Digital technologies and climate change, Part III: Policy implications towards a holistic appraisal of digital technology sector


This is the third of a trilogy of posts on the interface between digital technologies and “Climate Change”.  Building on the previous discussion of challenges with the notion of “climate change” and the anti-sustainability practices of the digital technology sector, this last piece in the trilogy suggests policy principles that need to be put in place, as well as some of the complex challenges that need to be addressed by those who do really want to address the negative impact of digital technologies on the environment.

Telecentre small

To be sure, various global initiatives have been put in place to try to address some of the challenges noted above, and the impact of digital technologies on “Climate Change” is being increasingly recognised, although much less attention is paid to its impact on wider aspects of the environment.  One challenge with many such global initiatives is that they have tended to suffer from an approach that fragments the fundamental problems associated with the environmental impact of digital technologies into specific issues that can indeed be addressed one at a time.  This is problematic, as noted in the previous two parts of this commentary, because addressing one issue often causes much more damage to other aspects of the environment.

As I have noted elsewhere,[i] the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) is one of the most significant such initiatives, having produced numerous reports, as well as a Sustainability Assessment Framework (SASF) that companies and organisations can use to evaluate their overall sustainability.  This has three main objectives:

  • “Strengthen ICT sector as significant player for achieving sustainable development goals
  • Enable companies to evaluate and improve their product portfolios with a robust and comprehensive instrument
  • Address sustainability issues of products and services in a coherent manner providing the basis for benchmarking and voluntary agreements”.[ii]

However, GeSI is made up almost exclusively of private sector members, and is primarily designed to serve corporate interests as the wording of the above objectives suggests.  Typically, for example, it has shown clearly how companies can reduce their carbon imprint,[iii] and many are now beginning to do so quite effectively, but the unacknowledged impact of their behaviour on other aspects of the environment is often down-played.  Little of their work has, for example, yet included the impact of satellites on the environment.  Likewise, it has failed to address the fundamentally anti-sustainable business model on which much of the sector is based.

Similarly, civil society organisations have also tended to fragment the digital-environment into a small number of parts for which it is relatively easy to gather quantifiable data. Thus, Greenpeace’s greener electronics initiative focuses exclusively on energy use, resource consumption and chemical elimination.[iv] These are important, though, showing that most digital companies that they analysed have a very long way to go before they could be considered in any way “green”; in 2017 only Fairphone (B) and Apple (B-) came anywhere near showing a shade of green in their ranking.  Recent work by other organisations such as the carbon transition think tank The Shift Project has also begun to suggest ways through which ICTs can become a more effective part of the solution to the environmental impact of ICTs rather than being part of the problem as it is at present, although usually primarily from a carbon-centric perspective focusing on climate change.[v]

These observations, alongside those in Parts I and II, give rise to at least seven main policy implications:

Above all, it is essential that a much more holistic approach is adopted to policies and practices concerning the environmental impact of digital technologies.

These must go far beyond the current carbon fetish and include issues as far reaching as landscape change, the use of satellites and the negative environmental impacts of renewable energy provision.  There is a long tradition of research and practice on Environmental Impact Analysis that could usefully be drawn upon more comprehensively in combination with the ever-expanding, but more specific, attention being paid purely to “Climate Change”.

Such assessments need to weigh up both the positive and the negative environmental impacts of digital technologies.

This issue is discussed further below, but there needs to be much more responsible thinking about how we evaluate the wider potential impact of one kind of technology, which might do harm directly, although offering some beneficial solutions more broadly.

The fundamental anti-sustainability business models and practices of many companies in the digital technology sector must be challenged and changed.

The time has come for companies that claim to be doing good with respect to carbon emissions, but yet remain bound by a business approach that requires ever more frequent new purchases, need to be called to task.  Companies that maintain restrictive policies towards repairing devices must be challenged.  Mindsets need to change so that there is complete re-conceptualisation of how consumers and companies view technology.  Laptops, tablets and phones should, for example, be designed in ways that could allow them to be kept in use for a decade rather than a few years.  Until then, much of the rhetoric about ICTs contributing to sustainable development remains hugely hypocritical.

There needs to be fundamental innovation in the ways that researchers and practitioners theorize and think about the environmental impact of digital technologies.

It will be essential for all involved to create new approaches and methodologies in line with the emphasis on a holistic approach to understanding the environmental impact of digital technologies noted above.  Only then will it be possible to avoid the piecemeal and fragmented approach that still dominate today, and thus move towards the use of technologies that can truly be called sustainable.

In turn, it is likely that such new theorizing will have substantial implications for data.

Much work on the climate impact of digital technologies is shaped by existing data that have already been produced. New models and approaches are likely to require new data to be created.

It is important that there is open and informed public debate about the real impacts of digital technologies on the wider environment, and not just on climate.

The vested interest of companies, still driven by their unsustainable practices, against such debate are huge.  However, if consumers could better understand the environmental damage caused by the digital technology system, they would be able to make improved choices about the sorts of technology they use, and how long they keep it for before replacing it.  This is why the work or organisations such as the Restart Project is so important.[vi]

Government action and international agreements are essential.

There is insufficient good evidence that the private sector will regulate itself sufficiently to make the fundamental changes necessary. Government action and international agreement are therefore essential elements of an integrated approach to the wiser use of digital technologies.  The European Union’s recent steps in 2019 concerning the right to repair are a beginning to move in this direction,[vii] but much more comprehensive action is necessary.  International organisations such as the International Telecommunication Union have a key role to play here, but their increasing alliance with private sector companies to fund their activities and their determination to show that the sector is indeed delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals make it difficult for them to respond to the extent required.  Leaders and Ministers in small island states, who are likely to be impacted most imminently by sea level change, might well be able to play an important role in sensitising the wider global community to the importance of these agendas.

The creation of a multi-sector commission

We can no longer rely on private sector funded and led entities to shape the global dialogue on the environmental impact of digital technology.[viii] If there is sufficient will in the international community, a strong case can be made for the creation of a new multi-sector global commission or similar such body to address these issues.  Amongst other things, this could shape the necessary holistic approach, disseminate reliable and trustworthy knowledge, commission new research, present unbiased conclusions, and advise governments on the actions they need to take to ensure that digital technology is developed wisely and environmentally responsibly.

 

This trilogy has been written to raise awareness of some of the challenges and issues relating to the impact of digital technology on the environment. It is by no means comprehensive, and many important issues have not been addressed.  Amongst the most significant of these are questions around the balance between serving broader good while doing localised harm.  For example, is it acceptable to use digital technologies that do indeed cause environmental harm, if such use actually reduces significant environmental harm caused by other economic or cultural activities?  Such questions are of profound importance, and can only be resolved effectively through ethical considerations and people’s moral agendas. There needs to be widespread public debate as to the kind of future we wish to create.  I have addressed some of these in my previous work, but they remain worthy of a much more comprehensive analysis.[ix]

 

It is time to unmask the hypocrisy of those shaping a future of anti-sustainable digital technologies whilst claiming that they contribute to sustainable development.  It is not yet too late to reject the false promises of the digital barons, and reclaim our full sentient experience of the physical environment. It is not yet too late to reject the digital slavery that they seeking to impose on us.  It is not yet too late for us to reclaim our role as guardians of our planet’s future.


[i] Unwin, T. (2017) ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, in: Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU, 37-71

[ii] https://gesi.org/platforms/sustainability-assessment-framework-sasf-1

[iii] Much of GeSI’s work has been driven by the need for companies to respond to the Carbon fetish, with its latest statements on ways through which the sector can deliver the 2030 sustainability agenda being replete with mentions of CO2 https://smarter2030.gesi.org/the-opportunity/.

[iv] See https://www.greenpeace.org/archive-international/en/campaigns/detox/electronics/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics/. See also Greenpeace’s (2017) Guide to Greener Electronics, https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics-2017.pdf.

[v] The Shift Project (2019) Lean ICT – Towards Digital Sobriety, https://theshiftproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Lean-ICT-Report_The-Shift-Project_2019.pdf.

[vi] https://therestartproject.org/

[vii] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_5895

[viii] Although GeSI has produced much interesting work, its private sector focus means that it is by no means impartial.  Eight of its Board members, for example, are drawn from the private sector, with the ninth being a representative of the ITU; most of its staff have an industry background; and almost all of its members and partners are private sector companies or entities.

[ix] Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Digital technologies and climate change, Part II: “Unsustainable” digital technologies cannot deliver the Sustainable Development Goals


This is the second of a trilogy of three posts about the interface between digital technologies and climate change.  It argues that the current design and use of digital technologies are largely based on principles of un-sustainability, and are therefore having a seriously damaging impact on the environment.  The digital technology industry is one of the least sustainable and most environmentally damaging industrial sectors in the modern world.  Its leaders have long been unwilling to face up to the challenges, and continue to focus primarily on the claim that they are contributing significantly to delivering the so-called Sustainable Development Goals.[i]  If digital technologies are indeed to do “good”, especially with respect to the physical environment that sustains us all, it is time for a dramatic rethink of all aspects of the sector’s activities.

 

Four areas of particular concern need to be highlighted:

Redundancy and unsustainability

Redundancy and unsustainability are frequently built centrally into the digital technology business model. At least three key issues can be noted here:

  • Most of the sector is based on the fundamental concept of replacement rather than repair. Those old enough will remember fixed line telephones that lasted virtually for ever.  Now, many people replace their mobile phones at least every two years.  New models come out; new fashions are promoted.  To be sure there is a growing mobile phone and digital repair sector emerging in many poorer countries, but the fundamental business model across the sector is based on innovation to attract people to buy the latest new technology, rather than to build technology that can be re-used.  Initiatives, such as Restart,[ii] are thus incredibly important in trying to change the mentality of consumers, and thereby companies and governments.  They note that: the average mobile creates 55 kilograms of carbon emissions in manufacture, equal to 26 weeks of laundry; 1.9 billion mobile phones were projected to be sold in 2018, and their total carbon footprint in manufacture was at least equal to the Philippines’ annual carbon emissions, a country of over 100 million people; if we used every phone sold this year for 1/3 longer, we would prevent carbon emissions equal to Ireland’s annual emissions.[iii] Yet, many digital companies, especially Apple, have for a long time fought against enabling consumers to repair their own devices or have them repaired more cheaply elsewhere.[iv]
  • The hardware-software development cycle forces users to upgrade their equipment on a regular basis. Innovation in the digital technology sector means that hardware developments often make old software unusable on newer devices, and new software (particularly operating systems) requires newer hardware on which to run.  Inevitably, the consumer has to pay more to replace equipment or hardware with which they were previously perfectly happy.  Not only does this increase the profits to the companies at the expense of consumers, but it also leads to massive redundancy with older equipment frequently simply being thrown away.  This is scarcely sustainable.Computer waste in Starehe Boys' School, Nairobi in the early 2000s
  • The net effect is that despite efforts to recycle digital technology, e-Waste remains a fundamental problem for the sector. Much e-waste contains concentrated amounts of potentially harmful products, and this shows little sign of abating.  In 2014 41.8 million tons of discarded electrical and electronic waste was produced, which represented some US$ 52 billion of potentially reusable resources, little of which was collected for recycling.[v] Reports in 2019 suggested that there were currently just under 50 million tonnes of e-waste, with only 20% of it being dealt with appropriately.[vi]  In recent years a substantial trade has developed whereby poorer countries of the world have become dumps for such waste, with severe environmental damage resulting.[vii] Whilst waste-processing communities such as Guiyu in China[viii] have developed to gain economic benefit from e-waste, and recycling can help provide a partial solution for many materials, the fundamental point remains that the sector as a whole is built on a model that generates very substantial waste, rather than one that is focused inherently on sustainability.[ix]

Mobiles

Digital technologies are one of the main reasons for rising global electricity demand.

Digital technology, almost by definition, must have electricity to function, and as industry and society become increasingly dependent on electricity for production, exchange and consumption, the demand for electricity continues to rise.  Moreover, most electricity production globally is currently generated by coal-fired power stations, which has led authors such as Lozano to claim that “The Internet is the largest coal-fired machine on the planet”.[x]  Four interconnected examples can be given of the scale of this environmental impact.

  • As noted briefly above, much more electricity is often consumed in manufacturing digital devices than in their everyday use. A startling report by Smil in 2016 thus noted that in 2015 all the cars produced in the world weighed more than 180 times the weight of all portable electronic equipment made that year, but only used 7 times the amount of energy in their production.[xi]
  • The overall demand for electricity from the digital technology sector is growing rapidly. Smil goes on to note that ICT networks used about 5% of the world’s electricity in 2012, and this is predicted to rise to 10% by 2020,[xii] and to 20% by 2025.[xiii] Most measures of electricity demand focus on the direct uses of digital technology, such as powering servers, equipment and charging mobile devices (phones, tablets, and laptops), but indirect demand must also be recognised, notably the air-conditioning required to reduce the temperature of places running digital technology. The heat generated by such technologies is also actually an indication of their inefficiency.[xiv]  For example, two-thirds of the power used by mobile base stations is wasted as heat.[xv] If digital technologies were designed to use energy more efficiently, rather than as something to be wasted, then this dramatic increase might be somewhat curtailed.  However, the increased emphasis on data storage, management and analysis, and the ever-growing demand for data-streaming, does not seem likely to fall in the foreseeable future, and thus much more energy efficient systems need to be put in place to manage these processes.[xvi]
  • Specific new technologies, notably blockchain, have been developed with little regard for their electricity demand and thus their environmental impact. The dramatic impact that blockchain has on electricity demand is now beginning to be more widely realised.[xvii]  For example, in 2017 the World Economic Forum even posted an article that suggested that “by 2020, Bitcoin mining could be consuming the same amount of electricity every year as is currently used by the entire world”.  Currently at the start of 2020, Bitcoin alone has a carbon footprint of 34.73 Mt CO2 (equivalent to the carbon footprint of Denmark), it consumes 73.12 TWh of electrical energy (comparable to the power consumption of Austria), and it produces 10.95 kt of e-waste (equivalent to that of Luxembourg).[xviii]  The demand is simply driven by the design of Bitcoin technology which relies on miners frequently adding new sets of transactions to its blockchain, and then all miners confirming that transactions are indeed valid through the proof-of work algorithm.  The machines that do this require huge amounts of energy to do so.  Those who like to argue that blockchain more generally can contribute positively to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, usually fail to recognise that such technology systems are inherently very demanding of energy and can scarcely be called sustainable themselves.
  • Future projections relating to Smart Cities, 5G and the Internet of Things give rise to additional concerns over energy demand. There is much uncertainty about the environmental costs and benefits of upcoming developments in digital technology, and some efforts are indeed being made to reduce the rate of increase of energy demands. In the case of 5G, for example, the necessary denser networks will place much heavier demands on electricity unless more energy efficient technologies are put in place.[xix]  Likewise, the massive roll-out of the Internet of Things has the potential dramatically to increase energy use, not least through the management of the vast amount of data that will be produced.  Yet there are advocates who also argue that the use of these technologies will actually enable more efficient systems to be introduced.[xx]  On balance, it is certain that most of these new technologies will themselves generate greater electricity demand, but only likely or possible that systems will be introduced to mitigate such increases.  There needs to be a fundamental shift so that those designing new digital technologies in the future do so primarily based on environmental considerations.  An alternative might be for governments and regulators across the world to start now by imposing very substantial penalties on technology developers who fail to do so.

Exploitation of the environment

The unsustainable exploitation of many rare minerals is unsustainable environmentally and frequently based on labour practices that many see as lacking moral integrity. Two aspects are important here.

  • First, most digital technologies rely on rare minerals that are becoming increasingly scarce. Many people are unaware, for example, that a mobile phone contains more than a third of the elements in the Periodic Table.[xxi]  Minerals such as Cobalt, the 17 rare earth elements, Gallium, Indium and Tungsten are becoming more and more in demand, and as supply is limited prices have often increased significantly.  They can also fluctuate dramatically.  Above all, as these minerals become depleted, new technological solutions will be needed to replace them.
  • Second, though, the actual exploitation of such resources is often hugely environmentally damaging, and the use of child labour is considered by many as being unacceptable[xxii] – yet such people still buy phones! Mine tailings, open cast mining methods, and waste spillages are all commonplace.  Violence and conflict over ownership of the resources is also widespread, as are the negative health implications of many of the mining methods.  Similarly, frequent reports highlight the plight of children exploited in mining the minerals necessary for digital technologies, particularly so in the Democratic Republic of Congo.[xxiii]

Direct impacts on “Climate Change” and the environment

Finally, all of these issues have varying extents of direct impact on “Climate Change” and the environment. Often this is not immediately apparent, and frequently this impact is difficult to measure, since it involves weighing up different priorities.  It is here, though, that the “carbon fetish” associated with “Climate Change” referred to in Part I, is so damaging.  Moreover, the general perception that new digital technologies are somehow “good” and “green”, and that objects such as smartphones are somehow inherently beautiful, beguiles many consumers into believing that they cannot possibly harm the environment.  This section thus points to four areas where digital technologies do have a direct impact on the environment.

Tower

  • The carbon impact of the digital technology sector is considerably more than most people appreciate.[xxiv] It has been estimated, for example, that the ICT sector emits about 2% of global CO2 emissions, and has now surpassed the airline industry in terms of the levels of its impact.[xxv]  Others suggest that the digital sector will emit as much as 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.  A recent headline catching comparison is that it has been estimated that the watching of pornographic videos generates as much CO2 as is emitted in countries such as Belgium, Bangladesh and Nigeria.[xxvi]  Given the global fetish around the significance of carbon, these figures should be a wake-up call, and indeed there is at last some increased attention being paid to trying to use renewable energy rather than fossil fuels to supply electricity to large elements of the digital technology sector, and especially data centres. Nevertheless, such shifts invariably cause other damaging environmental impacts as noted previously in Part I.
  • Whilst the adoption of renewable sources of energy would undoubtedly reduce the carbon impact of digital technologies, their negative side-effects must also be taken into consideration. As noted above in Part I, unanticipated consequences, as well as those that are clearly already known about, also need to be taken into account.   Moreover, the environmental impact of digital technologies is compounded by the enabling impacts that it has for even greater demands to be placed on electricity production.  For example, digital technologies are a crucial enabling element for smart motorways and self-driving electric cars.  Unless electricity for these cars and communication networks is produced from renewable sources the replacement of petrol and diesel cars by electric ones will have little impact on carbon emissions.  However, the shift to renewable production will lead to a very significant environmental impact through the construction of wine turbines and solar farms.  A 2017 report, for example, estimated that wind farms would need to cover the whole of Scotland to power Britain’s electric cars.[xxvii] Even if this is an exaggeration, it makes the point that there is indeed an environmental cost (not least in landscape impact) of such technologies.[xxviii]
  • Mobile tower 2 CatalunyaThe impact of the large number of new cell towers and antennae that will be needed for 5G networks, as well as the buildings housing server farms and data centres also have a significant environmental impact. It is not just the electricity demands for cooling that matter, but the sheer size of data farms also has a significant physical impact on the environment.[xxix]   The average data centre covers approximately 100,000 sq ft of ground, but the largest noted in 2018 was at Langfan in China and covered some 6.3 million sq ft (which is equivalent to the size of the Pentagon in the USA).[xxx] Furthermore, uncertainty over the health impact of new 5G networks have led to serious concerns among some scientists, as with the 5G appeal to the EU signed by a group of 268 (as of December 2019) scientists and doctors concerned about the impact of RF-EMF, especially with the higher frequency wavelengths being used in the 5G roll-out at high densities in urban areas.[xxxi]  Whilst a majority of those involved in developing and installing such networks do not share these concerns, it is interesting that they have indeed gained some traction.[xxxii]
  • A final very important, but frequently ignored, environmental impact is the proliferation of satellites in space. Far too often, space is seen as having no relevance for environmental matters, rather like the oceans were once considered, but in reality space pollution is of very important significance.  The environmental impact of rockets that launch satellites into space has until recently scarcely been considered.  As noted in a commentary in 2017, “Nobody knows the extent to which rocket launches and re-entering space debris affect the Earth’s atmosphere”.[xxxiii]  The increasing problem of space congestion, though, is indeed now beginning to be taken seriously.  As of January 2019, it is estimated that there have been about 8950 satellites launched into space of which around 5000 were still in space, with only 1950 still functioning.[xxxiv]  The debris from satellites is potentially very hazardous, because every object of a reasonable size from a disintegrating satellite is potentially able to destroy another satellite.  The European Space Agency estimates that there are 34,000 objects >10 cm, 900,000 objects <10 cm and > 1 cm, and 128 million objects <1 cm and > 1mm currently in orbit.

 

This second part of the trilogy of posts on digital technologies and climate change has argued that the digital technology sector is very largely based on business models that have been designed specifically to be unsustainable.  Moreover, these technologies and their use have very significant impact both on the environment in general and also on the constituents of the Earth’s climate.  As these technologies become used much more widely their negative impacts will increase.

In concluding Part II, it is interesting to conjecture over the extent to which this has been a deliberate process by those involved in conceptualising, designing and selling these technologies, or whether more generously it is an unintended consequence of actions by people who simply did not know what they were doing with respect to the environment.  Digital technologies in many ways separate people from the physical environments in which they live.  This reaches its most extreme form in Virtual Reality, but every aspect of digital technologies change human experiences of the physical world.  Opening the envelope containing a letter is thus very different from opening an e-mail; receiving a digital hug is very different from receiving a physical hug from someone.  I cannot help but wonder whether digital technologies, by increasingly separating us from the “real world” physical environment of which we have traditionally been a part, actually also serve to prevent us from really seeing the environmental damage that they are causing.  It is as if these technologies are themselves preventing humans from understanding their environmental implications.  Someone living in a their own virtual reality in a smart home in a smart city bubble, being moved around in autonomous smart vehicles when required, and communicating at a distance with everyone, will perhaps no longer mind about the despoliation of hillsides, the flooding of valleys, the carving out of canyons to feed the machines’ craving for minerals…

 

For the third part of this trilogy, see Digital technologies and climate change, Part III: Policy implications towards a holistic appraisal of digital technology sector


[i] See for example, Unwin, T. (2018) ICTs and the failure of the SDGs, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-sdgs/; and Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU.

[ii] https://therestartproject.org/

[iii] https://therestartproject.org/the-global-footprint-of-mobiles/

[iv] See for example https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/7/3/18761691/right-to-repair-computers-phones-car-mechanics-apple. Although increasing legislation is beginning to have an impact, and Apple did announce a shift of emphasis in late 2019 to make repair easier – https://www.circularonline.co.uk/news/apple-announces-out-of-warranty-iphone-repair-programme/.   The EU also passed significant legislation in late 2019 that emphasised the need for the “right to repair”, and included it in their Ecodesign Framework – https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_5895

[v] See https://unu.edu/news/news/ewaste-2014-unu-report.html

[vi] https://www.weforum.org/reports/a-new-circular-vision-for-electronics-time-for-a-global-reboot

[vii] Frazzoli, C., Orisakwe, O.E., Dragone, R. and Mantovani, A. (2010). Diagnostic

health risk assessment of electronic waste on the general population in developing

countries’ scenarios. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30: 388-399.

[viii] See for example http://www.environmentandsociety.org/arcadia/electronic-waste-guiyu-city-under-change

[ix] Note that the UN’s STEP (Solving The E-waste Problem) initiative is one attempt to address these issues at a global scale, although it is as yet having little impact.

[x] Lozano, K. (2019) Can the Internet survive Climate Change?, The New Republic, 18 Dedcemebr 2019, https://newrepublic.com/article/155993/can-internet-survive-climate-change

[xi] https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/your-phone-costs-energyeven-before-you-turn-it-on

[xii] https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/your-phone-costs-energyeven-before-you-turn-it-on

[xiii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/11/tsunami-of-data-could-consume-fifth-global-electricity-by-2025

[xiv] For an early paper, see Carroll, A. and Heiser, G. (2010) An analysis of power consumption in a smartphone, USENIXATC’10: Proceedings of the 2010 USENIX conference on USENIX annual technical conference June 2010

[xv] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/sep/10/energy-consumption-behind-smart-phone

[xvi] Jones, N. (2018) How to stop data centre from gobbling up the world’s electricity, Nature, 13 September 2018.

[xvii] An interesting alternative model is provided by Holochain, https://holochain.org/

[xviii] See the excellent work and graphics by Digiconomiost at https://digiconomist.net/bitcoin-energy-consumption

[xix] See Frenger, P. and Tano, R. (2019) A technical look at 5G energy consumption and performance, Ericsson Blog, but note that this is published by a corporation with deep vested interests in showing that impacts of 5G are not likely to be severe; see also https://www.cfr.org/blog/what-5g-means-energy and https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/telecom/wireless/will-increased-energy-consumption-be-the-achilles-heel-of-5g-networks

[xx] See for example https://www.digiteum.com/internet-of-things-energy-management

[xxi] Jones, H. (2018) Technology is making these rare elements among the most valuable on earth, World Economic Forum.

[xxii] See, for example, https://en.reset.org/knowledge/ecological-impact-mobile-phones, https://phys.org/news/2018-08-ways-smartphone-environment.html, and https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/your-phone-really-smart

[xxiii] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/oct/12/phone-misery-children-congo-cobalt-mines-drc

[xxiv] For a useful infographic, see https://climatecare.org/infographic-the-carbon-footprint-of-the-internet/; see also https://www.lovefone.co.uk/blogs/news/how-much-co2-does-it-take-to-make-a-smartphone

[xxv] See, for example, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/17/internet-climate-carbon-footprint-data-centres ; see also https://www.dw.com/en/is-netflix-bad-for-the-environment-how-streaming-video-contributes-to-climate-change/a-49556716

[xxvi] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2209569-streaming-online-pornography-produces-as-much-co2-as-belgium/

[xxvii] https://wattsupwiththat.com/2017/10/30/16000-additional-wind-turbines-required-to-power-british-electric-car-fleet/

[xxviii] Likewise, there are many other very direct impacts on the environment.  Elon Musk, for example, is reported to be planning to cut down at least 220 acres of forest in Germany by the end of March 2020, in preparation for building a large new factory to produce 500,000 new electric cars a year (The Times, “Musk taxes axe to forest as factory plans accelerate”, 13 January 2020, p.35; see also https://www.teslarati.com/tesla-forest-endangered-bats-gigafactory-4/)

[xxix] https://www.colocationamerica.com/blog/data-center-environmental-impacts

[xxx] https://www.datacenters.com/news/and-the-title-of-the-largest-data-center-in-the-world-and-largest-data-center-in

[xxxi] https://www.5gappeal.eu/

[xxxii] See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48616174

[xxxiii] David, L. (2017) Spaceflight pollution, Space.com, https://www.space.com/38884-rocket-exhaust-space-junk-pollution.html

[xxxiv] European Space Agency data https://www.esa.int/Safety_Security/Space_Debris/Space_debris_by_the_numbers

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Digital technologies and climate change, Part I: Climate change is not the problem; we are


This is the first part of a trilogy of posts about the interface between digital technologies and climate change, and suggests that “Climate change” is a deeply problematic concept. Its widespread use, and the popular rhetoric surrounding it, may well be doing more harm than good as far as the environment is concerned.  At least six key issues need to be addressed with respect to the “climate change” mantra in the context of its linkages with digital technologies.

Panorama Jolly Harbour Bay

“Climate Change” is a result of many variables and is not per se a cause of anything.

Language matters. Saying, for example, that “Climate Change is causing drought and famine” is meaningless.  The term “Climate Change” is just a description of what is happening; it has no actual causal power.  It is thus changes in rainfall patterns, the uses made of water, changes in population distribution and many other factors that actually cause drought.  Although it is a surrogate collective term for many such underlying factors that are causing changes in the relationships between people and the physical environment, “Climate Change” has itself been given enormous “power” of its own in the popular imagination.  In part, this is because the term serves the interests of all those promoting its use,[i] and detracts from the fundamental changes that need to be made.  Focusing on “Climate Change” actually hinders people from considering the real underlying factors that are causing such changes, which are most notably aspects of human behaviour such as the pursuit of individual greed rather than communal well-being.  Not least, these include the rapid spread in the use and spread of digital technologies.

It is essential to differentiate between (a) the impacts of humans on climate change and (b) the natural changes that influence the world’s climate.

Climate has always changed.  There is nothing new in this.[ii]  As long as humans have lived on planet Earth they have had an influence on its climate.  What has changed is that there are now many more people alive, and they are having a much greater impact on the climate, over and above the “natural” changes taking place.  The pace of change has undoubtedly increased rapidly.  The popular, but erroneous, belief that it is actually possible to combine “development” with environmental sustainability[iii] considerably exacerbates matters and has meant that more and more people aspire to greater material benefits at lower financial cost than ever before.  Population pressure, foreseen long ago in the late 18th century work of Thomas Malthus, and highlighted in the more recent work of the Club of Rome[iv] in the 1970s with its publication of The Limits to Growth,[v] is one of the root cause of human induced climate change.  Yet far too little emphasis is being placed on this.  Somehow, it seems “right” that we can continue to prolong life, often through enhanced interfaces with digital technologies,[vi] and thereby place even more pressure on the world’s limited environmental “resources”.  Whilst there have been many valid criticisms of such arguments, and economic developments in the 20th century did indeed suggest that such limits could continuously be overcome, Malthus’s positive checks of hunger, disease and war remain all too relevant in the 21st  While many people fear the prospects of a new plague, horrendous famines or devastating global wars, these may well actually remain the ultimate safety valves through which the human species may survive and rebuild a better balance with the environment (of which climate is an integral part; see below).

Humans want to be in control.

Part of the problem with the notion of “Climate Change” as applied primarily to human-induced climate change is that it implies that humans have caused climate change and so can therefore reverse it, if only they had the will and knowhow to do so. Such a notion of “Climate Change” is thus part of the underlying belief system that humans control the “natural environment”, rather than being part of it.  This is related to the much wider debate over the dichotomy between the “mental” and the “physical”, the “spiritual” and the “material”, that has lain at the heart of geography since long before its foundation as an academic discipline.[vii]  Humans today are thus always shocked by so-called ”natural disasters”, such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, when their control is shown to be powerless in the face of the forces of the physical world.  Ultimately, humans are not actually more powerful than, or separate from, the forces of nature.  Yet, advocates of the use of digital technologies to control nature perpetuate the myth that “we” can indeed increasingly be in control.

It is very dangerous to separate “climate” as being somehow distinct from other aspects of the environment in which we live.

The increased rhetoric and activism over “Climate Change” is overshadowing the important wider environmental issues of which it is but a part.  This is highlighted for example, in contexts as diverse as Extinction Rebellion’s dominant slogan “We are facing an unprecedented global climate emergency”,[viii] and the UN Secretary General’s continued emphasis that we must all “confront the world’s climate emergency”.[ix] It is fascinating to see how entities as diverse as these persist in using the word “climate”, rather than “environmental”.  Yet climate change is but a part of the wider changes that are taking place as a result of human exploitation of the limited physical environment in which we live.  Climate must therefore be understood within the holistic context of that wider environment rather than as a separate entity; climate is no more important than the destruction of vegetation, or despoliation of soils, or plastic pollution of the oceans, or even the use of outer space as a satellite graveyard.  If there is one lesson we are beginning to learn it is that all of these are integrally connected within a global ecosystem that must be understood holistically.  “Climate’s” domination of both activism and policy-making suggests that this agenda is being driven by a particular set of interests that are able to benefit from such a focus on climate alone.

The carbon fetish.

One of these interest groups is those involved in carbon trading, who have been able to generate significant profits from so doing.[x]  As the European Environment Agency notes, “Despite fewer EU emission allowances (EUAs) being auctioned in 2018 than in 2017, revenue from auctions increased from EUR 5.5 billion to EUR 14.1 billion”.[xi]  Carbon emissions in the form of CO2 have undoubtedly had a significant impact on global temperatures, and yet the overwhelming focus explicitly on carbon has meant that other damaging environmental changes have been relatively ignored.  A classic example of this was the promotion of diesel cars following the 1997 Kyoto Protocol because they produced lower CO2 emissions than did petrol cars.  Only later was it realised that the NOx and particulate matter emissions from diesel vehicles, caused other damage to the environment and human health.[xii] Likewise, the shift to so-called “renewable” sources of energy, such as wind turbines, in order to reduce carbon emissions, has also led to an increase in the use of Sulphur Hexofluoride (SF6), which is used across the electricity sector to prevent short circuits and fires, but has the highest global warming potential of any known substance.[xiii] Demonising carbon has thus often led to the introduction of different, and sometimes even more damaging, alternatives.  The carbon fetish has also meant that the digital technology sector has focused very substantially on showing how it can reduce its carbon imprint, and thus be seen as being “green” or environmentally friendly,[xiv] whilst actually continuing to have very significant negative environmental impacts in other ways.  The dramatically increased emphasis on non-carbon sources of electricity has likewise caused very significant landscape change across the world through the introduction of solar farms, wind turbines and huge dams for hydroelectric plants.  These landscape changes are difficult to quantify in monetary terms, but need to be taken into consideration in any rigorous evaluation of the environmental impact of digital technologies.Turbines in Catalunya

The positive aspects of climate change.

Humans have always responded to changes in long term weather patterns and thus climate change in the past.  Substantial migrations, changes in trade routes, and the settlement of previously uninhabited areas were all commonplace occurrences in antiquity and prehistoric times.[xv]  Yet, the construction of powerful nation states and increasingly fixed national borders have tended to limit the ease with which migration, or forced settlement, can happen.  Indeed, it has often been said that the free movement of people across the earth is the one human right for which we are not ready.[xvi]  The impact of processes associated with climate change, such as sea-level rise and changing weather patterns, is in part fundamentally tied up with this notion of movement.  Theoretically, if people were able (and willing) to move freely from increasingly hazardous environments to ones that were more amenable, they could travel across the world seeking (or competing for) access to the most propitious places in which to live.  Farmers in low-lying countries flooded out by sea-level change could, for example, move to areas suitable for grain production and pasture that were once on the margins of frozen tundra.[xvii]  Clearly, there are huge political, social and cultural issues to be addressed with such suggestions, but the key point in raising them is to emphasise that there can be positive as well as negative impacts of so-called “Climate Change”.  Indeed, these are readily apparent at a more mundane level.  Already, Champagne producers are investing in vineyards in England, as they seek to mitigate the impact of changes in weather patterns in northern France.[xviii]  Likewise, the amount of energy used to heat buildings in areas of the world that were previously colder in winter has now declined.  This is not in any way to deny the scale, rapidity and significance of the changes the combine to influence “Climate Change”, but it is to argue that they need again to be seen in a holistic way, and not purely as being negative.

 

In summary, this section has suggested that we need to focus on the root causes of the phenomena contributing to changes in weather patterns and to treat these holistically as part of the wider impact that increasing numbers of humans are having on the physical environment.  Human behaviours are creating these environmental changes rather than an exogenous force called “Climate Change”.  Only when we address these human behaviours will we begin to start creating a more sustainable and vibrant ecosystem in which our children and grandchildren can thrive.  This will require fundamentally different ways of living that most people currently seem unwilling to accept.[xix]  Not least, there needs to be a qualitative shift away from more individualistic, greed-led selfish agendas, to more communal and collaborative ones.  Whilst it is very frequently claimed that digital technologies can indeed help to deliver the so-called Sustainable Development Goals and mitigate the climate crisis, the next section argues that the design and use of these very technologies lie at the heart of the environmental challenges caused by the social and economic systems created by a few rich and powerful humans.

 

For the second part of this triology, see Digital technologies and climate change, Part II: “Unsustainable” digital technologies cannot deliver the Sustainable Development Goals


[i] For a brief discussion of these interests (including those of scientists working in the field, who have actually been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the climate change mantra in terms of research grants and prestige) see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/problems-with-the-climate-change-mantra/

[ii] Much could be written about this, not least concerning the increasing resolution and accuracy with which we measure contemporary changes in climatic variables, in contrast to the necessity to rely on surrogate measures in the past.

[iii] Unwin, T. (2018) ICTs and the failure of the SDGs, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-sdgs/

[iv] History of the Club of Rome, https://www.clubofrome.org/about-us/history/

[v] Meadows et al. (1972)The Limits to Growth, Universe Books,  https://www.clubofrome.org/report/the-limits-to-growth/

[vi] See, for example, the research and development being undertaken by Calico https://www.calicolabs.com/, and Elon Musk’s launching of Neuralink https://www.neuralink.com/

[vii] See Unwin, T, (1992) The Place of Geography, Harlow: Longman.  The belief systems of many indigenous peoples across the world are very different from those derived from European cultures.  Australian aborigines, for example, see themselves very much as being part of nature; the “country” includes them, rather than humans owning the land.

[viii] See for example https://www.xrebellion.nyc/events/heading-for-extinction-and-what-to-do-about-it-8619-darwz-wm6aw-kjakr-e9k6j-7k2pz-4y8gz-py5cy, https://www.brightest.io/cause/extinction-rebellion/, or https://politicalemails.org/organizations/648

[ix] As for example in November 2019 at the ASEAN-UN Summit https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/11/1050501

[x] David Sheppard in The Financial Times thus commented in 2018 that “A select group of specialist traders at hedge funds and investment banks, including Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, are churning bumper profits from a once niche commodity that has risen phoenix-like from a decade-long slump. Carbon credits, introduced by the EU to curb pollution by companies in the trading bloc, have soared almost fourfold in the past year to above €20 per tonne of CO2, following legislative changes designed to get the scheme working…”

[xi] European Environment Agency (2019) The EU Emissions Trading System in 2019: trends and projections, https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/the-eu-emissions-trading-system/at_download/file

[xii] https://www.theengineer.co.uk/fact-check-are-diesel-cars-really-more-polluting-than-petrol-cars/

[xiii] McGrath, M. (2019) Climate change: Electrical industry’s ‘dirty secret’ boosts warming, BBC News 13 Sept 2019, and for a defence from the wind sector see https://windeurope.org/newsroom/news/wind-energy-and-sf6-in-perspective/

[xiv] Typified by the work of GeSI in developing a methodology to assess carbon reducing impacts of ICTs http://www.gesi.org/research/evaluating-the-carbon-reducing-impacts-of-ict-an-assessment-methodology.

[xv] See, for example, Yang, L.E., Bork, H-R, Fang, X. and Mischke, E. (eds) (2018) Socio-Environmental Dynamics along the Historical Silk Road, Cham: Springer Nature; Pappas, S. (2012) Wet climate may have fuelled Mongol invasion, LiveScience, July 2012; Fleming, S. (2019) Climate change helped destroy these four ancient civilisations, World Economic Forum, March 2019; What drove ancient human migration? Climate Change via NPR, Re-imagining migration.

[xvi] Nett, R. (1971) The civil right we are not ready for: the right of free movement of people on the face of the earth, Ethics, 81(3), 212-27.

[xvii] Nobel, J. (2013) Farming in the Arctic: it can be done, Modern Farmer, October 2013.

[xviii] Smithers, R. (2017) French champagne house Taittinger plants first vines in English soil, The Guardian, May 2017.

[xix] One such radical example would be the eradication of pets.  The impact of meat consumption on “Climate Change” has recently been widely publicised following the IPCC special report on climate change and land in 2019.  Its emphasis on the need for a substantial reduction in meat consumption was interpreted by many as being a call for people across the world to eat less meat.  This, in turn, has supported the Vegan food industry, and those advocating Veganuary as a New Year’s Resolution that can help save the planet.  A radical alternative, though, would be to prevent people from keeping pets such as cats and dogs, or at least to regulate the pet-food industry so that it only supplied vegetarian food.  Pets are estimated to eat 20% of the world’s meat and fish, and are thus responsible for a fifth of the environmental impact that this causes; likewise, it has been reported that a quarter of the environmental impact of meat production apparently comes from the pet-food industry.[xix]  Although these estimates seem to be largely based on data from the richer countries of the world, eliminating all pets would be an easy way of dramatically cutting the impact of humans on climate change.  Yet this is not something that most people are willing to consider.  The 874 page IPCC report does not mention pets or the pet-food industry once.

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Digital technologies and climate change


The claim that the use of digital technologies is a solution for the problems of “climate change” and environmental sustainability is fundamentally flawed.[i] The creation of such technologies, and the interests that underlie their design and sale, are part of the problem rather than the solution.  An independent, comprehensive and holistic review of the environmental impact of such technologies therefore urgently needs to be undertaken.

A farm near Tartu in Estonia in the mid-1990s

This reflection brings together some of my previous comments on digital technologies and environmental change that have been scattered across different publications.[ii] It focuses on three main arguments, each addressed in a separate post:

  • Part I suggests that “Climate change” is a deeply problematic concept. Its widespread use, and the popular rhetoric surrounding it, may well be doing more harm than good as far as the environment is concerned
  • Part II argues that the current design and use of digital technologies are largely based on principles of un-sustainability, and are therefore having a seriously damaging impact on the environment.
  • Part III proposes that there is consequently an urgent need for a comprehensive and holistic audit of the impact of digital technologies on the environment.

Lest I be misunderstood in the arguments that follow, I believe passionately in the need for wise human guardianship of the environment in which we live.  Some of my previous research as a geographer[iii] has explicitly addressed issues commonly associated with “climate change”, and I have no doubt that humans are indeed influencing weather patterns across the globe.  However, “climate change” per se is not the problem.  Instead the problem is the behaviour of humans, and especially those in the richer countries of the world who wish to maintain their opulent lifestyles, not least through using the latest digital technologies.  “Climate change” is but a subset of wider and more fundamental issues concerned with the interactions between people and the environment.[iv]  Focusing simply on “climate change” takes our eyes off the most important problems.


[i] Typical of such claims is Ekholm, B. and Rockström, J. (2019) Digital technology can cut global emissions by 15%.  Here’s how, World Economic Forum.

[ii] See Unwin, T. (1992) The Place of Geography, Harlow: Longman; Owen, L. and Unwin, T. (eds) (1997) Environmental Management: Readings and Case Studies, Oxford: Blackwell; Unwin, T. (ed.) (2009) ICT4D: Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Cambridge: CUP; Unwin, T. (2010) Problems with the climate change mantra, 27 Jan 2010; Unwin, T. (2017) ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, in: Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU, 37-71; Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming information and communication technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP.

[iii] See references above in footnote 2.

[iv] The interactions between people and the environment have long been part of the domain of Geography, and this reflection is thus largely constructed through a geographer’s lens (see footnote 2: Unwin, 1992)

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Thoughts on “Education and digitisation in development cooperation”


Children Forum Naz 6 smRecently I was asked by the GFA Consulting Group to provide some short comments and reflections (just a few sentences) in response to four questions, the answers to which will be incorporated as part of a final chapter in an important new Toolkit on Education and Digitisation in Development Cooperation being developed by them together with GIZ (Sector Programme Education) and BMZ (Division 402, Education), and due to be published in April 2020 [as: BMZ, Toolkit – Education and Digitalization in Development Cooperation, to be published in 04/2020].  It is always interesting to try constructively to answer questions that contain inbuilt assumptions with which I don’t necessarily agree!  They have kindly agreed that I can share them here for wider commentary and feedback.  This is how I responded:

1)   How can digitalization contribute to achieving the educational objectives of the Agenda 2030?

“Digitalization by itself contributes little to enhancing education, and can often actually cause more harm than good.  The introduction of digital technologies into educational systems must be undertaken in a holistic and carefully planned way.  It needs to be designed and implemented “at scale”, beginning in the poorest and most marginalised contexts: in isolated rural areas, for people with disabilities, for out of school children, and for girls in patriarchal societies.  Only then will it begin to reduce the inequalities in learning provision, and help to provide children and adults alike with the skills they need to empower themselves”.

2)   Which digital technologies will bring about revolutionary changes in the education sector in the future?

“Digital technologies by themselves cannot bring about any changes, let alone revolutionary ones!  To claim otherwise propagates the damaging reductionist myth of technological determinism.  Technologies are designed by people who have specific interests and for particular purposes.  We need to begin with the education and not the technology.  Hence, people with exciting ideas about how to improve education – particularly in the most challenging circumstances – should be encouraged to develop new technological solutions to the most pressing problems that they identify.  These challenges include enabling teachers to have the right skills and understanding to help children learn, ensuring that relevant content is available in the optimal formats to enable children to live fulfilled lives, and creating systems to ensure efficient resource use in educational systems”.

3)   What will be the most pressing challenge in the educational development cooperation sector in the future and how can the use of digital technologies help to overcome it?

“The most important challenge in educational systems is to ensure that there are sufficient well-trained and committed teachers and facilitators employed to inspire new generations of learners.  It is estimated that around 69 million new teachers are needed if the educational objectives of Agenda 2030 are to be reached.  We must ensure therefore that digital technologies are used efficiently and effectively to support in-service and pre-service training for educators, to provide effective learning resources for them to use with learners, and to enable them to be supported by efficient administrative and assessment schemes.  This is without doubt the most pressing challenge”.

4)   What needs to happen in order to utilize the potential of these digital innovations for education in partner countries?

“Four simple things are needed:

  • Partner countries (and indeed donors) must give education the highest priority in their development programmes. Many people talk about the importance of education, but it is only rarely given sufficient emphasis and resources.  We need to reiterate over and over again that ignorance is far more expensive than education!
  • We need to put in place effective mechanisms through which good practices in the use of digital technologies in education can be shared and implemented. We must stop reinventing the wheel and repeating the mistakes made with digital technologies in the past.  Far too many resources are wasted in developing pilot projects that will never go to scale and will not enhance learning opportunities for the most marginalised.
  • We must begin by implementing effective systems of using digital technologies in teacher training. Only once teachers and learning facilitators have been effectively trained should digital systems be rolled out across schools.
  • Finally, we need to ensure that we also minimise the harm that digital technologies can be used for in education and learning. The benefits of digital technologies can only be achieved if systems are put in place to mitigate the harm that they can be used for”.

I think it is likely that these were not the sort of answers that they were expecting, but I very much hope that they provoke discussion that may lead to changes in the way that governments, companies and civil society organisations seek to implement the use of digital technologies in education.  Not surprisingly, they are very much in line with the work that I had the privilege of helping 21 UN agencies develop for the UN’s Chief Executive Board last year entitled Towards a United Nations system-wide strategic approach for achieving inclusive, equitable and innovative education and learning for all.  It is so important that we all work together to develop sound policies and practices that do not reinvent the wheel or duplicate other onoging initiatives.  Above all, we must begin with the education and learning, and not with the technology!

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Reflections on IGF 2019 in Berlin


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High Level Session on Internet Governance at IGF 2019

I have been quite critical of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) process in the past, arguing that it was created essentially as a talking shop and a palliative to civil society following the original WSIS meetings in 2003 and 2005 (for details see my Reclaiming ICT4D, OUP, 2017), and that it has subsequently achieved rather little of substance.  I still retain the view that there are far too many “global” ICT4D gatherings that overlap and duplicate each other, without making a substantial positive difference to the lives of the poorest and most marginalised.  Likewise, I have been hugely critical of the creation and work of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLPDC), despite having several good friends who have been involved in trying to manage this process (see the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D’s response to the original call for contributions).  I retain the view that it is poorly conceived, duplicates other initiatives, and will again have little positive impact on the lives of the poorest and most marginalised.

So, it was with much interest that I arrived at the IGF in Berlin on 25th November in response to three invitations: to participate in a session on ICTs for people with disabilities, to support colleagues involved in the EQUALS initiative intended to increase gender digital equality, and also to participate in a side event on Many Worlds.  Many Nets.  Many Visions, for which I had contributed a short piece on our TEQtogether initiative designed to change men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology.  To this end, it is salient to note the largely elderly white male dominance on the key opening plenary panel on the future of Internet governance shown in the picture above – more on that later!  I had many interesting discussions during the week, but want here to share five main reflections and challenges in the hope that they will provoke dialogue and discussion.

IGF (plus?)…

Water stationms

Water Station at IGF 2019

It was rumoured that the German government had put aside some €10 million to cover the costs of this year’s IGF.  Whilst that may well be an exaggeration we were certainly hosted in great luxury, and it would be churlish not to thank the German government for their generous hospitality.  In compliance with increasing concerns over plastic and climate change, there was even a very impressive water station in the exhibition area!  They had also done much to encourage the participation of many quite young people, and to get the gender balance better than at some similar digital technology events in the past.  The IGF 2019 outputs are already available and make interesting reading.

UN SG speaking in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

UN SG speaking in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

However, I was struck by the relative absence of people from China, India and Russia, as well as from many of the poorer countries of the world who were unable to afford the travel costs or who had difficulties in obtaining visas.  This absence set me thinking of the wider global geopolitical interests involved in the IGF process.  At a time when the ITU is unfortunately being increasingly criticised by North American and European countries for being too heavily in the pocket of Chinese organisations and companies (recent criticism of China’s efforts to influence global standards on facial recognition is but one small example), free-market capitalist governments have turned ever more to the IGF as the main forum for their engagement on Internet issues.

Angela Merkel in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

Angela Merkel in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

The theme of this year’s IGF One World.  One Net.  One Vision. says it all (and hence why I was so eager to be involved in the innovative and creative Many Worlds. Many Nets.  Many Visions initiative).  The IGF is about maintaining a unitary free open Internet in the face of perceived attempts by countries such as China and Russia to fragment the Internet.  It is no coincidence that next year’s IGF is in another European country, Poland, and that the last two IGFs have been in France and Switzerland.  The messages of the UN Secretary General and the German Chancellor (shown in the images above) were equally forceful about the kind of Internet that they want to see.

Moreover, this hidden war over the future of the Internet is also being played out through the HLPDC process which has suggested that there are three possible architectures for digital cooperation.  The presence of such high-level participants at this year’s IGF very much conveyed the impression that the IGF Plus option is the one that they prefer as the main forum for policy making over the Internet in the future.  This is scarcely surprising: all but two (one Chinese and one Russian) of the 20 members of the HLPDC Panel and Co-chairs are from free-market capitalist-inclined countries; 8 of the 20 are from the USA and Europe.

The sale of .org by ISOC to Ethos Capital

Another major issue that raised its head during this year’s IGF was the very controversial sale by the Internet Society (ISOC) of its non-profit Public Internet Registry (PIR) which had previously managed the top-level domain .org to a for-profit company, Ethos Capital, for the sum of $1.135 bn.

Key elements of the controversy that were widely mentioned during the IGF, and are well summarised by The Registry, include:

  • ISOC’s decision under a new CEO to shift its financial structure from benefitting from the variable profits derived from .org to creating a foundation from which it would then use the interest to fund the activities of its various chapters (the new Internet Society Foundation was created in February 2019);
  • The lifting of the cap announced in May 2019 by ICANN on prices of .org domain names, which would enable the owner of the .org registry to impose unlimited price rises for the 10 million .org domain name owners; and
  • The observation that the former CEO of ICANN had personally registered the domain name used by Ethos Capital only the day after the cap had been lifted (it appears that he and a small number of his close affililates linked to ICANN are the only people involved in Ethos Capital) .

The lack of transparency over this entire process, and the potential for significant profits to be gained by certain individuals from these changes have given rise to huge concerns, especially among civil society organisations that use .org domain names.  As a recent article in The Register concludes, “The deal developed by former ICANN CEO Chehade is worth billions of dollars. With that much money at stake, and with a longstanding non-profit registry turned into a for-profit with unlimited ability to raise prices, the internet community has started demanding answers to who knew what and when”.

Inclusion, accessibility and people with disabilities…

Absence of people in IGF 2019 Main Hall for High Level Session on Inclusion

Absence of people in IGF 2019 Main Hall for High Level Session on Inclusion

It was good to see a considerable number of sessions devoted to inclusion, accessibility and people with disabilities at this year’s IGF.  However, it was sad to see how relatively poorly attended so many of these sessions were.  The exodus from the Main Hall between the High Level Session on the Future of Internet Governance and the High Level Session on Inclusion, for example, was very noticeable.  The content of most of these sessions on disabilities and inclusion was generally interesting, and it is just such a shame that the wider digital community still fails to grasp that digital technologies will increase the marginalisation of those with disabilities unless all such technologies are designed as far as is reasonably possible to be inclusive in the first place.  Assistive technologies can indeed make a very significant difference to the lives of people with disabilities, but such persons should not have to pay more for them to counter the increased marginalisation that they face when many non-inclusive new technologies are introduced.

IGF 2019 Session WS#64 on empowering persons with disabilities

IGF 2019 Session WS#64 on empowering persons with disabilities

I was, though, hugely challenged by my own participation in one of these sessions.  Having been invited by Brian Scarpelli to be the penultimate speaker in a session that he had convened on Internet Accessibility Empowering Persons with Disabilities (WS #64), I just felt that it needed a little livening up by the time it was my turn to speak.  I therefore decided to take a roving microphone, and did my presentation walking around inside the cage of desks around which everyone was seated.  I wanted to engage with the “audience” several of whom did indeed have disabilities, and I tried hard to involve them by, for example, describing myself and the venue for those who were blind.  The audience seemed to welcome this, and I had felt that I had got my messages across reasonably well.  Afterwards, though, someone who is autistic came up to me and in the nicest way berated me for having walked around.  She said that the movement had distressed her, and made it difficult for her to follow what I was saying.  She suggested that in the future I should stay still when doing presentations.

This presented me with a real challenge, since I have been encouraged all my life to deliver presentations as a performance – using my whole body to engage with the audience to try to convince them of my ideas.  So, what should we do when making presentations to an audience of such varied abilities?  Can we cater for them all? Clearly, I don’t want to upset those with one disability.  Should I ask if anyone in an audience minds if I walk around?  But then, someone with autism might well not want to speak out and say that they did actually mind?  Should the preference of one person with a disability over-ride the preferences of the remaining 49 people in a room?  There is no easy answer to these questions, but I would greatly value advice from those more familiar with such challenges than I am.

Exclusion in the midst of diversity: being an elderly, white, grey-haired, European man…

"Many Worlds. Many Nets. Many Visions" gathering held during IGF 2019 at HIIG

“Many Worlds. Many Nets. Many Visions” gathering held during IGF 2019 at HIIG

Far too many international events associated with digital technologies continue to be excessively male dominated, and it was refreshing to see the considerable gender diversity evident at IGF 2019.  Despite this, as noted above, several panels did remain very “male”!  It was therefore very refreshing to participate in the Many Worlds.  Many Nets.  Many Visions side event held at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), and congratulations should once again be given to Matthias Kettemann and Katharina Mosene for putting this exciting and challenging initiative together.

Reflecting on the various gender-related events held during and around IGF 2019, though, has made me very uneasy.  I was particularly struck by the frequency with which presenters advocating plurality and diversity of ideas, behaviours, and self-identification, nevertheless also seemed to castigate, and even demonise one particular group of people as being, in effect, the “enemy”.  That group is the group that others see me as belonging to: elderly/middle-aged, white, grey-haired, European (and let’s add north American and Oceanian as well), men!  Perhaps it was just in the sessions that I attended, but over and over again this group was seen as being oppressive, the main cause of gender digital inequality, and those who are to be fought against.  The language reminded me very much of some of the feminist meetings that I attended back in the 1970s.

I was surprised, though, how sad this made me feel.  Some elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) men have indeed worked over many decades to help change social attitudes and behaviours at the interface between women and technology.  This group is not uniform!  Some have written at length about these issues; some have helped implement programmes to try to make a real difference on the ground.  To be sure, we need to continue to do much more to change men’s attitudes and behaviours;  TEQtogether has been set up to do just this.  What upset me most, though, is that these efforts were rarely recognised by those who were so critical of  this particular “uniform” group.  Too often, all elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) men seemed to be lumped together in a single group by those very people who were calling for recognition of the importance of diversity and multiple identities. There is a sad irony here.  Perhaps it is time for me just to grow old gracefully…

EQUALSIt was therefore amazingly humbling that, almost at the end of the EQUALS in Tech awards, a young woman who I had never met before, came up to me and simply said thank you.  Someone had told her what one elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) man had tried to do over the last 40 years or so…  I wonder if she has any idea of just how much those few words meant to me.

Novelty and learning from the past

Poster about sexual exploitation of children, Ethiopia, 2002

Poster about sexual exploitation of children, Ethiopia, 2002

Finally, the 2019 IGF re-emphasised my concerns over the claims of novelty by people discovering the complexity of the inter-relationships between technology and society.  All too often speakers were claiming things that had actually been said and done twenty or more years ago as being new  ideas of their own.  This was typified by a fascinating session on Sex Work, Drug Use, Harm Reduction, and the Internet (WS 389).  Whilst this is indeed a very important topic, and one that should be addressed in considerably more detail, few of the presenters made any reference to past work on the subject, or appeared to have made much attempt to learn from previous research and practice in the field.  Back in the early 2000s, for example, the Imfundo initiative had spent time identifying how “bar girls” in Ethiopia might have been able to use digital technologies that were novel then to help transform their lives and gain new and better jobs.  I wonder how many people attending Session WS 389 were at all aware of the complex ethical questions and difficulties surrounding the conduct of research and practice on this topic that the Imfundo team had explored all those years ago.  There were important lessons to be learnt, and yet instead the wheel seems to be being reinvented over and over again.

This example was not isolated, and a recurrent feature of the field of ICT for Development is that people so rarely seem to learn from mistakes of the past, and everyone wants to claim novelty for ideas that have already been thoroughly explored elsewhere.  I  must write at length some time about the reasons why this seems to happen so often…


Finally, the artists who created this image of Berlin from tape during IGF 2019 deserve to be congratulated on their amazing work!

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 25th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 25th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 29th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 29th November

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Filed under Accessibility, Disability, Gender, ICT4D, ICT4D conferences, Internet

Setting sun over Brandenburg


A recent visit to an old friend living near Müncheberg in the Land of Brandenburg on a glorious late autumn day provided a wonderful opportunity to experience the special landscape and wide open skyscape of this part of Germany.  The quickly fading light rendered the leafless silver birch trees a rich red colour, contrasting beautifully with the green sown fields alongside.  The sun setting behind a hemispherical tree in the distance also provided a wonderful silhouette against the vast sky beyond.  The pictures below hopefully capture something of this fascinating part of Germany, with its contrasts between wide open fields and dense areas of woodland.

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I couldn’t resist adding one image from earlier in the day: a field filled with a vast flock of migratory geese!

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Filed under Germany, Photographs, Rural