Why the BBC's portrayal of a white, male American internet is inaccurate and offensive

Last week the BBC published a short docu-flix on streaming, presented by the ironically-named Beth Webb (who breathily claimed not to know the Web was based on servers and communications infrastructure). The short vid should come with a warning to those prone to the effects of high blood pressure, proving so controversial it prompted an almost immediate reaction from Tech UK.
It should be noted that Tech UK has already stated that it expects UK data centre operators to play their part in the UK meeting its net zero carbon targets, commenting this must be achieved without compromising “resilience, affordability and sustainability”. But it was quick to point out just some of the inaccuracies in the BBC video, also noting how ironic it was that a 5 minute video should necessitate flying a presenter and film crew to the US when there are plenty of data centres in the UK and Europe they could have visited.
One of the most depressing things about the BBC’s piece was the outdated and stereotypical way it presented technology as being white, male and largely American. In Webb’s connected world there are no smart, capable women, and Africa is a (good) low-tech economy that uses little electricity. (see for example: Employee experience: Why older women tech workers are still invisible, BICS joins SMART Africa Alliance and Egypt kicks off £2 billion network build for new capital)
She glossed over the huge societal and economic costs to Africa of 640 million people not being on-grid, which means their access to current knowledge is restricted, business is blighted, communications are difficult, and daily tasks such as fetching water, cooking or shopping are extremely time-consuming. I doubt it ever crossed her mind to consider the impact of having to walk for hours to charge a mobile phone, or the problems of having an unreliable source of electricity. In fact, the UN sees all of this as such a social injustice that universal electrification is the seventh of the Sustainable Development Goals the global community is committed to achieving by 2030.
Rather than being excited that technology is enabling Africans to transform their own lives in their own way, the inferred narrative is that a low-tech lifestyle is eco friendly and “better”. Try telling that to a child who can’t study because they don’t have enough light, or to a family that’s impoverished because they can’t find work.
We could write a whole essay here on how the ICT industry was the first industry to adopt the UN’s SDG’s or how it has made huge strides in terms of power-saving technology and adopting sustainable power. (see Beyond the greenwashing – getting the green light for data centres or Data centre market continues to boom) But the docu-flix misses the main point. The problem isn’t technology per se, or even energy usage, it’s how power is generated. Hint: that’s a whole different industry.
A more accurate, topical and hopeful piece would, however, have shown how data centres are being built in the Nordics, which have abundant ecopower combined with natural resources such as water and a cold climate. Both hyperscalers and more modest-sized data centres are building across the region, with the Finnish data centre market alone expected to more than triple in size between 2018 and 2025. Not only do these new centres use sustainable energy and power-saving tech, but any excess heat generated by the servers is being used to heat homes rather than being pumped out into the environment.
Meanwhile, telcos across the world are bending over backwards to flaunt their green credentials:

  • T-Mobile USA  – aims to be using 100% renewable energy by 2021
  • Verizon  – aims to be using 50% renewable energy by 2025
  • Vodafone – will be using 100% renewable energy by 2025
  • Telefonica – is aiming to be using 50% renewable energy by 2020
  • BT – aims for 100% renewable energy by 2020 and was at 97%+ a year ago.

Four major telecoms bodies came together to announce in February 2020 that the industry would work together to measure carbon footprint and reduce levels by 45% by 2030. 30 major operators – representing almost one-third of the world’s traffic – are already signed up. The GSMA also has a target to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
What’s happening in Africa is even more exciting. The continent is at the start of both a digital and power revolution – creating and adopting cheap, clean solar energy to deliver a win-win scenario of sustainable internet usage. For years, mobile operators in Africa have used solar energy for base stations – even giving the excess away to locals. Kenya’s Safricom recently announced an initiative to pump excess electricity back into the country’s national grid – known as ‘net metering’. Liquid Telecom – Africa’s biggest fibre provider and part of the Econet group – has also installed solar panels. And, there have been huge strides in making affordable, pay-as-you-go solar power available to both businesses and consumers. Key to making that entire sector work though are the mobile money platforms, such as M-Pesa and Ecocash, that the mobile industry has pioneered.
Technology brings both opportunities and economic empowerment and I have a low tolerance for people who want to keep others disempowered or on the other side of a digital divide while flying around the world streaming videos. Tech is critical to reducing inequalities and the industry does participate in a lot of navel gazing to improve its performance in this respect.
The GSMA announced in February 2019 that 80% of women in low and medium income countries now have access to mobile phones – 250 million women more than five years previously.
Companies such as the UK’s Azuri Technologies are not only bringing cheap, pay-as-you-go solar home solutions to off-grid Africa, but are also supporting important diversity initiatives. In February 2020, for example, Azuri launched its Brighter Lives Initiative via a Women in Solar event in Kenya. Women currently make up 35% of Azuri’s rural workforce in Kenya, but the company aims to train another 250, with Simon Bransfield-Garth, Azuri’s CEO, saying that it’s committed to ensuring 50% of new hires in 2020 are women.

“At Azuri, we are committed to equality, fairness and respect and we recognise the solar energy sector offers women a source of well-paid employment with strong opportunities for career advancement.” Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO, Azuri Technologies

This is why the BBC’s docuflix was misleading, unfair and out of date. It was written and presented by people who not only don’t understand the technology market but are woefully out of touch with what the industry is doing to reduce its footprint and to enable better living and working lives – including how we can live in a more sustainable way.
Note to Ms Webb.
Packet switching doesn’t mean data is “exploded into different pieces”, the internet is not “just a huge mess of buildings and cables” and it’s not “so complicated that it became easier just to call all this – the cloud”.  You might also want to check your bias when you make statements such as: “there’s now so much data it’s more efficient for most [businesses] to keep it [their data] in vast data centres like this”. And how about getting someone who’s actually qualified to talk about global data centre strategies rather than some random American bloke who used to work at AWS? Drop me a line and I’ll happily put you in touch with a few people who’d be happy to help you understand all of this better.