December 7, 2023

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Digital life extends far beyond our screens into the real world. That means we need to figure out how to live with the effects of technology in our backyards.

It’s not always easy. Some residents of cities near e-commerce processing centers complain about traffic, pollution, and safety risks from vans and trucks. Communities where water is scarce are concerned about the need for Internet data centers that use water to keep devices cool. Neighbors sometimes complain about noise or trash from nearby commercial kitchens and mini-warehouses for delivery services like Uber Eats.

Conflicts over shared space and limited public resources are nothing new. But we are increasingly living side by side with the physical manifestations of the technological services we want and need. And I’m not sure if we, as our new neighbors, are ready for it.

Not so long ago, the impact of technology on our physical world wasn’t that obvious. Sure, every website that needed data centers and ecommerce businesses had warehouses and delivery drivers. What has changed is the rapidly growing demand for all of these things and our desire for more technology-enabled amenities that are putting additional strain on public infrastructure faster than ever.

To meet the demand, Amazon and other internet shopping companies have opened warehouses and parcel distribution centers near where we live. That brings noise, traffic and pollution to more neighborhoods as a compromise for faster deliveries. Companies that deliver burritos, liquor or bananas to our door also need real estate and transportation close to where we live and work. And the effects of climate change have made competition for energy and water more urgent.

No person or company is to blame for this situation alone. This is due to our collective demand for more online wholeness, and the public, our elected officials and corporations must face this new reality much more directly.

In an article this week from The Information (subscription required) on clashes over Amazon package operations in Milford, Massachusetts, it was mentioned that the company formed a task force last year to address community concerns about the impact of its delivery operations. Milford also appointed two liaison officers to share local residents’ concerns with Amazon.

I don’t know if this is substantial collaboration or window shopping, but it feels like a good first step to acknowledge that changing the places we live comes with tough questions about whether new neighbors are more useful than damage.

Again, these types of concerns are not new. People would probably rather have an Amazon warehouse in town than a dump or polluting factory. That does not remove citizens’ concerns about the compromises.

Last year I spoke to Richard Mays, the mayor of The Dalles, Oregon, a city that is home to multiple data centers. He said there was disagreement among local residents as to whether these establishments had contributed enough taxes, job opportunities and other benefits compared to the stresses on the roads and the energy grid.

Our conversation stuck with me because it got to the heart of the matter: do these tech companies, many of which are now in our backyards and on our streets, contribute more than they earn?

It’s a very subjective assessment. And the disadvantages of newcomers, especially high profile companies, may be harder to swallow. You may have endured the traffic from the nearby office park, but a similar traffic jam could feel worse when it’s at a DoorDash delivery hub.

Our more technology-dependent lives require greater public awareness and smart public policies to effectively manage the ripple effects. We all have an interest in figuring out how to embrace the future we desire while keeping intact the communities we love.

  • The White House vs. Company Size: President Biden on Friday outlined an executive order targeting industries where some companies have a lot of power, including technology, report my colleagues David McCabe and Cecilia Kang. David Leonhardt wrote in The Morning newsletter about why many economists believe that a lack of competition is holding back the US economy and wages.

  • How to prevent a cyber attack in the workplace: The Washington Post passes warning signs in emails or phone calls (!) That criminals may be trying to break into your company’s computer systems. One tip: Beware of emails that appear to be from a boss asking for account credentials. (Also note that cyberattacks are never an individual’s fault, they are a collective problem.)

  • Time to redeem these old Pokémon cards: The value of trading cards based on 1990s video game characters has skyrocketed recently, “fueled by nostalgia, new opportunities to sell online, and excess free time during the pandemic,” reports Bloomberg News. Pokémon card listings on eBay grew 1,046 percent in the first three months of 2021.

Did you catch the pure moment of joy (the vortex!) When 14-year-old Zaila Avantgarde won the Scripps National Spelling Bee? She is also a talented basketball player who can dribble six balls at a time.

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