Frugal computing: when will digital technology be compatible with planetary limits?

Frugal computing: when will digital technology be compatible with planetary limits?

Le global warming as well as theprogressive depletion of fossil and mineral resources are indisputable realities today. These phenomena presage a lasting change in our lifestyles, particularly on the economic level.

In this context of “ecological transition”, the place of digital technology is up for debate. Indeed, if the emissions associated with digital technology may seem low today, between 2% and 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, they follow uninterrupted growth that is unsustainable over the long term.

Two models of thought fuel research in computer science for several years. The first, well summarized in the terms “Green-by-IT”, believes that digital technology can help us decouple economic growth from its environmental impact. This is the idea behind digital transition policies. The second, which is often called “Green IT”, states that thewe can reduce the environmental impact of digital technology itself. But these approaches are insufficient given the magnitude of the issues, because they overlook the “societal” impacts of digital technology.

Indeed, digital technologies make possible, organize and govern whole sections of our lifestyles, while generating considerable unpremeditated effects, from the world of work – with the appearance of shadow workers, flesh-and-blood humans who validate all content on video platforms – right down to culture, with streaming platforms completely changing the economic model the music or film industry; but also health, with shared medical data and records and all the associated privacy issues.

It is now a whole digital imagination that imposes itself on us, making it pass to the general public as immaterial, immediate, neutral and absolutely necessary.

Taking into account the societal and environmental impacts of digital technology should allow us to get out of this imaginary articulated to the consumer society, to question its uses and, in the end, to define a truly frugal IT, which allows us to meet the expectations of the society, while remaining within planetary boundaries and beyond “social floors” which we would like to see the entire population of the world benefit from.

The blind spots of this digital which “dematerializes”

Le “Green-by-IT” refers to the idea that IT contributes to the ecological transition, by optimizing existing socio-technical systems. For example, many organizations “dematerialize” their procedures and documents, which has the supposed virtue, among others, of reducing paper consumption.

This vision has several blind spots. The most important, in our opinion, concerns the pollution generated by digital technology in the manufacturing, use or recycling phase, which are still largely unknown and underestimated by the general public. The digital takes on a fantasized "own" character, even in the common vocabulary used to describe it: for example, the term "cloud" suggests something relatively harmless, far from being materiality of its physical realization.

A more “green” digital?

Le “Green IT” is interested in the environmental impacts of computer systems and develops optimizations aimed at a form of ecological, or at least energy, efficiency.

Its methods take into account the different phases of the life cycle of digital objects: manufacture or construction, phase of use and end of life, whether it is a question of their possible recycling or their reuse.

This concern to do better for such an application or such a computer brick is of course important. However, these activities often underestimate the "rebound" effect they cause. This effect, now well understood in economics and social sciences, makes it possible to describe how an increase in the energy efficiency of a system can very often lead to an increase in overall energy consumption ; whether it is that of the initial system (direct rebound effect) or even that of a broader socio-economic sector (indirect rebound effect).

How digital technologies are imposing themselves on society

By focusing on specific industries or technologies, Green-IT and Green-by-IT approaches ignore how digital is disrupting society on a larger scale.

These societal issues are revealed by numerous studies en Humanities and Social Sciences, which highlight the balance of power involved in digital technology.

By way of example, we can think of the deployment of 5G, which has recently sparked wide debate on its environmental impacts, fueled by citizen concerns as well as economic issues on the side of the operators.

Between real or imagined needs on the side of users and economic necessity on the side of digital technology providers, how do technological objects emerge?

By reflecting on this question, we can thus see how digital technology is gradually positioning itself as an essential intermediary for meeting the vital needs of citizens.

What are our real needs?

The imposition of digital technology on society should not ignore the questioning of the real needs of users, needs that should be related to, on the one hand, planetary limits (energy resources, materials) and, on the other, the social floors (health and hygiene, for example). It is then crucial to bring about visions of the world that are both possible and desirable.

It is not a question here of completely abandoning digital technology, but of identifying certain fields of application for which we will decide, collectively, to maintain advanced technicality. On the other hand, we can imagine “denumerizing” certain human activities when their environmental impact is deemed incompatible with planetary limits and/or with certain social floors.

The definition of these common needs and the major societal arbitrations that preside over the deployment of digital need to understand the orders of magnitude involved, if we want to avoid the pitfall of "small gestures" - for example the sorting emails – which are derisory vis-à-vis the current ecological crisis.

In particular :

  • With what resources can we develop digital objects without jeopardizing the conditions of habitability of our planet? What is our “hardware budget”? On these issues, the work of Ademe prospective or Shift Project, among other things, will positively nourish the reflection of our fellow computer hardware researchers to redefine the sustainable framework for the construction of digital objects.

  • What are the uses of technology that are really relevant for society according to the conjunction of limits and needs? What framework can we collectively set for ourselves in the ethical, legal, economic, political, social and ecological domains? These fundamental questions are nourished by ecological criticism and social criticism, carried by technocritical thinkers of the XXe century like Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Bernard Charbonneau and today, like Eric Sadin, Fabrice Flipo, Antonio Casilli, Eric Vidalenc including.

  • Is it possible to design software technologies allowing these uses without exceeding the limits of our global envelope? Part of the software engineering research community, of which we are also a part, has already begun to consider this issue.

A new approach to research in computer science

Thinking about and developing “frugal computing” does not only consist in redefining the methods and techniques at the heart of computing, but also requires collectively deciding on the desirable uses, which must become so thanks to these innovations. These uses must be identified as essential to the life of society, while remaining compatible with planetary limits and social floors.

This question must be asked about every aspect of research in computer science.

For example, by making the assumption of essential digital services, such as access to knowledge or interpersonal communication, and by asking what is the impact of the programming techniques used to build the software in question.

For the particular case of programming languages, how to design a "minimal" language that would be able to allow the development of these services? On the contrary, which concepts usually manipulated by programmers should be banned from programming languages ​​because they would make digital services inevitably incompatible with planetary boundaries?

We believe that researchers in computer science should dare to adopt a posture of distance vis-à-vis the ecosystem of technological innovation. This work, located at the crossroads of the disciplines of computer science and human and social sciences, intends to promote a systemic understanding of the problems brought about by the digital society and to attempt modestly to respond to them by choosing another possible path.

Lionel Morel, Lecturer in Computer Science, INSA Lyon – University of Lyon; Guillaume Salagnac, Lecturer-researcher (MCF) in computer science, INSA Lyon – University of Lyon; Lucas Chaloyard, PhD student in computer science, INSA Lyon – University of Lyon; Marie-Pierre Escudie, Teacher-researcher in engineering ethics, INSA Lyon – University of Lyon et Nicholas Stouls, Lecturer in Computer Science, INSA Lyon – University of Lyon

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.


Image credit: Shutterstock / nepool

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