Tech bro CEOs claim their crowns because they fix problems. Why shirk the biggest one?

Saving the planet is sexier than the next iPhone


Opinion War! Huh! What is it good for? Our survey said: absolutely nothing.

But you could also have "incredible acceleration of planet-changing technologies such as jet engines, radar and associated electronics, rocketry, logistics, automated numerical analysis leading to digital computing, and the concepts of basic human rights." All bought at the cost of untold misery, death and destruction: you have to make your own mind up about that equation.

OK, let's try climate change! Huh! What is it good for? The potential bill in pain and chaos dwarfs war by huge factors. The upside – not much in a planet of billions burning itself to the ground, but that aside? We've done well enough in the energy and transport arenas to know that the necessary change through technological development is very possible, it's the politics, economics and vested interests that keep the brake pedal down. But war upends politics and economics too; they are not immutable.

At this stage in the game, as COP26 has shown, every year that goes by with even insufficient promises unkept ups the chances that dealing with climate change will need a war footing. But to go to war, one needs an enemy.

Are we ITers the baddies? It's a damn good question. BCS – the erstwhile British Computing Society once as fashionable as COBOL – thinks we might be, as it highlights the enormous and indefensible focus on ever-shorter life cycles in consumer electronics. These gobble up energy and spew out e-waste on the back of feature updates nobody asks for and fewer need. The industry resists accountability and transparency, pays only lip service to the impact of its global networks and giant computing farms, and tries to keep above the law as far as it can. Unanswerable criticisms?

No. We are not the baddies. Modern technology has a lot to be proud of. Data centres at cloud provider scale are the most efficient engines of computation at scale ever created: they have to be, to be competitive. The modern mobile device, for all its needless fripperies, has replaced practically every home electronics device in the 1990 Radio Shack catalogue, again a fabulously efficient use of resources. Zoom meetings consume a fraction of the energy compared to everyone hauling their physical meatsacks across town to breathe the same virus-laden meeting room air for an hour. Solid state lighting sips at power that photovoltaic cells cost ever less per watt to produce. And it wasn't Ford, GM, or Toyota who made electric cars first viable, then essential: a scion of internet-mediated e-commerce did that.

Being honest, the positive environmental aspects of IT have never been a goal, unless they involve making money. The negative environmental aspects have never been a drawback, unless they cut into the profit margin. But if you want wholesale change without an economic meltdown, technology is the only game in town. And it already knows the enemy to change is delay.

Take Apple, a company easy to pillory for its rapacious habits. It drags its feet on repairability, it refuses to answer questions on its sustainability policies, and it drives a huge global refresh of status phones. The environmental equivalent of an annual cocaine binge. And like all effective cartel bosses, Apple profits mightily from its bad habits. It controls its supply chains like a Colombian narco lord, wielding huge powers of patronage and control over suppliers and distributors alike. It jealously guards a technological ecosystem where it sets its own prices and maintains its own margins. It knows everything and makes things happen on command. As a result, it has a pile of cash the size of a rock star's ego.

How to earn redemption? These same highly honed tools of consumer capitalism can be used in other ways. Imagine that supply chain mastery applied to meeting a commitment of using 20 – or 30, or 40 – per cent of recycled components and materials in all new products. That fearsome ecosystem control applied to lifecycle management of devices, producing data on the impact of usage every step of the way. Innovate all you want, but you'll end up choosing materials and techniques that make reuse easier, not harder. You'll engineer for efficiency.

What Apple doesn't do is set targets for COP-outs like 2030, 2040 or 2070. It may have roadmaps part of the way there, but it thinks in detail about quarters, halves, a year or two at the most. Long-term ambition is won by getting the short term right. There's not much quarter-by-quarter details sweating in climate change politics, yet those quarters are ticking by. The urgency of war is needed, for which the urgency of the tech market is the only decent proxy.

Another great lesson common across war, climate change, and IT is that everything is connected. If you don't accept the totality of what you're doing, you won't win. No IT company can escape the internet; it sets the rules for everything. In conclusion, only the tech world can save the real world.

So let's see the tech world step up. The enemy is delay. The problems of energy management, transitions of technology, economic maintenance, creating a circular supply chain, providing the detailed oversight to monitor, guide and correct, are all within our industrial skill set. The roadmap can be written, the waypoints and metrics improved from a granularity of decades to one of months. The tech world can commit to putting its own house in order, aggressively, cooperatively and sufficiently, and offer – and pressure – others in industry and government to share the ways and means.

Could this work without government leadership? It has to, and it can. Every entity of note in the world has a presence on the internet, and not a single law was passed to make that so. It didn't take a war to make the biggest economic revolution in a hundred years happen. Repeating the trick on a larger scale takes imagination, leadership and huge resources, but for an industry where the billionaires are so bored they build rockets to keep themselves amused, that's not a problem.

Tim, call Andy. Andy, call Mark. Mark, call Elon. Stop messing about. Have the summit, set the agenda, press the button. Don't be the ones that could but didn't. You can't sell iPhones to a world on fire. ®


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