New (big) data centers and new (few) jobs

The impact of data centers being built in rural America – good, bad or indifferent?

Years ago (and I do mean years – lots of them) my third-grade teacher Mrs. McCall stood at the front of the classroom and told us, with equal parts gloom and awe in her voice, that one day when we were older we’d all get wide rumps because we’d never have to leave our chairs to do anything. We’d simply push buttons and then computers and machines would take care of our every need.

It was a foretelling that never left my mind, and it is one that I often call upon as I marvel at all that technology does for us now. But yes, there is a price. Fat rumps may be one such price (although I’m pretty sure Thanksgiving dinners weigh in too, no pun intended), but there are others. Ways of life, or means, to be more exact. Now, what used to be done by humans can be done by computers. In a less linear example, industries that relied on humans are now being replaced with industries that rely on computers and smaller numbers of humans who must have specialized training in technology.

That’s the case in parts of North Carolina (the state I currently live in) as well as other rural areas. There’s a great article in the Washington Post that details the impact data centers and cloud computing are having on parts of North Carolina that have suffered for years as apparel and furniture manufacturing jobs went overseas. (By the way, while one can point to cheap labor as the fundamental driver of that job-shifting trend, if it weren’t for technology that enables the corporations to communicate with the off-shore labor in near real-time, it’d be tough to efficiently run manufacturing operations from offices here).

It’s in these areas – where the ways and means of living has been drastically altered, where high unemployment has raged for several years, and where local economies have been devastated – that high-tech companies have landed to build data centers. This Washington Post article is really an interesting read. Clearly, it is a narrow-lens view of the affects data centers built by the likes of Apple and Google have on these local economies. It doesn’t begin to address the macro-economic issues data centers, cloud and technology in general have on the world (which I personally think, when considering all things, are positive).

But the article focuses in on the real fact that many in that region built their lives and earned their means in the furniture-making industry. As that industry died out, so did their means. Rising up in the furniture industry’s stead are these massive data centers and the fancy ribbon cuttings of local and state officials praising their coming. I wrote about the data center discussed in the Washington Post article here.

The Washington post article really nails the impact in Maiden, N.C.: “Apple’s data center has been a disappointing development for many residents, who can’t comprehend how expensive facilities stretching across hundreds of acres can create so few jobs, especially after thousands of positions in the region have been lost to cheaper foreign competition. But in the newer digital economy, capital investments that a generation ago would have created thousands of new positions often equal only a handful today, with computers and software processing the heavy lifting while the key programming is often done by engineers back in Silicon Valley.”

Anyway, it is great article authored by Michael S. Rosenwald, and I recommend a read. There’s also a great photo gallery that you can check out too, which showcases photos by Washington Post photojournalist Michael S. Williamson, who has traveled the country for a year to chronicle people whose lives have been affected by the bad economy. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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