Does Big Tech Make Good Neighbors?

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

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

It isn’t always easy. Some residents of towns near e-commerce processing centers complain about traffic, pollution and safety risks from delivery vans and trucks. Communities where water is in short supply are worried about the needs of internet computer centers that use water to keep equipment cool. Neighbors sometimes gripe about noise or garbage 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 technology services that we want and need. And I’m not sure that we are equipped to deal with them as our new neighbors.

Not so long ago, technology’s impact on our physical world wasn’t quite so obvious. Sure, any website needed computing hubs, and e-commerce companies had warehouses and delivery drivers. What has changed is the rapid growth in demand for all of these things and our desire for more technology-enabled conveniences faster than ever, leading to added stresses on public infrastructure.

To meet demand, Amazon and other internet shopping companies have been opening merchandise warehouses and package distribution centers closer to where we live. That brings noise, traffic and pollution into more neighborhoods as a trade-off for speedier deliveries. Companies that deliver burritos, booze or bananas to our door likewise need to have real estate and transportation close to our homes and work. And the effects of climate change have made the competition for energy and water more urgent.

No individual or company is solely at fault for this situation. Our collective demand for more online everything is to blame, and the public, our elected officials and companies need to confront this new reality far more directly.

An article this week by The Information (subscription required) about clashes over Amazon package operations in Milford, Mass., mentioned that the company formed a task force last year to address communities’ concerns about the repercussions of its delivery operations. Milford also appointed two liaison officers to share residents’ concerns with Amazon.

I don’t know if that’s substantive collaboration or window dressing, 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 doing more good than harm.

Again, these types of concerns aren’t new. People would probably prefer to have an Amazon warehouse in town over a garbage dump or a polluting factory. That doesn’t invalidate citizens’ worries about the trade offs.

Last year, I spoke with Richard Mays, the mayor of The Dalles, Ore., a town that is home to multiple computer data centers. He said that there was disagreement among residents over whether those operations contributed enough in taxes, job opportunities and other benefits compared with what they take in the form of stress on roads and the energy grid.

Our conversation stuck with me because it got to the heart of the issue: Are these tech companies, many of them now in our backyards and on our streets, contributing more than they’re taking?

It’s a wildly subjective assessment. And the drawbacks from newcomers, especially high-profile companies, might be harder to swallow. You might have put up with traffic from the office park nearby, but a similar level of congestion could feel worse if it’s because of a DoorDash delivery hub.

Our more tech-dependent lives call for more awareness by the public and smart public policy to effectively manage the ripple effects. We all have a stake in figuring out how to greet the future that we want while keeping intact the communities that we love.


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

  • How you can help prevent a cyberattack at work: The Washington Post walks through warning signs in emails or phone calls (!) that criminals could be trying to break into your company’s computer systems. One tip: Beware emails that appear to be from a boss asking for account credentials. (Also note that cyberattacks are never one person’s fault but are a collective problem.)

  • Time to cash in on those old Pokémon cards: The trading cards based on the 1990s video game characters have skyrocketed in value recently, “fueled by nostalgia, new ways to sell online and a surplus of free time during the pandemic,” Bloomberg News reports. Listings of Pokémon cards on eBay increased 1,046 percent in the first three months of 2021.

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


We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.

If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here. You can also read past On Tech columns.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*