Big Tech drives overconsumption (Part 1)

The digital sector is sometimes known as the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector. What is digital and what is not digital is often defined based on an OECD classification that was last updated in 2007, according to Gauthier Roussilhe, who specializes in the environmental challenges of digitalization. The digital category includes such things as computers, smartphones, software, and network equipment. What it may not include are televisions, cars and electronic toys. It is estimated that by 2030, for example, 50% of an average car’s cost will be for electronics. Increasingly, cars are being called computers on wheels. Classification is politics and the way digital is classified is meant to give the impression of its ethereality, its demateriality, its lightness, how it is inherently environmentally green. It’s a constant refrain of digital enthusiasts that digital consumes relatively little energy for all the wonderful things it does. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As data explodes in a Big Data Bang of uncontrolled production, we are told to focus on the tremendous energy and storage “efficiency”, the fact that everything digital has become so cheap over time. This “cheapness” is what has driven overconsumption and growth. Overconsumption is the meta-crisis and growth is the devourer of the environment, and Big Tech is in hyper-growth mode, and with great marketing and branding, it has somehow positioned itself as the savior of the environment, instead of what it actually is—the destroyer of the environment.

Digital is seeping further and further into everything. If we follow the technological hallucination, AI will do our thinking for us, and our clothes and groceries and everything will have chips in them. Everything will be tracked and monitored. Everything will emit data that will be collected, processed and stored in a universe of data centers that will ring the world. The purpose of this data will be to get us to buy more and do what we are told. This, we are told, is progress. This, we are told, will solve all our environmental crises.

Since the 1970s, humans have become great devourers of the environment, causing overwhelming stresses and crises in climate, soil, water, air, chemicals, fertilizers, plastics, and all sorts of waste, including the fastest-growing, highly toxic e-waste. Since the 1970s, digital technology has exploded at the same rate as CO2 has exploded. Big Tech’s profits and valuations far exceed those of Big Oil. Big Tech blossomed as our environment wilted. That’s not a coincidence. We are now at a stage where 20 or 30 Big Tech companies rule the world in an historically unprecedented manner.

Big Tech would have us believe that practically everything good in the last fifty years has been down to the computer and Internet revolutions. It is now aggressively selling the idea that everything good in the next fifty years will be down to AI and the Internet of Things. Big Tech acknowledges hardly any harm. It is de-material, ethereal, in the Cloud. Save the environment. Don’t post that letter. Send an email instead. Digital is green.

We may be teetering on the edge of environmental collapse, we may have done more damage in 50 years than in all of previous human history, but think of how much more damage we would have done were it not for the sustainable transition from analog to digital! Think of how much worse things would have been without computers and the Internet and social media!

A long road ahead: a review of the state of knowledge of the environmental effects of digitization, Gauthier Roussilhe

Podcast: World Wide Waste
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