Tech Vegans, Carbon Hunting, & the Property Managers of Wall Street

February is all snow days and slow days—a good time to settle in with some magazines that have been piling up in the corner. I’ll be posting an occasional series called Long Form, featuring some of my favorite recent long-form articles.

Long-form journalism can read a lot like a good short story—compelling characters and plot—a self-contained experience. At best, I forget I’m even learning something. So grab a cup of coffee, find a comfy chair and let’s get reading.

First up is I Cut the ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell (Kashmir Hill, Gizmodo), a fun and fascinating read about how hard it actually is to avoid Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. For the article, the author cut out every piece of technology (software, apps, hardware like smart phones and TVs) that was powered in any way by products from the “big five” tech giants. She took her tech diet seriously, even having a special network tool designed to prevent her devices from communicating with any of the tech giants’ servers. It’s terrifying to see how deeply embedded these companies are in daily life, with a vast infrastructure that makes them more like utilities than conveniences. Although you can become a “digital vegan” (it’s a thing), it’s going to cost you time and effort. Hill thinks that escaping these monopolies may mean rethinking the assumption that everything on the internet is free, but also questions who could afford which version of the internet.

This was interesting: Amazon’s most profitable business isn’t retail, but web hosting that powers many apps and websites.

Second, The Tiny Swiss Company That Thinks It Can Help Stop Climate Change (Jon Gertner, the New York Times). Offering a glimmer of hope for the ecological future, this article explores the race to perfect technologies like carbon capture,
and to build a new market for them. The story connects past breakthroughs like Haber-Bosch—a process of manufacturing fertilizer that led to a population explosion—to the kind of problems we face in a densely populated and industrialized planet and how technological breakthroughs could address them. There’s just enough science to keep the reader on the path, following Swiss company Climework’s efforts to build a direct-air-capture network at a lower cost and larger scale than currently possible. Experts on both sides of the argument for this technology give context to how it may (and may not) mitigate climate change.

My favorite part: “The technicians had in front of them 12 large devices… which soon would begin collecting carbon dioxide from air drawn in through their central ducts. Once trapped, the CO₂ would then be siphoned into large tanks and trucked to a local Coca-Cola bottler, where it would become the fizz in a soft drink.”

The hot, new investment market for foreclosed homes, and what that means for renters, is the subject of When Wall Street is Your Landlord (Alana Semuels, The Atlantic). This article focuses on the suburbs of Atlanta, where the 2008 housing bubble hit hard, and where some zip codes have one-in-five single-family rental homes owned by institutional investors. Semuels outlines general issues with property management investors through a lot of anecdotal evidence, and some unflattering comments made to shareholders about profits. It makes the grim case that the giant money machine of private equity has found a way to profit off of a crisis it helped to create, and how the implications of that will impact the prosperity of many families for at least a generation.

Suggested side read: This connects to the New York Times series, Bottom Line Nation, showing how private equity firms swooped in after the 2008 financial crisis and took over in unexpected ways.

Have any slow reads you’d like to recommend? Post them in the comments!

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