There's no doubt that data centers provide benefits to society, but they also consume power, water, and land. The sector is now large enough that these downsides are visible, leading to protests against new data centers.

Data center builders point to the benefits, but there's a problem with that, says Max Schulze of the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance: "Telling someone they must have a data center if they want to stream something doesn't work. People will respond, 'I don't have one now and it still works.'"

Economic benefits are even harder to argue, because it is difficult to determine where the revenue from a data center accrues, and where the owners pay tax.

Schulze thinks the real benefits are in the digitization of society. But not all data centers contribute equally to that.

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