The past few months saw a lot of buzz around emerging digital technologies. There wasn’t a week going by without news of AI-enabled tools that create sophisticated content from basic human prompts, major advances in biometrics, robotics or extended reality tech, and other viral stories from the sector.
But as the tech industry’s impact has become more significant, it has become consequently difficult to tell which of these innovations are truly groundbreaking and which will be passé soon, which are the harmless and the more worrisome advancements within the industry.
We at The Engine Room are no stranger to this complexity: we have been helping activists navigate the nuances of digital systems for over a decade now. One key area that tends to almost always come up in our analysis revolves around the “sustainability costs” of these emerging systems. How much will digital tech cost us in the long run, both in a financial and philosophical sense? What are the unintended environmental, social and political consequences of such systems going mainstream? What kind of labour relationships fuel innovation? Who really maintains the success of the industry? And how is this division entrenching historical inequalities?
The sustainability costs of innovation
When we look at the evidence, it is increasingly clear that emerging tech systems and internet technologies are very resource intensive. Our own research at The Engine Room has shown that corporate data centres have high energy needs, algorithmic models are data hungry and often built on exploitative labour relations, while the production of smart devices requires excess mineral extraction. To illustrate, the emissions generated by large-scale language models are reportedly the same as the emissions of five cars, underscoring how heavily AI systems rely on the exploitation of our natural and social resources.
And yet, the popular attitude in the tech industry (and adjacent sectors) is to continue prioritising high energy interventions –regardless of whether more efficient options are available or not. Facebook and Google famously tried to use drones and high-altitude balloons to connect remote regions to the internet, even though the shadow internet in Cuba and the community networks in Brazil have proven that low-tech alternatives are often more sustainable, affordable, efficient and resistant to disruptions.
So what are some of the ways to push back on the notion that innovation should be prioritised by all means? How can we continue experimenting with technology’s liberatory potential, without sacrificing too much?
Low-tech solutions to high tech problems
Recognising the importance of a sustainable digital future, more and more activists are calling for a low-tech/degrowth mindset that prioritises simplicity and durability over scale and fanciness. The degrowth movement is not a product of the digital era: the 1970s already saw growing critique of modern technology’s depletion of resources like fossil fuels, with many advocating for locally affordable, efficient technologies. Since then, the term ‘low-tech’ has become mainstream across different sectors, as a way to describe sustainable, accessible, responsible and ethical approaches to innovation.
But how do these principles translate into every-day decisions for the makers and users of digital solutions?
There are a number of inspiring approaches and conceptual frameworks in emerging tech that prioritise degrowth. Some of the more promising examples include:
- Low-energy approaches to web design that are fully adapted to users’ needs without any technological or functional surpluses
- Long-range wifi networks that increase access and narrow the digital divide without the burden of costing too much
- Solar powered web hosting and data centres that experiment with renewable energy sources in order to create resource-efficient content
- Reusable, open source and easy-to-maintain code that can alleviate the costs of technological development
- Sustainable AI practices, and more
For those who want to learn more about environmentally conscious web development, I highly recommend a deep dive into the Web Environmental Sustainability Guidelines, a collaboratively written document that provides helpful prompts and resources. To illustrate, here are some of the questions that one can ponder before developing or deploying a particular technology:
- What is the overall carbon footprint of this tech solution? Is it possible to decarbonize by detecting carbon leaks.? (GreenFrame and others offer open-source solutions that can help with that.)
- How long is this application trying to “retain’ users and keep their attention, thus increasing their energy consumption, and causing other significant harms to their mental health? Are we making it easy for people to find the information they need, or are we trying to keep them hooked on our tech?
- How much data does this tech collect? Only what is needed to improve the experience of the people using it? Or are we collecting excess information that will require energy-intensive data centres, while raising other concerns as well?
- Are we using large visual files and complicated design features? Or are we prioritising simplicity, access and sustainability in our visual approach?
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These are just some of the many questions we can ask ourselves when thinking about the longer term sustainability of digital innovation.
If you want to explore these issues further, have any questions or need advice on how to make more sustainable tech choices, we are happy to help! Read our report exploring the intersections of digital rights, tech and climate justice, or schedule a call through our Light-Touch Support Program.