Oil is the new data, Amazon injuries, Uber’s Koch narratives, transport labor power, free transit, & more!

Issue 114

Hey urbanists,

I’m back in Canada — near St. John’s, the small provincial capital of Newfoundland and Labrador — and relieved to know I’ll be in one in place for a while. I’ll likely have some further reflections on my half year on the road in a future issue, but for now I’m still settling. The newsletter passed 1,000 subscribers a couple weeks ago — over 1,050 now — so thank you and welcome to anyone new!

The Logic had a great piece this week by an anonymous Microsoft worker on tech’s partnerships with oil companies which I recommend. If you’re considering using Amazon for holiday shopping (or use it regularly), check out the report on the high rate of worker injuries at their warehouses. Hubert Horan has another great takedown of Uber, Kim Kelly and James Wilt have fantastic pieces on transport labor, data centers have a big climate impact, and more! I enjoyed so many of the articles in this issue.

Oh, and I have a few pieces of my own this week. I really enjoyed writing the comparison between Jeff Bezos’ future and Blade Runner, and my op-ed on self-driving cars has had a really good response.

Have a great week!


P.S.— Hit the heart below the headline or at the end of the issue if you liked the issue!

☁️🛢🇰🇿 Some people are fond of saying “data is the new oil,” but in a new article in Logic, an anonymous Microsoft worker flips the saying on its head — “oil is the new data” — by describing their trip to Kazakhstan to advise Chevron on how Microsoft’s cloud technology can help it use the data from its oil wells to more efficiently extract the resource that’s fueling the climate crisis. But all Chevron wanted to talk about was surveilling their low-wage Kazakhstani workforce.

Tech dystopia

🤔 In a new Guardian op-ed, Evgeny Morozov argues big tech sits within a “nefarious troika of the big tech, big money, and big state” whose power must be challenged. However, he argues that cannot be done by reducing the size of the tech companies, but rather only through changing their ownership, meaning the left “should ditch the ‘big tech v small tech’ dichotomy and speak of corporate v non-corporate tech instead.” I’m in complete agreement that breaking up tech companies isn’t the silver bullet that Elizabeth Warren and Goliath author Matt Stoller seem to suggest and that more of it needs to come under public ownership and democratic control. Breaking up big tech may not always be the best solution — that has to be determined on a case-by-case basis — but ignoring their size altogether also seems misguided. I much prefer the approach outlined by Ben Tarnoff, now published in Jacobin.

😈 Astra Taylor, in conversation with Maria Bustillos: “I think you’re really seeing how malevolent and greedy and evil Mark Zuckerberg is, in the last few months, right? The mask has finally come off. People were just giving him passes: Boy Wonder, Boy Genius. And now we’re finally able to see: No, he is actually a fascist. He’s willing to sacrifice so many core principles just so his company can keep growing. […] A lot of the most damaging characters in our world’s history, on the one hand they have this greedy, insatiable energy we were talking about, and on the other they have a lot of hubris, they think they know the way, and they’re the smartest — and arguably Mark Zuckerberg has both of these characteristics.”

✊ ~200 Google employees protested the company’s decision to put two employees on leave after they opposed its work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and YouTube’s handling of hate speech policies. Google then fired four employees, including at least one of the workers it put on leave, for “violations of its data-security policies,” but workers believe it was retaliation for their criticism of the company and its actions. Of the four workers, two were trans and another was a gay man.

🤕☠️ Reveal and The Atlantic published a damning report on injuries at Amazon fulfillment centers. After getting the internal injury records for 23 warehouses, they found “the rate of serious injuries for those facilities was more than double the national average for the warehousing industry: 9.6 serious injuries per 100 full-time workers in 2018, compared with an industry average that year of 4.” Amazon claimed the rate was high because “it’s aggressive about recording worker injuries,” but “[m]any workers said that was not their experience. They spoke with outrage about having been cast aside as damaged goods or sent back to jobs that injured them further.”

📉 Hubert Horan is back with another insightful breakdown of Uber’s business model. In part one of a three-part series for ProMarket, he argues one of Uber’s success was “to treat business development as an entirely political process, using techniques that had proven successful in partisan political settings. Uber’s investors knew that it needed raw political power to accelerate growth, and to maintain its hoped-for dominance.” In part two, Horan unpacks the PR narratives of Uber, and argues they came from a Koch-funded, anti-taxi campaign in the 1990s:

Uber’s origin story rests with an extensive 1990s political program conducted by pro-corporate and libertarian think tanks funded by Charles and David Koch. This program was not advocating more liberal taxi regulations, but the same total elimination of any form of public oversight over taxis, including safety and licensing, that Uber later pursued. All of Uber’s original PR narratives were taken from this campaign on an almost copy/paste basis.

🚬 This story makes me furious, and incredibly sad: “Juul’s remarkable rise to resurrect and dominate the e-cigarette business came after it began targeting consumers in their 20s and early 30s, a generation with historically low smoking rates, in a furious effort to reward investors and capture market share before the government tightened regulations on vaping.”

From 2016 to 2018, the years Juul’s growth became astronomical, the number of adult nonsmokers who began using e-cigarettes doubled in the United States, according to an analysis of federal survey data by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease. The study estimates that six million adults were introduced to nicotine via e-cigarettes.

During that time, millions of high school and middle school students began vaping, according to federal health surveys. More than five million youths — one in four American high school students and one in 10 middle school students — now vape, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said in a joint report this summer. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug that impedes the developing brain, and many teenagers have struggled to quit.

👁 Amazon’s Ring doorbell surveillance division considered using “facial recognition software and its ever-expanding network of home security cameras to create AI-enabled neighborhood ‘watch lists’.” The company says the feature has been shelved, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t come back in future, which is concerning given its relationship with police departments and the possible biases in such algorithms.

🛑 Tesla solar factory in Buffalo was a hotbed of racism and discrimination. A News 4 investigation “depicts a segregated factory hostile to black and Hispanic workers where the n-word was routinely used by employees, and minorities were passed over for promotion. […] In January, a wave of layoffs saw 57 jobs eliminated, but 80% of them were held by minorities.”

🤖☠️ By Paris: Jeff Bezos’s Vision of the Future Is Basically Blade Runner (Jacobin): “To people like Bezos, human workers are just as expendable as [Replicants], and in the pursuit of space colonization — the next civilizational leap, to put it in [Niander] Wallace’s terms — they will be treated as nothing more than a disposable means to an end.”

Critical urbanism

Kim Kelly describes how transport workers, from airline caterers and flight attendants to transit and train workers, have immense power to make demands that many don’t realize they hold. “Transportation workers hold the keys to the economy and to our society at large; without them, nothing and nobody can get where they need to go—no matter how important they believe themselves to be.”

🚌 James Wilt expands on Kim’s points, acknowledging the power of transit workers, but also the possibility of campaigns for free transit to “knit seemingly disparate movements for climate action, anti-poverty, and prison and police abolition together into a potentially world-changing force.”

Technocratic transit wonks often condescend to advocates of fare-free transit, arguing that municipalities need more funding to improve service and that calls for free transit undermine that goal. Of course it’s true that transit departments need massive amounts more money – but that shouldn’t be coming from regressive fares that increasingly benefit corporate owners like SNC-Lavalin’s botched light-rail project in Ottawa. Instead, excellent transit systems can and should be fully funded by increasing taxes on rich households and corporations and rerouting current spending on roads and highways.

🛏 David A. Banks delivers a brillant takedown of co-living and the We Company.

Renting instead of owning seemingly solves the same problems that collective ownership resolves. Co-ops, land trusts, and public housing all tackle housing unaffordability, the steep labor commitments required by private ownership, and the alienation at their source, by removing profit motives, dividing up socially reproductive labor, and allowing us to consider the value of a place beyond its market price. Co-living appears to do something similar, but it does this through the bundling of services, providing fringe amenities, and subsidizing it all by way of real-estate speculation and the commodification of personal information. Co-living is the commune upside-down.

🇫🇷📦 Paris wants to tax deliveries from Amazon and other e-commerce companies to account for the congestion, pollution, and other externalized costs society has to pay for their operations

🚲🛴 Comparing the rollout of scooters to the popularization of bicycles in the late 1800s/early 1900s. “The last time we saw an intense debate like this over a curious new form of personal transportation that suddenly descended on cities and angered pedestrians was a century ago, and the ‘micromobility’ in question was the bicycle.” The big difference? Bikes were personally owned and demand for rights was grassroots; scooters are strewn everywhere and are pushed by massive companies.

🇺🇸🚇 Washington, D.C.’s Metro is considering selling naming rights to stations and even lines, but that’s a terrible idea.

When cities name stadiums after private companies, the act shades the hundreds of millions of dollars that the public pays to build these facilities. Privatization of transit is a different sleight of hand: Renaming stations disguises the operating costs of public transit. It’s harder for officials to argue for higher taxes to fund buses and subways when they’re signaling to the public that private sponsors are picking up the tab. Namewashing is a hedge on the shared responsibility of public transit, a compromise that corrodes a system’s commitment to equitable service.

🍅 After Baldwin, Florida’s only grocery store closed, the municipal government opened its own non-profit store that stocks locally grown produce, workers are public employees, and residents can flag down the mayor to request products not in stock. But the mayor would never call it socialist because he’s in a Trump-supporting area.

🇺🇸 There’s little U.S. federal oversight of autonomous vehicles, but more officials are concerned that’s putting people’s lives at risk. Dem. Senator Tom Udall recently said, “While I appreciate the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles, I remain concerned that humans will be used as test dummies.”

🇬🇧 Transport for London announced it would revoke Uber’s operating license after finding 14,000 rides were delivered by unauthorized drivers using other people’s accounts. Uber will still be able to operate while it appeals the decision.

🇩🇪 Berlin will spend €2 billion every year until 2035 to improve its transit network

🛣 “Highways that bisect cities create barriers that hinder interactions between people on either side. They also take up valuable real estate that could be used for more housing, businesses, or amenities, such as parks, that make cities more appealing places to live and work.”

🇬🇧 “By reimagining public transport as a service that enables relationships to be maintained and nurtured, that allows us to get to work in a comfortable and dignified manner, that gives us the chance to relax and enjoy our surroundings rather than be hurtled through them while nestled in someone’s armpit, Labour is offering the chance to reimagine everyday life as a source of enjoyment and nourishment, as opposed to one of stress and endurance.”

🚫🚗 By Paris: Self-Driving Cars Will Be a Disaster for Our Environment, Our Health, and Our Privacy (OneZero): “The future isn’t found in the false promises of tech billionaires who are only concerned with their power and fortunes, but in reconnecting with the fundamentals of mobility and ensuring the system prioritizes the marginalized over the powerful.”

Climate crisis

💯 100% of research scientists agree humans are the leading cause of climate change

🇨🇺 Cuba takes top spot on the Sustainable Development Index. Jason Hickel says the “ranking reveals that all countries are still ‘developing’ – countries with the highest levels of human development still need to significantly reduce their ecological impact, while countries with the lowest levels of ecological impact still need to significantly improve their performance on social indicators.” See the full ranking here.

📈 New U.N. report shames countries for failing to hit their Paris emissions-reduction targets, and notes keeping warming below 1.5º or 2º will require far more work than even those pledges.

As for Paris goals, the report projects that China, EU nations (UK included for now), India, Mexico, Russia, and Turkey are on track to fulfill their 2030 pledges. Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, and the US are not. Argentina, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia are questionable. […] even if every nation was on track to hit all its 2030 pledges, we'd end up at around 54 billion tons of CO2 being emitted. To stop at 2°C, that number should be about 15 billion tons lower. To stop at 1.5°C, the gap grows to 32 billion tons.

☁️🏭 Great article on the climate impact of data centers and how to cut the emissions generated by your tech use. “A recent study by French think tank The Shift Project found data centres that store and supply internet content, along with the kit needed to access it, from phones to Wi-Fi routers will produce 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions by next year. Another study by McMaster University in Canada found greenhouse gas emissions from the Information and Communications (ICT) Industry, which includes phones, computers and data centres, could rise to over 14% by 2040.”

🔥 “Realms as diverse and distant as Siberia, Amazonia, Indonesia, Australia and California are aflame. The advent of ‘the age of fire’ is the bleakest warning yet that humans have breached boundaries we were never meant to cross.”

📈 The World Meteorological Organization found that climate-heating gases hit a new high of 407.8 parts per million in 2018. “There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change. We need to increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of mankind. […] the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of carbon dioxide was 3-5m years ago. Back then, the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now.”

🐨 Drought and bushfires in Australia have killed more than 1,000 koalas and over 80% of their habitat. They’re now ‘functionally extinct’.

Functional extinction is when a population becomes so limited that they no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem and the population becomes no longer viable. While some individuals could produce, the limited number of koalas makes the long-term viability of the species unlikely and highly susceptible to disease.

🚙🔋 By Paris: It’s Not ‘Green’ to Preorder Cars Like iPhones (Medium): “Simply because a vehicle is electric doesn’t mean it’s environmentally friendly, and the larger that vehicle, the greater its footprint. If Musk and Tesla fans are really concerned about the environment, not just associating themselves with a brand, they should realize that preordering a new vehicle simply because it exists and looks… “Brutalist” isn’t going to save the planet.”

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