💻 Imagining the “new normal”: remote work and decentralisation in a post-COVID world — part 2 🌍
In the first part of our deep dive into the future of remote work, we looked at how its health and wellbeing benefits for workers were accompanied by some unexpected but significant environmental benefits. But these benefits cannot be taken for granted. In this concluding part, we’ll consider how the existing web infrastructure may undermine our boldest hopes for remote work in a post-COVID world. To avoid this, we’ll need to embrace the way that remote work is already pointing us toward a very different, decentralised future.
The environmental costs of cloud computing
As we have seen, the sudden, precipitous rise of remote working has had a significant impact on digital transformation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in cloud adoption. In The Economist’s words, “the tech industry has become far cloudier” over the past eighteen months.
When it comes to the pressing issue of climate change, this shift will have major consequences — ones that threaten to offset any decline in commuter traffic completely. The existing cloud infrastructure is highly reliant on massive, “hyperscale” data centres that are largely owned and operated by a small number of providers, Amazon’s AWS foremost among them. As we’ve discussed before on this blog, these data centres are disastrous from an environmental perspective. They require enormous quantities of electricity to power them — a 2019 IEA estimate suggests that data centres account for 1% of global electricity usage. As a result, they have a major impact on CO2 emissions. For example, the French think tank The Shift Project recently estimated that the carbon footprint of the data servers and infrastructure underlying cloud computing now exceed that of pre-COVID air travel.
Suppose the growth of cloud computing means, in practice, the growth of large-scale, centralised cloud providers such as Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft’s Azure, and Google’s Oracle. In that case, many of the gains expected from an increase in remote working will be undermined. As a Synergy Research Group report from January noted, more than half of the 597 hyperscale data centres in operation at the end of 2020 were owned and operated by Amazon, Microsoft, or Google. What is more, Amazon and Google were responsible for half of the 52 new centres that came online in 2020. As the report notes, there are currently 219 new hyperscale data centres in various stages of planning and construction.
While the increasing embrace of remote and flexible working solutions may therefore be vital to a “green recovery” from the pandemic, it cannot be taken for granted that digital innovations will support climate action. Moreover, the continued growth of the cloud in its current form is fundamentally unsustainable — as Amazon’s recently announced plans for new data centres in New Zealand and Canada show.
Outages, downtime, and deplatforming: The dangers of the centralised cloud
Of course, the environmental impact is not the only downside of a highly centralised cloud computing industry. In fact, the sudden shift to cloud-supported remote working has highlighted other risks of an overreliance on a small number of providers. Perhaps the most tangible of these is the risk of massive, disruptive outages.
The past year has seen many such outages, making clear the profound impact they can have in a world of cloud-enabled remote work. For example, AWS’s November 2020 outage brought down news sites such as The Washington Post and vital software and workplace tools such as Adobe’s Spark design suite and the project management application Trello. The following month, an outage affecting various Google services left people without access to a range of core applications, including Gmail and Google Calendar. In January 2021, workplace messaging tool Slack went down for two and half hours due to issues with AWS, while June saw an outage at the content delivery network Fastly take down Amazon, Reddit, and GitHub, among many others. Finally, last month, Facebook and its associated services, including WhatsApp’s widely used messaging app, went down for around seven hours.
Each of these incidents — alongside a range of others dotted throughout the past year — reveal the risks of combining remote work with centralised web infrastructure, as we’ve discussed previously. For example, the loss of a vital application or platform for hours at a time can be devastating for a business that relies on the cloud, as it suddenly finds itself not able to communicate internally, access important files or data, or use essential software. The Fastly incident was described as a “wake-up call” regarding the “dangerously over-centralised” infrastructure of the web — but it remains to be seen whether this call will be heeded.
Of course, unintended, temporary downtime is only one potential catastrophe that businesses reliant on a centralised cloud have to worry about. Perhaps more troubling over the long term is how the use of such cloud services is fundamentally dependent on abiding by the provider’s terms of service. As the “alt-tech” social media platform Parler discovered earlier this year, failure to do so can effectively result in an app vanishing from the internet. After AWS suspended its services for the company in early January, Parler was offline for over a month. Though it managed to find alternative hosting, by June, it was receiving only a fraction of the monthly downloads it had received in December 2020.
What is at stake, in this case, is not the question of whether or not Amazon were right to suspend Parler — certainly, there is extensive evidence the platform was allowing hate speech to thrive, and it’s hard to argue Amazon should be willing to tolerate this. Rather, the core question centres on the power of Amazon to unilaterally make this decision — alongside, of course, Google and Apple, who suspended the app from their stores at roughly the same time. But, as Wired noted in their reflection on this decision, the massively centralised nature of the current web infrastructure effectively allows a small number of companies to “moderate the moderators”. Any decision they make about what they are or are unwilling to allow on their platforms is effectively binding. While the decision regarding Parler may be one we agree with, it’s quite a gamble to suppose this will always be the case.
Thus, companies that embrace remote working by relying on centralised cloud solutions are exposing themselves to a range of risks. Whether it’s a question of increasingly frequent and disabling outages or of evolving and often-inscrutable usage policies, your fate is, in some fundamental sense, no longer in your hands.
Ultimately, suppose you are holding out hope that remote working may form part of a greener and more flexible future for businesses. In that case, it’s clear that the “new normal” will require more than just an acceleration of our existing digital transformation. Instead, it will need a wholesale reconsideration of how we collaborate and communicate, of the platforms we use and the foundations they are built on. Achieving this will involve fully embracing some of the trends that are already present in the shift to remote working, from greater autonomy and flexibility in organisational structures to an emphasis on repurposing and reusing existing resources.
Remote working as a form of decentralisation
In a certain sense, the COVID-19 pandemic was not just a driver of remote work and cloud computing adoption but also a contributor to increased decentralisation. With workers no longer travelling to the same location at the same time each day, other apparently essential aspects of office-based work were also placed in question. While some companies — particularly large-scale tech companies such as Microsoft and Facebook — plan to permanently pivot remote working for eligible staff, others consider how this could be the first step toward more radical change.
In September, the BBC published an in-depth examination of how various companies around the world were experimenting with innovative new working models spurred by the remote work revolution. The subscription-management company Chargebee, for instance, is exploring an asynchronous working model in which employees are largely free to set their own working hours. Meanwhile, the recruitment platform Codility has given its employees access to 800+ coworking spaces using WeWork, allowing them the freedom to live and work where they choose without sacrificing a defined working space. At Cudos, we have embraced similar options. For example, we are a 100% remote company offering flexibility on working hours and dedicated working spaces in two UK locations.
These changes in the nature of work have a range of benefits. Foremost among them is the way they offer greater autonomy for the individual worker to decide where and how they work best and how best to collaborate with their colleagues. However, these various changes only scratch the surface of what the shift toward decentralised forms of working might involve. For example, the emergence of decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) presages a much more fundamental shift in how we work.
DAOs, as the name implies, eschew the traditional, centralised form of organisation. In this familiar form, companies operate through a hierarchy extending from the directors and executives down to the entry-level employees. The former make the decisions; the latter execute them. By contrast, DAOs take advantage of the freedom and flexibility implied by remote working to embrace open, transparent, and participatory structures — all enabled by blockchain technology. By using blockchain-based smart contracts to establish rules and execute proposals, alongside governance tokens to determine who can vote on said proposals, DAOs can operate in a bottom-up way, driven by collective decision-making.
DAOs are gaining increasing attention within the crypto space, but despite having some 1.4million members at present, they remain in the earliest stages of development. Many of the most prominent examples, such as PleasrDAO, are essentially just crypto investment groups rather than fully-fledged businesses. But some commentators, such as Anne Connelly at the Questrom School of Business, see them as “the future of work”. For Connelly, DAOs are simply an extension of the “increasingly global” nature of work, which has already made in-office working tied to a specific location “an outdated notion”.
Cudos is helping to build a decentralised future for remote work
As exciting as the prospect of a truly decentralised model of work may be, in many respects it only exacerbates the problems we’ve discussed above. DAOs, for instance, will be heavily reliant on cloud solutions to provide their underlying infrastructure. For a fully remote, blockchain-driven organisation, a prolonged outage of key systems is not just problematic — it’s catastrophic. What is more, DAOs are precisely the kinds of organisations that may need to worry about how their cloud provider interprets and enforces its terms of service.
At Cudos, we believe the “new normal” of remote working will fall far short of its true potential without a radical new solution to cloud computing — one that’s truly decentralised, fully transparent, and environmentally sound. And that’s precisely what we’re offering. The Cudos Network provides a decentralised, permissionless, and highly scalable cloud computing solution that removes the risk of centralised points of failure. By utilising distributed computing resources across hundreds of thousands of nodes, there is no risk of the kind of outages that are impacting the centralised cloud — nor can any single decision-maker refuse you access.
Cudos is proud to be part of the ongoing, blockchain-driven shift toward a re-decentralised web. But what about the environmental concerns discussed above? It is no secret that the most prominent blockchain protocols have major environmental consequences of their own, a point we’ve explored on our blog previously on various occasions. Indeed, some artists have cancelled upcoming NFT projects after recognising the environmental impact of the underlying technology. As digital artist Joanie Lemercier put it, “my release of 6 CryptoArt works consumed in 10 seconds more electricity than the entire studio over the past 2 years.”
Here at Cudos, we are committed to providing a decentralised cloud computing alternative that is part of the solution to the climate crisis, not part of the problem. By allowing individuals to lease their idle computing power to the network, we can help to reduce the $1tn annual spend on new IT hardware globally by tapping into the world’s idle computing power. What is more, we have partnered with ClimateTrade, a blockchain-based carbon offsetting project, to guarantee 100% carbon neutrality for our platform.
The result is a truly decentralised cloud computing network that offers a sustainable foundation for the future of work — a future in which work is fully flexible, open, and autonomous.
How you can support our alternative
The great thing about decentralisation is that everyone has a role to play. You can contribute towards the effort to create an ecosystem for a decentralised future for remote working by partnering with us.
We need data centres and cloud service providers. If you can contribute to this goal, please reach out to us now for collaboration.
If you’ve missed our latest announcements, here are some of the recent partnerships we are excited about.
Let us create a computing ecosystem that is decentralised, transparent, and responsible!
The Cudos Network is a layer 1 blockchain and layer 2 computation and oracle network designed to ensure decentralised, permissionless access to high-performance computing at scale. It enables the scaling of computing resources to hundreds of thousands of nodes. Once bridged onto Ethereum, Algorand, Polkadot and Cosmos, Cudos will enable scalable computational and layer-two oracles on all bridged blockchains.
Originally published at https://www.cudos.org.