much to make digital technologies, a support of a transparent state, everything would be available to the public, as long as you could get access to a screen. And so the entirely built there in there, the state services, which are available to every citizen, upon digital services to such a point where today, whatever you want to do, when you're a student from Estonia, maybe besides getting married, where you have to be physically present in front of the mayor, but besides of that, you can do anything online. And even when you die, you have an E-service. So, the state takes care of your deaths, and make sure that everything can be treated online, the data being processed and other services, administrative services being processed online. So that that makes everything more easy to everyone on their databases. But the very idea is to be transparent. So I've been there, I've been in Estonia, I've been speaking to people who run the service. And it seems like it's a wonderful world, because you know, it has no impact everything in the cloud. Base away, there's strong ecological arguments, you don't need the tones of paper that you need to print every day, and bring such a form or such a form to such an administration. So that seems so free that seems so easy to live with. But never do the people speak about the infrastructure behind. Because if you want to make that service available to everyone on their phone, you need to have 4g antennas. You need to have data centers, you need to have wires and cables. You need to have electricity network to run all that stuff. And by the way, you need some mines at some point in order to produce the metals that will make all the server is possible and the phones possible. And this question was like a taboo, no one would talk about it, it's as if it just didn't exist. And I felt like there was a huge discrepancy between the knowledge that people have about the material impact of that. And the reality that this very, very materiality, material, impactful technology. And that discrepancy is true everywhere. It's not only in Estonia, but everywhere, in my country in France, but also in the United States, we have just no idea about how material intensive this future will is.


Lori Messing McGarry

You said something really important a minute ago about the sovereignty of the global infrastructure. I'd like to ask you about a fascinating chapter in the book. It's actually chapter nine. It's titled “20,000 Tentacles Under the Sea”. You describe the internet as a gigantic amphibious network. Can you tell me something about how you reported on the cables? Who oversees the bureaucracy? And who owns these cables?


Guillaume Pitron

First, it might seem very counterintuitive to our readers, but when you send a like on a social network, this like goes through a submarine fiber optic cable. Forget about satellites, the real thing is 99% of all the data that we consume and produce and share goes through the oceans in these cables. There are today 500 submarine fiber optic cables laid laying everywhere across the globe, as much as we can, as much as the industry can, these cables are being laid into the oceans and not on the emerged territories, because it's less costly to just lay them on the depths of the seas. And if we make the total kilometers or miles of all these 500 cables, it amounts to a total length of 1.2 million kilometers, which is 30 times so sick and friends over the years. And this one comes in sale says oh, I'm going to you know provide you with a wireless Internet service. But it's not wireless at all. We have never been as wired as we are today. Because whatever you do, you need such cables. So basically, a cable is a very simple piece of wire, very tiny, very discrete, that goes from one country to one another through the seas that goes from the United States to France or from the United States to Latin American countries. screw the See, these cables are, obviously if you want to lay your cable, you have first to ask the administration of the country where they have their exclusive economic zones. So if you want to, you know, Link France to the United States, you need to have the approval from the French administration and from the US administration. Usually, it's easy to get such an administration because countries want to get connected with each other more and more. And then was going to, you know, deploy the cable was going to pay for the cable was going to manufacture the cable. And here we are more and more, we have more and more private companies. And it's very true with the northern Atlantic Oceans with cables going from Europe to the United States. Most of the cables today, today's a wide majority of them belongs to the Fang, they belong to Facebook, Amazon, Google. And that brings a question, sovereignty hovers these cables, private groups want to get the content. But also they want to get the envelope, they want to be the masters of both, they want to own the data, and they want to own the infrastructure, thanks to which the data can flow that may bring at some point some question of sovereignty, or they may make people with some kind of worried about it, I might not worry too much about it, because I will see Google or Facebook have is having any interest in just shutting off the cable. Because that may, you know, be sparked lots of conflicts and tensions with states. But in a way, it's worth asking the question we the French or to to end at some point for the US administration. Is it worse, letting private companies today it's US companies, Western companies, maybe two more Chinese companies taking such an advantage over the cables of the internet infrastructure?


Lori Messing McGarry

In other words, there's a lot of power concentrated in the hands of a few companies.


Guillaume Pitron

Oh, yeah.


Lori Messing McGarry

There is a scene in the book passage in the book where you are standing at the edge of the sea, kind of watching boats ships do some of this work? Can you give us a sense of what what you did to report this book? I think the listeners of this particular program are really kind of fascinated by how journalists kind of map out their process for putting together a large scale investigation.


Guillaume Pitron

Yeah, Lori. First, I’m a reporter. And I try as much as I can to view what I'm talking about. And this book, Dark Cloud is an investigation around the world, which took me a while. Which took me in 10 different countries. And I wanted to see internet. I wanted to touch internet. I wanted to smell internet. I wanted to taste internet. I wanted to listen to internet, and all the things you can do it. When you're in the cloud, you listen to internet, it's like a beehive being in the cloud. But you can taste internet when the cable goes out of the sea when it's being recycled. Some people take them out of the sea and I so actually a ship coming from northern Atlantic Ocean arriving in the port of Porto in Portugal, and the cable being just you know, cut into pieces on the on the on the on the on the port on the on the harbor. And I will put my hand on the cable and put my head on my tongue and feel ah, feel like oh my goodness internet isn't that sweet internet is salty, because it's just getting out of the sea. So all this needs field travel, it needs direct experience. And obviously one of these experiences watching a cable being installed along the French shores, or watching or tasting a cable on the port of Porto in Portugal. And tasting the cable and tasting internet was a fascinating experience.


But I had also other experiences. I went to the Appalachians close to DC in order to understand how the mining activities and mining of coal. Such a cool is being necessary for producing electricity. And such a cool man electricity may be used for data centers in Virginia. So our selfies are running thanks to electricity made of coal. That was also a fascinating report. And probably one of the other reports which was fascinating to me, was being in the Arctic Circle, northern parts of Europe. Because this is where Facebook today Mehta has been installing some of its data centers for the European consumers and because they want to put the centers closer to the consumers in Europe. And because they want to use this electricity. And how do you use this electricity? Well, basically you install a data center in an environment which is naturally cold. And I traveled in the Appalachians, because there is a coal mining industry, as such a call is necessary for producing electricity. And part of this electricity may be precisely needed for the data centers. So that was also a fascinating report. And one of the other fascinating reports that have been doing was traveling in the Arctic Circle, northern parts of Europe in Lapland, because this is where the company Facebook, today, Mehta has been standing a couple of years ago, some data centers for European consumers. And because Meta wants to use less electricity for refreshing the data centers, and having a lesser impact on the environment. Basically, they move the cloud in the freshest part of the, in the coldest part of the world, where there is free cooling where there is a blade zard. And that is a way to, you know, consume electricity, and to have lesser impact on the environment. And that's fascinating to feel like my WhatsApp account is literally in northern leptons under meters of snow in Sweden, and that was a fascinating report to perform.


Lori Messing McGarry

I think very few people would know that fact.


Guillaume Pitron

I wouldn't know that before I read that news. I was facilitating, I wouldn't figure it out that whatever I do actually leaves a trace 100 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle in a small city called Kolos. I could never believe that. So I went there. And I took a train and I traveled there. And I went to see the data center from the outside. And there was a guard, like a Facebook guy. He was he was he was hired by Facebook. He was a security guard in front of the data center. And he said, but what are you doing here? And I said, but I came because my friends are all inside this data center. I have 625 friends on Facebook, and they're all right here physically speaking in a server, and I'm there myself. And I finally feel it's kind of funny to feel like, you know, I have double physical reality, where I stand right now, but where I live every trace of my life, when I'm on Facebook or WhatsApp,


Lori Messing McGarry

A double physical reality. I have to think about that one for a moment. When you were standing there did the was the guard surprised that you knew about the data center and had the audacity to show up? And look at it? I mean, what, what was what was the guards reaction? Well, I met you are not permitted to go in.


Guillaume Piton


Ididn't ask for the permission to go in because I knew in advance that I would never get a chance to get it. The only few persons who could get in are authorized to journalist when there's a very well-organized event or with Mark Zuckerberg. So to be very honest, I didn't even take the chance to try. The guard was quite unhappy because he didn't have the right to make me leave. I was in a public space. And I was on the road. So there's nothing I could do. But I had cars turning around me. And there was kind of it was a way for me to let me understand that I was not I was persona non grata that, I think that was what they were trying to make me understand. So I probably stayed for a couple of minutes, took some pictures. And that's it. But Facebook doesn't want to be. I mean, it's not. It's public information that Facebook has in Sweden, but they want to remain discreet. They want to, you know, they want to be seen everywhere on the screens. You see the Facebook logo everywhere where you are surfing on the web. But when it comes to the fidgets to the, to the physical world, they don't want to be seen anywhere. They want to let you believe that they just don't exist in the real world in the physical world. And that has centers of Facebook in Sweden. Legally speaking, the legal documents doesn't even hold the name of the dissenter of Facebook. It holds the name of a branch of Facebook was never forgot. They do everything they can to become boring to make himself just a known and forgotten because there's just no interest to speak about them. And in a way that's a way to be invisible alized to just you know, having no one speaking about your presence, so that no one was speaking about any impact you may have on the environment. And that's a strategy with actually which has been analyzed by some researchers in Sweden. How'd you become so invisible realized that you become physically untouchable? And because you're physically not seen an untouchable? No one will criticize you.


Lori Messing McGarry

Let me remind listeners My guest today is Guillaume Pitron. He's the author of a book called The Dark Cloud – The Hidden Costs of the Digital World. And I don't think we can state enough the importance of journalists doing big investigations, long term investigations that puts themselves in physical and digital, you know, potential harm. When I looked at the back of your book, Guillaume, I saw a kind of description of you as an activist journalist, but I wanted to ask you about how how you feel about that kind of label, because being an activist journalist doesn't have the impression that kind of opens you up for risk, as you're taking on these investigations. Tell me how you navigate that?


Guillaume Pitron

Sure. I'll be very honest with you, Lori, I had a discussion with editor when he wrote that, because I said to his editor, I'm not an activist. And you can't write that. Because I don't think that can be a journalist and an activist at the same time, I feel like it's a paradox. An activist stands for cause and he has, you know, a specific view on some things. And as a journalist, I'm supposed to come with a, with a with a neutral view. And that's why I challenge these two words coming along. I am a journalist. I can be called an investigative journalist. But once again, I don't want to be seen as an activist, which I'm not I don't do, you know, I'm not participating in any NGO activities. I am not in a political party. I wouldn't say for which party and voting, I think it's important that journalists show how neutral they can remain. And sticking out of any NGO activity. Even if I do respect very much activist by the way, that doesn't mean that I'm not taking risks. And wherever I go, information isn't easy to find.


And I've been in China for this book, I've been in the graphite mines of northern China, where no Chinese authority would like to let you in, I didn't ask for the authorization to get into the mines. And to bring back some images and information from the mines and to fly drones from all over the above the mines. And that puts me in risky situations, I probably could have been arrested, which actually I was arrested. But not for such a long time. They didn't put me in jail. But I could find a drone over graphite mines could have put me interview troubles. Which, fortunately enough, didn't happen. But that is kind of risk you have to take if you want to be a direct witness of things, people might discuss anything about what you're right, they might say, Oh, you're talking about these reports, which brings such figure but out as a report mentioning other figures. But when it comes to, you know, you being a direct witness of the, of what internet looks like, of what the infrastructure looks like, there's no discussion at all, because you've been there you just, you know, relate what you've seen, what you've smelt, what you've listened to, and nobody can discuss that. So in a way, I take risks being on the field. But back to my home country doing a conference or writing something. And speaking to the media. Having taken that risk before, actually is an excellent life insurance, when I'm back in my country. And when I can argue about how material the future world is.


Lori Messing McGarry

I'm holding the book now. And every chapter has, oh my goodness, more than 7080 references to your research, there are graphs and wonderful data visualization to back up everything that you have reported on. Guillaume Pitron, if I may ask you, a final question – As you look at the digital world, what do you find is something that's actually practical?


Guillaume Pitron

Actually, it's not only a book about what goes wrong, it's also a book about what can we do about that? One very, very, I would say, simple action to do. And that could start just right now. And just as you stop listening to this phone, as you stop listening to this podcast, is that holding your phone and making you the promise that you're going to keep it twice as long as the time you thought you would keep it. Usually, we keep the phone for 18 months, and then we throw it away because the battery is down or because the screen is down is broken. Well, if you keep that phone twice as long, let's say three years, four years. Well, that makes a world of difference because the magic manufacturing of a phone On or have a tablet or a computer, one of these 34 billion devices that are right now working on Earth accounts for most of the digital pollution, it's first and foremost, a pollution to manufacturers and metals, to process the metals and to manufacturers devices, the electronic devices. So if I keep my phone twice as long, that makes a world of difference. So you have to understand that we have to understand what's planned obsolescence strategy is, companies want to teach you to change your phone as much as you can. They have an interest in blowing the battery to the phone. And if the battery goes down, you just change the old the interior device. But if you change if you choose a phone, which actually was batteries not glued, and no there are information about that. And if you go to the repair, shop and change your battery, well it can last for for a longer time. So I would I would just give us a simple example. That is really easy to apply in your everyday life.


Lori Messing McGarry

I really want to thank you for coming back to Real Fiction today.


Guillaume Pitron


Always a pleasure to speak to the US audience. US listeners, US readers. It's good to be with you on the show.


Lori Messing McGarry

You've been listening to Real Fiction Podcast. I'm Lori Messing McGarry. Real Fiction is part of Real Fiction Forum. You can find that website online, and this episode and all of our episodes wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you so much for listening.































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