Digital technologies and environnemental politics

For some years now the environmental consequences of digital technologies have been the object of growing attention1, casting doubt upon the expected convergence between ecological and digital transition. Those warnings are not quite new2, they only recently caught the attention of political bodies3. This interest of public policies shows at the very moment when the state and the economical actors are massively investing in digital projects of major scope like 5G, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, internet of objects. So many project whose consequences cannot be precisely anticipated but who imply de facto a proliferation of equipment and data. On a broader level, an in-depth reflection must be conducted to evaluate the impact of digital technologies be it direct (direct environmental energy and ressources demand, pollution, etc) or indirect (cost optimization which leads to an overall increase of production and consumption).

The relationships between digital technologies and the environment are political, in the sense that they are linked to technical and economical choices made in the name of values such as availability, security, speed, profit…). Those choices imply a certain way of looking at natural ressources, biodiversity, the health of human beings, which is not very visible to users because of the seemingly smooth way information transits and the use of a vocabulary arranged around dematerialization, cloud, etc.

This workgroup carries out an interdisciplinary reflection on how digital technologies embody and pass off as natural a determined relationship to the environment, and thus to environmental policies. This exercice is a mandatory prerequisite to any implementation of efficient policies to restrict the environnemental fingerprint of digital technologies. It requires an interdisciplinary and systematic approach, gathering geographers, historians, political scientists and sociologists. It is about acknowledging the intricate relations between digital technologies and environment in France and worldwide without neglecting to shade a historical light on it.

This workgroup is based on four main axes.

  1. How do digital technologies contribute to ecological crises? We would like first do analyze the dynamics through which the expanse of digital infrastructures, manufacturing facilities, extraction sites or waste recovery systems dis/organize territories. Second, we will analyze the indirect effects of the expanse of digital technologies, in particular those who help lifting the structural limitations to our production and consumption, and thus increasing the pressure put on natural resources and related pollution.
  2. How do digital technologies participate in renewing the way we conceive of environmental changes and act upon it? Digital technologies nowadays play a central role in the production of the metrics and information that help better understand the environmental crisis. This axis copes with evaluation and measuring practices (citizen empowerment, use of indicators by policies of prevention and regulation of environmental impacts) in order to question their relevance and fitness for action – in view of the intrinsic contradiction between on the one hand the boundless proliferation of data and digital equipement, and the other hand the goal of taking into account planetary limits in our choice of society.
  3. How does environmental concern contribute to shape technologies? This axis questions design practices and public policies which take into account the matter of “digital sobriety”. Two complementary perspectives will be considered: on the one hand, the modalities of regulation of technological development who could limit ecological disasters, on the other, the view on hard- and software design that could help bring out less resource-consuming technologies. We will finally focus on environemental consequences of digital technologies, from the policies of technological acceptability to technocritical discourses.
  4. How is it possible to think anew the teaching and scientific popular communication of computer sciences in a world shaped by the ecological crises? While engineer school students are warning their institutions by demanding courses which include environmental concerns, teachers and lecturers face the lack of existing content, especially a lack of interdisciplinary knowledge between economics, sociology, history, philosophy of digital technologies. Computer science researchers who worry about the outcome of their research face the same issue. This workgroup provide a space to discuss, produce and pass around pedagogical content helping train researchers, students and citizens to more accountable practices and to the environmental consequences of digital technologies.

This workgroup aims at gradually putting together a community of researchers contributing to the studies of the environmental impact of digital technologies4, in particular by organizing seminars. To build up this interdisciplinarity, the workgroup collaborates with the Ecoinfo services5 group which is committed since 2006 in measuring the environmental consequences of ICT and creating services seeking to reduce their negative impacts in higher education and research. Other objectives and ambitions will be considered throughout each workgroup member involvement in those matters.

Notes

1 See for example the reports of TheShiftProject 2018 and GreenIT 2019.

2 Flipo Fabrice, Michel Dobré, Marion Michot, La face cachée du numérique, Montreuil, Éditions L’échappée, 2013.

3 In 2020, the Senate launched a mission on the digital environmental footprint which, according to Hervé Maurey, chairman of the commission, “has not yet been the subject of parliamentary work and which is giving rise to a gradual awareness “. At the same time, the National Digital Council and the High Council for the Climate were contacted by Élisabeth Borne, Minister for Ecological and Inclusive Transition and Cédric O, Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, with a view to drawing up a route with the double objective: “reduce the environmental footprint of digital in order to create a sustainable digital and make digital a lever for the ecological and inclusive transition”.

4 Ensmenger Nathan, “The Environmental History of Computing”, Technology and Culture, 2018, 59, 4S, p. S7-S33, full text; Shriver-Rice Meryl, Hunter Vaughan, “What is Environmental Media Studies”, Journal of Environmental Media, 2020, 1, 1, p. 3-13, full text.

5 https://ecoinfo.cnrs.fr

Coordination

Clément Marquet is a research assistant in sociology at the Centre de sociologie de l’innovation of Mines Paris – PSL. His research focuses on the materiality of the digital technical system. Using methods and theories from the social studies of science and technology, he is interested in the political, social, and environmental tensions caused by the deployment of digital infrastructures (data centers, undersea cables), and in the political and commercial stakes of the methodologies used to measure the environmental footprint of digital technology.

Sophie Quinton is a research fellow at Inria (French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control) and a member of GDS EcoInfo. As an expert in embedded systems verification, close to R&D in the automotive industry, the ecological emergency led her to step back from her research activities, and more generally from the role of the researcher in our society. She is now interested in the direct and indirect effects of digital technology.