The World Is Choking on Digital Pollution.

AuthorEstrin, Judy


Tens of thousands of Londoners died of cholera from the 1830s to the 1860s. The causes were simple: mass quantities of human waste and industrial contaminants were pouring into the Thames, the central waterway of a city at the center of a rapidly industrializing world. The river gave off an odor so rank that Queen Victoria once had to cancel a leisurely boat ride. By the summer of 1858, Parliament couldn't hold hearings due to the overwhelming stench coming through the windows.

The problem was finally solved by a talented engineer and surveyor named Joseph Bazalgette, who designed and oversaw the construction of an industrial-scale, fully integrated sewer system. Once it was complete, London never suffered a major cholera outbreak again.

London's problem was not a new one for humanity. Natural and industrial waste is a fact of life. We start excreting in the womb and, despite all the inconveniences, keep at it for the rest of our lives. And, since at least the Promethean moment when we began to control fire, we've been contributing to human-generated emissions through advances intended to make our lives easier and more productive, often with little regard for the costs.

As industrialization led to increased urbanization, the by-products of combined human activity grew to such levels that their effects could not be ignored. The metaphorical heart of the world's industrial capital, the Thames was also the confluence of the effects of a changing society. "Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface, even in water of this kind," noted Michael Faraday, a British scientist now famous for his contributions to electromagnetism.

Relief came from bringing together the threads needed to tackle this type of problem--studying the phenomenon, assigning responsibility, and committing to solutions big enough to match the scope of what was being faced. It started with the recognition that direct and indirect human waste was itself an industrial-scale problem. By the 1870s, governmental authorities were starting to give a more specific meaning to an older word: they started calling the various types of waste "pollution."

A problem without a name cannot command attention, understanding, or resources--three essential ingredients of change. Recognizing that at some threshold industrial waste ceases to be an individual problem and becomes a social problem--a problem we can name--has been crucial to our ability to manage it. From the Clean Air Act to the Paris Accords, we have debated the environmental costs of progress with participants from all corners of society: the companies that produce energy or industrial products; the scientists who study our environment and our behaviors; the officials we elect to represent us; and groups of concerned citizens who want to take a stand. The outcome of this debate is not predetermined. Sometimes, we take steps to restrain industrial externalities. Other times, we unleash them in the name of some other good.

Now, we are confronting new and alarming by-products of progress, and the stakes for our planet may be just as high as they were during the Industrial Revolution. If the steam engine and blast furnace heralded our movement into the industrial age, computers and smartphones now signal our entry into the next age, one defined not by physical production but by the ease of services provided through the commercial internet. In this new age, names like Zuckerberg, Bezos, Brin, and Page are our new Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Fords.

As always, progress has not been without a price. Like the factories of 200 years ago, digital advances have given rise to a pollution that is reducing the quality of our lives and the strength of our democracy. We manage what we choose to mea sure. It is time to name and measure not only the progress the information revolution has brought, but also the harm that has come with it. Until we do, we will never know which costs are worth bearing.

We seem to be caught in an almost daily reckoning with the role of the internet in our society. This past March, Facebook lost $134 billion in market value over a matter of weeks after a scandal involving the misuse of user data by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. In August, several social media companies banned InfoWars, the conspiracy-mongering platform of right-wing commentator Alex Jones. Many applauded this decision, while others cried of a left-wing conspiracy afoot in the C-suites of largely California-based technology companies.

Perhaps the most enduring political news story over the past two years has been whether Donald Trump and his campaign colluded...

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