Digitalisation is often depicted as a silver bullet to address sustainability issues, due to its potential to decarbonise the global economy and energy supply and to dematerialise production and consumption. Efficiency gains of digital technologies are unparalleled, digital services can be provided at low energy costs, and sustainable practices, such as sharing, are made easier through online platforms. However, few if any of these potentials have led to absolute resource and energy savings yet.
Rather, digitalisation has to overcome a series of challenges if its deployment is to serve the greater interest of sustainability. These challenges include, but are not confined to: the environmental and social footprint of our information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, rebound effects and induced consumption (Hilty & Aebischer, 2015).
The Pyrrhic victory of digitalisation
Digitalisation is celebrated for its energy efficiency potential, but scholars have raised attention to several pitfalls. These include the slowdown of Moore’s Law (Kumar, 2015) and the drastic increase of ICT’s energy use. If the internet was a country, it would have the third-largest energy consumption in the world, and the trend is rising (Andrae & Edler, 2015). Accordingly, material extraction for digital technologies is growing. The whole life-cycle of digital technologies, from the exploitation of minerals to the disposal of devices, is based on the violation of human rights and environmental pollution in the Global South; also in the age of digitalisation, our economy thus depends on (neo-)colonial structures.
Further, possible rebound effects can offset initial gains in energy efficiency through higher consumption. Automated cars, for example, are expected to decrease average fuel use by optimising travel distance and speed and have the potential to decrease emissions from road transport by half (Wadud et al., 2016). However, automated cars are expected to shift transport demand patterns, which could lead emissions to nearly double due to a digital rebound effect (Brown et al., 2014; Coroama & Mattern, 2019). In the housing domain, technologies such as smart homes induce a new round of resource-intense household electrification, rather than net energy savings (Røpke et al., 2010). Further, consumption patterns are changing. Digitalisation incentivises an increase of consumption by providing personalised advertisement and product recommendations, while at the same time offering around-the-clock shopping possibilities (Frick & Santarius, 2019). Access to information technologies is further linked to the degree to which subjective well-being is affected by concerns about relative status and material aspirations (Lohmann, 2015). Further, there is no evidence of global emissions and resource use absolutely decoupling from GDP growth (Hickel & Kallis, 2019) and macro-level analyses show that digitalisation leads to further economic growth and increased energy use (Cardona et al., 2013; Salahuddin & Alam, 2016). Hence, research challenges the belief that current digitalisation trends are sustainable. For digitalisation to become sustainable, (eco-)sufficiency is needed – a decrease in overall resource consumption (O’Neill et al., 2018). As a consequence, the growth-at-all-cost paradigm present in the current economic system has to be questioned. These unsustainable dynamics present in our analogue sphere are reproduced in digital spheres, and advanced by digital near-monopolies such as Google or Amazon. At the same time, the digital sphere also teems with promising socio-ecological alternatives, which we turn to in the next section.
A post-growth perspective on digitalisation
Making digitalisation more sustainable entails both an ICT infrastructure that in itself does not further speed up resource exhaustion, as well as creating online environments that foster sustainable lifestyles. For the first part, obviously ICT infrastructure needs to run on renewable energy (which some firms committed to). Further, for hardware to become sustainable, supply chains have to respect human rights and ecological boundaries. Projects like Fairphone are vivid examples of how big a challenge this transition still remains. Yet, we not only have to change where and how we source the energy, metals and fuels for our devices, server parks and cables, but also need to reconsider the amount of data traffic and digital appliances necessary to provide a good life for all within planetary boundaries (Hazas et al., 2016). For example, creating sustainable software means limiting utilised hardware capacity and preventing hardware obsolescence (Kern et al., 2018). As in other domains, also sustainable digitalisation needs to apply the three sustainability strategies: efficiency, consistency and sufficiency. Whereas digital technology excels in efficiency, we now need more focus on digital consistency and digital sufficiency. Or as Wolfgang Sachs (Sachs, 1993) put it: “[A]n efficiency revolution remains blind to directions if it is not accompanied by a sufficiency revolution.” Finally, the ‘convivial technology’ framework may help the designers of ICT infrastructures by providing an overview of socio-ecological criteria for (digital) technology (Vetter, 2017). It lists criteria such as ecological agreeableness, access equality and social relatedness.
For the second part, digital technologies should help reduce our society’s environmental footprint and foster sufficiency-oriented lifestyles. As seen above, the growing deployment of digitalisation increases the need to move towards post-growth societies, which prioritise social and environmental well-being over economic growth. From a post-growth perspective, several digital innovations are promising. Online networks help civic organizations to collectively organize for social-ecological transformation. Direct trade or peer-to-peer sharing platforms help to relocalise the economy, building resilience and keeping money flows within communities (Sekulova et al., 2013). Another cornerstone of sufficiency is decommodification. In internet and hacker communities, a commons-based approach used to be and often still is the default. CC-licenses, free software and open source technology are innovations that emerged from this approach and deserve further development and support. A further decommodification strategy that would help to increase privacy while decreasing overconsumption, is the limitation of (personalised) advertisement. At least on an individual level, this can be achieved using adblockers or a data detox kit, yet measures on a political scale need to be discussed.
Shaping the future of digitalisation
Lastly, digitalising the energy supply and consumption is just as likely to raise emissions as it is to lower them (Sivaram, 2018). Quantitative estimates of efficiency gains remain underexplored and need to be increasingly pursuit to track rebound effects and assure digital sufficiency. Alongside digital innovations, which are often praised as a panacea for solving environmental challenges, ‘exnovation’ should become an option for action – discarding developments that have turned out not to improve well-being or the environmental condition. Designing digitalisation by democratic means should thus entail rolling back harmful innovations, for example, by regulating personalised online advertisement and tracking. Civil society needs to be aware of the fact that digitalisation is no ‘force of nature’ befalling us, but that it is actively shaped by the actors who are designing, and by the ones who are using it. As digitalisation becomes more and more essential to our society, its design should not be controlled by profit-oriented organisations. Rather, civil society should join the discussion and use their democratic power to steer the future of digitalisation.
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