This essay accompanies the Evil List, Slate’s poll of experts on the most worrisome companies in tech.
For all its sins, Facebook never contributed to wildfires in Australia that have killed 24 people and perhaps a billion animals. Google has not made cities and islands around the world more vulnerable to hurricanes. Even Palantir, with its secretive defense and intelligence contracts, has yet to desiccate soil and destroy crops, thus eroding agricultural economies and sparking massive migration that destabilizes governments and societies throughout a region.
If we consider which technology company bears the greatest responsibility for the greatest suffering, ExxonMobil, the largest petroleum company in the history of the world, wins the prize.
Is a petroleum company a tech company? Absolutely. It’s a mistake to assume there is still a distinct sector of the economy called “technology”—or, as it was called in the late 20th century, “high technology.” The microchip is 60 years old and present in devices as common and simple as lightbulbs. The internet is approaching 50 years of age and spreads data through objects and bodies so pervasively that it’s become quaint to even use terms like online and offline, upload and download. We now all serve as nodes in streams of data, carrying or wearing powerful computers, constantly online, constantly uploading personal data. Data and network sciences are almost as old, and their principles and practices inform Walmart as much as Weibo. Every major industry now harnesses data collection for algorithms when making decisions for consumers or themselves. ExxonMobil, like most major global companies, deploys customized software and data analysis techniques in every segment of its business. There is no “low tech” part of ExxonMobil.
If we accept that “technology” is a core function of human activity—that, as Marshall McLuhan reminds us, technologies are extensions of human capabilities—then we must accept that just about all companies that make things and most companies that deliver products and services are technology companies. In other words, everybody does tech.
ExxonMobil used to be Standard Oil. It’s been around in some form since 1870, when John D. Rockefeller built his first refinery in Ohio and proceeded to corner the markets for oil drilling, refining, and distribution, thus establishing the paradigmatic vertically integrated monopoly capable of extorting favorable terms from every trading partner and setting prices at will. Rockefeller presided over the most technologically creative company of his age, developing new and efficient ways of distilling crude oil into kerosene and refining crude into gasoline. Standard Oil also invented the network of consumer-facing service stations.
The scale, power, and profitability of Rockefeller’s monopoly allowed it to invest in technological innovation with some courage—not unlike what AT&T’s monopoly power would allow Bell Labs to do in the mid-20th century or what Google and Microsoft can do today.
Ultimately, Rockefeller’s ambition generated a great backlash. U.S. antitrust law owes much of its support at the turn of the 20th century to anger about Standard Oil’s ability to execute its will over markets and governments. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that Standard Oil was an illegal monopoly. The company fractured into 34 smaller, competing companies (with Rockefeller holding substantial stock in each, making him even richer over time). Many of those smaller, constituent companies merged over the ensuing century and fell under the control of either Exxon, the most direct ancestor of Standard Oil, or Mobil, one of Exxon’s largest competitors. In 1999 Exxon and Mobil merged into ExxonMobil, one of the largest companies in the world by both market capitalization and revenue.
From 1977 through 2014, scientists working for Exxon or ExxonMobil compiled a series of studies and memos warning of the pernicious effects of burning fossil fuels. Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes examined these documents and published a study in 2017 finding that 80 percent of those internal documents supported the scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by human activity—the very human activity that has made ExxonMobil so rich and powerful.
All of this internal study was going on while Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil executives were busy opposing policies that would tax, fine, or punish fossil fuel producers and efforts to invest in alternative forms of energy. Meanwhile, the oil industry had been seeding doubt in the solid climate science that might have helped convince the world to rethink its most destructive habits.
Today, ExxonMobil continues to pitch itself as a technology company first, using its websites to promote its research and development as its primary activities—as opposed to drilling into the earth to extract the compressed residue of dinosaurs and ferns—possibly to glom onto the positive associations that technology still carries in some quarters.
The epithet “data are the new oil” gets bandied about thoughtlessly and improperly these days. The fact is oil is the new oil. It’s been the new oil since whale oil became scarce and expensive—the first sign that we were abusing the planet with our habits of production and consumption.
This argument should not be taken to minimize the damage to which Facebook, Google, and Palantir contribute. All of that is so well documented that it’s undermining the faith of those who work at those companies (except, perhaps, at Palantir). But if we define technology as a fundamentally human phenomenon, recognize the investments and innovations that ExxonMobil and its ancestors have made for nearly 150 years, and acknowledge the clear damage that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil have done to the public understanding of science and the possibilities of addressing the climate challenge, we must conclude that no technology company has done more damage to the planet and its inhabitants—and will continue to do so—than ExxonMobil.