Webs of Unintended Consequence

As a film producer and animator in the early days of digital media, the Web enchanted my imagination at a Silicon Graphics (SGI) launch party for their Indy workstation.

Held in July 1993 at their Mountain View campus, SGI was riding high on its success in bringing dinosaurs to virtual life in Jurassic Park. With Indy, it promised to deliver that quality of 3D computing to the desktop so they invited some Bay Area animators to preview its capability. We were eager to be amazed. 

After touting the Indy as the machine to radically transform our creative lives, SGI founder and CEO, Jim Clark, introduced Marc Andreessen as his partner in a new Internet software venture. Though the Net had few public gateways at the time, everyone in the audience had online experience with the Usenet group. We knew the limitations of using a text-based tool to convey ideas about a visual medium.

With an image of the Indy projected above him, Andreessen said the photo we were seeing wasn't on his local computer. Instead the digital file was actually stored on a computer across the SGI campus and was being displayed in an application called, Mosaic, the first Web browser to incorporate multimedia elements.

Clark told us that anyone connected to the Internet could type an address called a URL (Uniform Resource Locater) into Mosaic and view this photo on their personal computers. Andreessen then sent an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) message asking someone in a distant building to upload another image. When a new photo appear within seconds, it felt like witnessing a miracle.

An Opportunity to Evangelize

Deciding to simply my life as a single-parent, in 1995 I moved back to Montana where I'd grown up. While enrolling my son in kindergarten, I discovered that the Helena School District and public libraries had just connected to the Internet. As a bona fide Web evangelist, this was thrilling news.     

From my childhood experience in Butte, Montana, I knew how remote the rest of the world can seem to a curious young person in a rural setting. Given my excitement about the scope of the future Web, I felt compelled to encourage its use via a Public Service Announcement (PSA). 

A Helena film arthouse, The Myrna Loy Center, had just gotten a donation of digital video equipment through the E.L.Wiegand Foundation, but no one at the Center was trained to use it. I'd taught computer based editing at the Bay Area Video Coalition so offered to do the same at the Myrna Loy and include the Helena School District.

In planning the PSA, I knew that young people had the most at stake around getting online.  Barbara Ridgway, then principal at my son’s school, also happened to be the district technology advisor and fully supported having students in the project. In fact, the PSA would not have happened without her enthusiastic embrace. 

The school district chose eight fifth-grade students to participate in the production and a middle schooler who wanted to learn about editing and sound. He built the music track using Acid Loops.

The PSA aired on a local NBC affiliate and won a Montana Addy award for best PSA. Enthused about the capability of the new equipment, the Myrna Loy Center staged a young people's media festival around animation and digital special effects. 

Meanwhile the first feature-length 3D computer animation, Toy Story, was stirring excitement about the future of media production. So I contacted a past colleague at Pixar and, thanks to their generous support, a young animator who worked on Toy Story came all the way to Helena for the festival.

Colin Brady spent a week holding workshops and discussions about movie magic and craft. The festival closed with a screening party for family and friends of those involved with the PSA.

Fast forward seventeen years

The Internet continued to play a central role in my life as a webmaster, video producer, and educator. But the corrosive effects of "Social Media" began to discourage all of us who believed in the humane potential of the Web. Mobile applications divided audiences and parsed consumer surveillance data. They reduced the Internet to nothing more than a pipeline to profit.  

My response was to double down on advocating for the optimism of the early Web.  In 2009 I posted my PSA on YouTube as a reminder of the hope the Net first engendered.

While the PSA view count grew at a snail pace, my personal interests expanded into the world of handcrafted cheese. From food safety to product self-promotion, potential uses for the Web in small scale food production were unlimited.  But financial and technical obstacles to access in rural areas still remained.  So I looked for ways to educate and rally these producers around the value of being connected. 

My favorite project was a cheese tasting at the public library in Butte. Gordon Edgar, a past president of the American Cheese Society, curated it virtually via Skype. Gordon is also a long-standing member of the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco and a former punk rocker with working-class roots. So he was a natural for the Union-minded audience in Butte. Details about the event are in this post: Spreading the Curd in Montana.  Today, of course, virtual tastings are standard fare. 

By August of 2012 I was pleased to see the PSA view count had climbed to 1000.  Then came the big surprise.  While driving around Butte a few days later, my phone started rapidly pinging. By the time I pulled over to check my email, the pings were a steady stream. Meanwhile, a phone call came in from an unknown New York number. The caller introduced himself as a writer with Vanity Fair, then asked for my reaction to going viral.  I had no idea what he was talking about.

A quick email check confirmed that the pings were notices about YouTube comments posted on the PSA. Views topped 500,000 in a matter of hours and kept climbing past a million the following day.

For the next few weeks, digital notoriety was both exhilarating and exhausting. When a reporter referred to me as an "Internet visionary" some friends joked that I'd become addicted to the attention.  But this was like living in the tornedo scene from the Wizard of Oz.  

The onslaught of parasitic mercenaries was astounding, from offers to pump up view counts with bots to plagiarized versions showing up on other channels. A makeshift production company in Australia even sent Google a copyright infringement claim stating that the PSA was theirs.  

Though the view count continued to climb over the next year, the viral mania was short lived. By the time the count settled down to a trickle, it dawned on me that this would probably be my only opportunity to see how YouTube's monetization plan worked so I opted in. The payback has been a few hundred bucks from Google and an invaluable amount insight. Successfully implementing Google's mercurial monetization schemes is a grueling and tenuous way to earn a living.   

The most gratifying part of the experience was witnessing the direct immediacy of the Net. Thousands of people from all over the world left comments and asked questions. Brazilians were definitely into the music track. My favorite, though, was from a young girl who was curious about the cat. 

Anti-Social Media Usurps the Web

Change is coded into the Internet's DNA. Over time, video producers began migrating from YouTube to new influencer models with higher revenue through brand promotion. Facebook was aiming to take command of this model when it purchased Instagram in 2012.  In fact, Mr. Zuckerberg was aiming to take command of the entire Internet. In a flagrant attempt to deceive public perception, Zuckerberg tried to brand Facebook as the actual Internet with his project.  Wired magazine explained the effort in a 2018 article titled, What Happened to Facebook's Grand Plan to Wire the World?:

"...The work was presented as a humanitarian effort. Its name ended in dot-org, appropriating the suffix nonprofits use to signal their do-gooder status on the web...But from the start, critics were skeptical of Zuckerberg’s intentions...At one point, 67 human rights groups signed an open letter to Zuckerberg that accused Facebook of 'building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services'."

The "Internet" brand appropriation, however, did work at the public perception level. One of my most discouraging realizations about the future of the Net came when a group of baby boomers, all well educated, told me they thought Facebook was the Internet. 

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, consequences of the reckless "move fast and break things" business model were laid bare in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  For a fleeting moment, it seemed that Facebook and all Social Media would be dealt a reckoning. Instead, after nothing more than a short-lived dip in its stock price, Facebook was back on top and beyond. 

The highjack of a brilliant technology by frat house arrogance was painful to all who believed in the humane possibility of the Net. It was this profound disappointment that brought me to the Decentralized Web Summit in 2018, hosted by the Internet Archive in San Francisco.

The summit was a chance to be around those with similar discouragement, while also giving me the pleasure of personally thanking Tim Berners Lee (Sir Tim) for creating the World Wide Web. His own distress was evident but he was channeling his grief into re-engineering his original vision into a new project called Solid

Some young coders, who had built the social media addiction engines, were sounding alarms about their work. Foremost among them was Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist who now works on behalf of the Center for Humane Technology. Harris summarized his experience in the Extractive Attention Economy with this sober truth: "Profiting from the problem, these platforms won’t change on their own."

One phrase was repeated throughout the summit: unintended consequences.  
It may be humanity's most appropriate hashtag. 


An Unintended Advocate

Less than two years after the Summit, an all-too-real disruption netted the Web its most compelling demonstration project. When COVID-19 suddenly closed schools, businesses, and life in general, everyone who could jumped online. "Digital Divide" began trending like a hot new hashtag even though the phrase was first used during the Clinton administration to signal its recognition of an oncoming disparity. Since then, cascades of government programs have spent billions of dollars to resolve it without success. In some cases the situation today is no different than in 1995. Reasons for this are at once complex yet glaringly obvious. A one word summation may be - monopoly.

In the introduction to her book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, Communications Law Professor, Susan Crawford summarizes the reasons behind our repeated national failure to curb the monopolies in this paragraph.
A gigantic company providing essential infrastructure for every American, a shifting media landscape, a deregulated environment, and a smoothly operating political campaign built on decades of steady effort that made it impossible for federal officials to reject the merger out of hand: the Comcast-NBCUniversal narrative offers a cautionary tale about what has happened to communications in America.
This graphic of global fiber adoption shows the US clearly in a laggard position. (Interesting to note that Germany is also struggling due to similar private monopoly issues.)

Along with some emergency funding as a result of the pandemic, the current digital divide fix is called The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).  Introduced about six months before Covid-19 hit, the RDOF is awarding an unprecedented $20 billion over various implementation stages.  However, it is already looking like boondoggles of the past. Many of the first round auction winners in 2020 are controversial beyond measure.  Foremost among them is Starlink with its unproven array of satellites receiving one of the largest grants. It and others are now under scrutiny from the current FCC panel, though that isn't likely to change the outcome, 

On the other hand, even if RDOF does prove to be an implementation success, it won't finally resolve our broadband deficits.  One obvious reason is right in the name (Rural).  It does not address the urban reality of inadequate, cost-prohibitive service. Broadband Equity is an entrenched, complex dilemma.  

When Green Isn't Clean

Soon after the world raced to the Internet at the start of the pandemic, my PSA got renewed attention on YouTube. A production company in NYC even asked to license it for a Web series. I declined, but their interest rekindled my hope for the Internet being recognized as an essential public utility.  Months of research and online conferences then brought me back to an inconvenient truth.  The corporate juggernaut of big tech won't be stopped by anything short of its own inadvertent destruction.  The journey, however, did return me to a topic I know by heart.

Low-carbon technology relies heavily on mineral extraction, otherwise known as mining.  I grew up in a mining town.  Copper ore from Butte was smelted into wire that electrified America, blazing the trail to a digital frontier.  But less than a century later, its mining legacy became a SuperFund site, more vilified than revered.  It is a story I am exploring from a personal perspective called CopperMind

Though grateful for the electronic tools that play such a pivotal role in my life, I am also intimately aware of the devastation that enables them.  The open pit mines in Butte are now, literally, leveling a nearby stretch of the Rocky Mountains.  Restoration is out of the question.  There are no plans to "regrow" a stretch of mountain range. 

Low-carbon solutions to climate change may seem virtuous until the overall cost is revealed.  Copper is a key ingredient in these solutions.  Butte is a reflection of the actual price tag. 

Butte's Berkeley Pit Copper Mine Consuming the Rockies

Google Satellite View of Butte's Extraction Zone
As the Washington Post reported in 2020, 1.5 billion tons of ore have already been extracted from Butte's landscape.  

Aside from the gouges now eating into the Rockies, the production process has resulted in an earthen dam holding back 6.5 trillion gallons of toxic tailing sludge.  

Perhaps most harrowing of all, though, is an acid lake over a mile wide and 900 feet deep that now continuously fills an abandoned open pit mine.  

It is an ongoing perversion of nature.

Oceans of Unintended Consequence

Low-carbon technologies, particularly solar photovoltaic (PV), wind, and geothermal, are more mineral intensive relative to fossil fuel technologies.  For example, about 3,000 solar panels are needed for 1 megawatt (MW) of capacity of solar PV; this means that a 200 MW solar PV project could be as big as 550 American football fields (Mathis and Eckhouse 2020).

Under a 2-degree scenario (2DS), production of graphite, lithium, and cobalt will need to be significantly ramped up by more than 450 percent by 2050—from 2018 levels—to meet demand from energy storage technologies.  Though demand for some base minerals, like aluminum and copper, appears to be smaller in percentage terms, their absolute production figures are significant, at 103 million tons and 29 million tons by 2050, respectively.  These projections do not include the associated infrastructure needed to support the deployment of these technologies (for example, transmission lines) or the physical parts (like the chassis of newly built electric vehicles).

Because of the material intensity of low-carbon technologies, any potential shortages in mineral supply could impact the speed and scale at which certain technologies may be deployed globally.

Minerals for Climate Change: The mineral intensity of the Clean Energy Transition
World Bank Report - May 2020

On land, the number of extraction zones like Butte is set to soar with demand for necessary minerals.  But they may be outdone by operations hoping to plunder sunken treasure, known as polymetallic nodules, from the bottom of the sea.

Often the size of an egg or small potato, these nodules are compact storehouses of rare metals crucial to all forms of low-carbon technology. They formed over the last five hundred million years in the deepest parts of the ocean floor, the most unexplored and ecologically sensitive region on earth.  Yet it is being targeted for massive and immediate exploitation. 

Supplying an escalating demand for finite minerals is, indeed, complex.  Land based extraction will continue to expand but even optimistic projections admit it won't be enough.  Ocean mining is necessary for any chance of an adequate transition from fossil fuels but the risks and challenges are as deep and vast as the sea itself.  

Oceans are Nature's most powerful climate regulator. Deranging this system in the quest for low-carbon technology would be an unintended consequence of global catastrophic proportion.   

There are no simple answers to the question of how to source the quantity of minerals that clean energy requires.  Yet the question itself is seldom, if ever, raised by the companies utilizing and profiting from these resources and resulting products.  This is the educational gap I'm aiming to help fill.  Fortunately, many of the world's academic and research institutions are rapidly developing compelling information resources. 

It is certain that land-based mining results in long-term, often irreparable, societal and environmental damage.  But these consequences are not limited to the land.  All mining impacts the sea in some detrimental way.  Production waste is carried into the watershed through runoff and seepage that makes its way into the ocean.  Butte is a prime example. 

Walking to school as a child, the route took me over Silver Bow Creek, a toxic roil of red muck that was steaming hot even in winter.  We called it the Copper Creek but it was (and still is) the headwaters of the Upper Clark Fork and Columbia river system that empties into the Pacific Ocean.  So it's a fantasy to think that land mining doesn't contaminate the seas. Yet, even the worst destruction on land is likely to pale in comparison with uncontrolled extraction from the ocean floor. 

Digesting an Unfathomable Dilemma

Countless factors are driving the current urgency around deep sea mining but it is the legal framework that plays the crucial enabling role in opening the oceans for mineral extraction.  In 1982, the United Nations established the International Seabed Authority (ISA) which is mandated to protect the mineral resources of the seabed for the common heritage of all humankind. 


As comprehensive and comforting as the phrase "common heritage of all humankind" may seem, there are pivotal exemptions.  A main one being that individual nations have control over their own boundary waters.

A related point worth mentioning is that the United States has not joined one hundred and fifty-seven other countries in signing an international agreement called UNCLOS, commonly known as the Law of the Sea.  At the very least, this weakens any consideration/objection the US raises about legal issues. 
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (or UNCLOS) has been described as “the constitution of the oceans.” Originally finalized in 1982, UNCLOS’ 320 articles and nine annexes represent arguably the most holistic codification of international law in history. One hundred and fifty seven nations have signed on to the treaty and agreed to its wide-ranging provisions on topics such as coastal sovereignty, conservation and ocean resource management, and the freedom of the high seas. One thing, though, is missing from the Convention: the signature of the United States of America.
Entire Article
Harvard International Review
Oct 2019

At a basic level, the boundary water exemption is the legal loophole that The Metals Company (TMC) is exploiting on a circuitous route (through the tiny island nation of Nauru) to full bore nodule extraction in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the Pacific Ocean. (Mining the Bottom of the Sea) The CCZ is particularly rich in nodules but most of the Pacific is a treasure trove of Rare Earth Elements (REE).  When The Metals Company is granted full extraction rights, it will open the floodgates on the whole ocean.  

Hakai Magazine's discussion of deep sea mining is a comprehensive overview of the largest issues.


MIT's animated illustration of the nodule extraction process:


A crucial issue often missing in discussions of deep sea mining is the essential role oceans play in regulating Earth's climate and overall environment.  (NOAA - How does the ocean affect climate and weather on land ) Raising awareness about what's at stake is vital as the rush to extract mineral rich resources escalates.  What lies beneath the ocean's waves, though, is essentially an unknown world to the vast majority of humans and that's a huge challenge to generating the necessary concern. 
With new technological advances in deep-sea mining, the ocean floor’s trove of valuable metals and rare earth elements is coming within reach of commercial mining operations. The impending reality of this practice, and its associated environmental risks, raises the question of how we, as a society, assess the value of a place we may never see to guide environmental decisions.

Now, a new study finds that people’s emotional associations with the deep sea, more than their knowledge about it, determine how much they care about this remote environment. The results, reported June 12 in People and Nature, suggest that these emotional associations may be more powerful than information in driving people’s concerns about mining the area.

Link to the Article
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America - 2018

Though deep ocean mining is certain to happen, we must insist that it be implemented in the most prudently researched ways.  In addition, comprehensive recycling along with reduced consumption in general can significantly reduce the need to for mining these minerals which are, after all, a finite resource.  Indeed, the reality is that there are truly not enough of these resources to meet expected demand so recycling research projects such as MIT's Selective Separation Process is unquestionably essential.

In rushing to the sea to help mitigate climate change we run the grave and very real risk of exacerbating the crisis into our final #UnintendedConsequence. 

Excerpt from the video below:

If you're thinking about what we have actually looked at on the sea floor, it's less than 0.001%.  But you have to remember, it's vast.  70% of our planet is ocean.  And of that 70%, 90% is deep sea.  So it's a huge, huge area and difficult to get to.
Kerry Howell, Marine Biologist
Exploring the Ocean floor aboard the RSS James Cook