As a teaching assistant in my university for a course on environment and Information Technology, I spent a good part of the past week commenting on my students’ research papers. One subset of those papers argued that we can reduce our environmental impact if we reduce paper use and instead do all our business with e-books, on computers, harnessing the power of the Cloud — essentially replace each part of the book production, access, consumption and storage cycle with a digital/electronically enabled counterpart.
On its face, the argument is pretty standard and well-meaning, right? After all, ever since we started school, we have constantly been told how paper comes from trees and wasting paper means increased deforestation.
Further, we are encouraged to recycle, use both sides of a sheet, use linen towels instead of paper napkins and so on. But, if you think about it, were we ever, as school children, made to engage with the actual production of a book?
The book is indeed a physical artefact but is it only manufactured manually? No, it’s not. Just like our own post-digital selves, the book is a cyborg artefact, much informed, affected and produced out of the encounter of what we think of as material (both paper and production conditions of those who make it) as well as what we typically associate with digital (born out of wires, dependent on interfaces, intangible software, bought without paper currency).
Coming back to whether replacing paper textbooks with e-books will be good for the environment, whether uploading using cloud-based solutions can reduce overall environmental impact or how sustainable it is to mine Bitcoins individually or collectively – these are contextual questions and the responses are highly dependent on who is asking them (a consumer, researcher, entrepreneur, environmental activist). However, let us take a moment to examine the imaginaries underpinning the digital technologies we use on a daily basis.
It is relatively easy to perceive how using physical copies of books contribute to global warming because we can feel, touch and smell the paper, perhaps even find the publisher’s address, locate the press where it was made – in short take cognizance of its materiality. However, because digital technologies don’t always hum, emit smoke or require tactile actions like turning a page, prying a lever and are increasingly becoming interfaces that we don’t even need to touch – it is harder to remember that we actually experience them through solid materials, often built upon even older infrastructure (pipes, telegraph and telephone networks).
For instance, many researchers have highlighted the politics of ‘rare earth minerals’ – a group of 17 minerals found in very small amounts in nature, but crucial to building things like a colour TV, earphones, phones and electric cars. These minerals are not always processed where they are found, often shipped to and damaging ecologies where cheaper labour is available. Similarly, owing to the need for consistent energy supply, data centers that store your digital memories, let you binge on Netflix and enable every single Snapchat you share heavily rely on coal-powered electricity. However, when we say data centres, in public imagination, we only think of clean white walls, silent rooms and wired metal cases.
The distributed material nature of our technology production and consumption is not only something that we don’t consider closely but it is also something that affects us silently. For instance, as a report highlights, China’s own increased carbon emissions are directly linked to global demand for cheap technology consumption. The same emissions are also reported to travel across the Pacific Ocean affecting air quality in the United States, constantly reminding us that we need to pay closer attention to the inherently material nature of our technology consumption.
Attention to material use is not only an environmental concern. Imaginations of digital technologies also evoke visions of speed, friction-less transactions and in turn the ability to scale an activity easily. But, anyone who uses magical apps to get through daily life knows that digital technologies regularly fail us in the form of bugs, battery life, power outages, accessibility limitations and so on, again reminding us how much digital interactions depend on material infrastructures that need maintenance and repair for the digital experience to reach you.
We then need to re-examine where our digital lives really begin and where they end, in close alignment with their material processes and complex outcomes if we truly want to arrive at sustainable living solutions.