There is the temptation to look at the internet as an infinite and inexhaustible resource to which the adjective “sustainable” would appear anachronistic. Yet the reality is that if we do not discontinue the current trends to digitization and the evolution of the internet, digitisation can become unsustainable. There is nothing that suggests that it would continue to expand and grow without collapsing and that collapse would be the ultimate outcome of unsustainable models that are embedded in current architecture and practice and even design methodologies and biases of digitization. There are a number of challenges to its sustainability.
One that is primary and obvious is the demand for energy to continue to fire digitization and support the internet. Every digital device, whether connected to the internet or not, require energy to function. As we move into the era of internet of things (IOT), we realize that our whole life is dependent on non-stop consumption of energy to make devices to function and perform. This demand for energy is tremendous and will continue to rise in the face of diminishing energy resources. The servers that make the internet available to us 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 12 months a year without fail are constantly consuming energy. Similarly, all the base stations, the transmitter-receiver units, etc that support the spread of the internet are energy consuming parts of the digitization system. How to we ensure that there will always be sufficient energy to support this massive and ever growing energy consumption?
Energy consideration leads us to two unsustainability scenarios. One is that is that our energy consumption paradigm has globally become unsustainable and already many countries are looking at how they could cut down consumption, even as they look for alternative to non-extractive energy sources. In this sense, sustainability would require both a rethink of the consumption pattern as well as alternative means of getting the energy.
The second is increasing pollution and eWaste that is resulting from digitization. Manufacturers are increasingly pushing for shorter life span of devices that get discarded quickly so that they can quickly get recoup their investment and make obscene profits. Computer parts, batteries, etc. have been filing up, not just consuming spaces but also constituting hazard to health and to environment. Added to this is the emission of carbon dioxide from energy use that is contributing greatly to the stock of global carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the culprit in global warming and in engendering climate change. We need to urgently respond to this to make digitization sustainable.
But there are other non-energy related sources of unsustainability, especially when we take the internet as the central core of the digitization drive. One that looks innocuous is the increasing deployment and use of invasive surveillance systems and privacy intruding devices on citizens. We live today not far from the model of Big Brother, our life could be intimately reconstructed by a systematic extraction and analysis of our digital metadata, that is without even the massive deployment of surveillance systems. There are two major forces that are bent on attacking our privacy. One set consists of authoritarian regimes which think that every citizen is a subversive and must be closely monitored and therefore, they deploy all sort of systems, including the use of backdoor devices to police and intrude on our privacy. The other force are global mercenaries who are data pirates and privacy merchants. These shadowy characters make money from either blackmailing individuals or selling privacy to authoritarian regimes. Such trading has already has resulted in the death of many journalists and activists across the countries. One of the notorious actor in this is the Israel company, NSO Group which has developed a software, called Pegasus that was originally developed to track criminals, but now being used by many governments to monitor journalists, activists, political opponents, etc. This software can get online to your handset without your knowing. Once it gets embedded in the handset, everything you do, is reported including taking pictures that you did not take. Its use has negative consequences to civic rights, and even the death of many people. This undermining of privacy is creating doubts in the minds of people and is inviting a luddite-type response on the part of libertarian people that is a threat to digitization. On average, data trackers have found that on a daily basis, our data is traded 987 times a day to companies that are interested in manipulating our views, our tastes, our perceptions, etc. here we are not talking about the profit them make out of our innocent use of the internet but the way in which our little clicks have become commodified and our privacy trashed to the grounds
Increasing harmful content on the internet is another source of worry. From trading on child pornography to nudity and all behaviour online that demeans womanhood, we see such avalanche materials which have become one of the major commodities of trading on the net. Such harmful content inhibits the effective use of the internet by women thus perpetuating the gender digital divide. There is no consensus on how to deal with this challenge because in some climes, people insist that nudity is part of their freedom of expression. When the net becomes the site for degrading women and commoditizing their body, promoting a negativist patriarchal image that women are nothing more than objects of pleasure, lacking subjectivity of their own, then digitization promises to reverse the gains of centuries of struggles to affirm the dignity of women. Such a transition can only result in unsustainability of digitization and must be halted.
There is also another type of harmful content which is cheaply promoted by platforms such as Twitter and Facebook through algorithmic engineering. This is the elevation of content that fuels conflicts in society. They use algorithmic coding to privilege and promote controversial contents that generate conflicts. They do this because such contents mean more profit for them. How do we get these conflicts merchants and profiteers to stop inciting us into a frenzy of violence for which they gain while ordinary citizens get killed and maimed?
There is also a political response to an unequal and unaccountable control of the internet. Western capital dominates and controls the net. Certain countries, even if for authoritarian purposes, are recoiling to a nationalistic view about the cyber space, threatening to create inlands of cyber spaces that are nationally bounded. Russia for example has been promoting a country level counter “internet” that is available to its citizens. Countries like China have been building firewalls to isolate and control traffic into and out of their countries. There those silently using filtering and blockage to isolate their citizens. There are the crude ones who engage in partial or total shutdown or even selective shutdown as we witnessed few months ago in Nigeria. Again these are points of instability that have repercussion to sustainability of digitization.
Platform providers have also created platforms and apps that allow young people to weaponise the internet. From learning to make bombs, to serving as recruitment space for violent movements, and coordinating meeting spaces for terrorists, we have seen the rise of how young people are using the internet to train and commit murder. For example, the 18-year old who shot and killed many people in Buffalo Supermarket in the USA spent many months planning his attack on the internet. Such youth are known to use platforms as Twitch and Discord, among others for nefarious activities. The bulk of the internet that is referred to as the Dark Net which many ordinary users are not aware of is a space where you hire assassins, trade in drugs and engage all sort of criminal activities.
But by the far, the gravest threat to the sustainability of digitization are the companies in the sector that think profit is the ultimate factor in driving the direction of any and every development around digitization. from designing with shorter life span, to the shift to use and discard (a move away from use and repair) to proprietary components design and manufacture that compatibility across different manufacturers impossible. This is not talk in the way in which current artificial intelligence design are profiling categories of people, creating stereotypes such as for example technology assistant as supporting modelled as women, datafication of migrants and displaced persons, erecting eborders, etc. this also does not consider the increasing unequal participation in the global digitization with the global south increasingly reduced to mere insignificant consumers of products of digitization while production is done by the global North. This has implications on the increasing the gaps in knowledge production and even consumption between and across these divisions. These have serious repercussion for the digitization.
The struggle for sustainability of digitization must necessarily be multifaceted. It is both technological and political. Technological in the sense that profit bias has becomes the only consideration in selecting design methodologies and production processes and practices, political because the key decisions are informed by and decided by politicians on the basis of political considerations. Ultimately, those who wish to assure the sustainability of the digitization must also respond in kind: deconstructing current technological thinking and practices and emptying the biases that are implicated in data extraction and collection, data aggregation and selection and ultimately the way in which data is used in design and modelling of software. Need wait for the catastrophe to occur before open our eyes?
Y.Z. Yaú, CITAD