Tag Archives: digital technologies

Digital environments and social media

Having recently written a post reflecting on aspects of power relationships and control through digital systems, I just thought that it might be helpful to share the list below of those digital systems and social media that I generally use so that others can know how to interact with me should they wish:

Digital environments that I use for public interaction

  • e-mails – multiple accounts, some integrated through Outlook/Office 365 (mainly formal work-related – contact via Royal Holloway, University of London) and others (mainly private) through Apple Mail. This remains my main mode of digital communication, largely because my e-mail account is one central place where people can send me material they want me to read!
  • WordPress (since 2008, although I began blogging earlier in 2007) – mainly for work-related issues, but also for personal views and opinions – for links to my various blogs see http://unwins.info. Interestingly, I am now blogging much less than I used to with views in recent years being half of the 30,349 I had in 2011.
  • Zoom – as have so many people during COVID-19, I have come to use Zoom quite extensively for large group meetings as well as personal ones, and it has largely replaced my former use of Skype. I particularly like its ease of use, and the way that it enables me to deliver live presentations through using its background feature.
  • Elgg (open source social networking software) – but sadly this is little used by others, and so I only tend to use it for small work-related groups (and in part as a replacement for Moodle).
  • Slack (sadly bought by Salesforce in December 2020) as a group communication platform – no longer sure how long I will continue to use it.
  • Moodle – the environment we’ve used for various courses at Royal Holloway, University of London and beyond; also where we used to make our ICT4D course materials freely available.
  • Twitter – joined in January 2009 – mainly for sharing information about our research and practice (several different accounts including @unescoict4d and @TEQtogether for research, and @timunwin for personal) – am using it much less than I used to, because the character limit tends to lead to short soundbites that oversimlify issues, and it has become a place dominated by “politically-correct” resonating rhetoric.
  • Facebook – joined in November 2006 – mainly used to share things that interest me, but also use for work-related groups (such as the ICT4D Group created in April 2007 and now with around 5.5K members, and the TEQtogether Group) – I’m again using it much less than I used to, especially since the dreadful new desktop/laptop version was introduced.
  • Microsoft Teams and assorted other Microsoft apps such as Skype for Business and Yammer (social networking; bought by Microsoft in 2012) – the basic environment adopted by Royal Holloway, University of London some time ago (and so I really have to use it to communicate with colleagues there), but also widely used in other enterprises. I find it rather clunky, in much the same way that I also never liked Microsoft’s Sharepoint (launched back in 2001); I still try to use these as little as possible.
  • I’m beginning to use Miro (an online whiteboard) for team work and collaboration.

Environments that I will not use

So, definitely don’t ask me to collaborate with you using the following:

  • Any Google environment (including Cloud, Drive, Chrome) – and especially if I have to sign in with a Google account (I refuse to have one). Exceptionally, I will occasionally use a Google environment providing I don’t have to sign in – but I would prefer to be sent documents in a way that is easier for me, such as by e-mail.
  • WeChat – I may well have to use this one day to be able to communicate in China and with Chinese friends since it is becoming so ubiquitous and essential there, but for the moment I don’t want too many governments having easy access to too much information about me.
  • Sina Weibo – similar reservations to the above, but I am also getting too old to learn to microblog in Chinese.

Environments that I use for private communication

The following are some of the environments that I use for private communication, and will not use for professional purposes (so please don’t ask me, for example, to join a WhatsApp group):

  • WhatsApp – although I almost stopped using it when it was purchased by Facebook. I only use it with family and friends, and most definitely will not use it for public or professional groups (so there is no point in asking me to join a group).
  • Signal – I use this privately because of its security, usability, and open source build – and it’s also free.
  • Instagram – for posting images of things that interest me (I may well soon start to use it to share information about our research and practice, since Instagram is increasingly being used effectively by businesses for this).
  • Dropbox – for sharing large files with friends.
  • Skype – for personal video discussions – although I have used it much less since 2011 when it was purchased by Microsoft.

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Filed under digital technologies, ICT4D, social media, Social Networking

Collaboration and competition in Covid-19 response

A week ago, I wrote a post about the potential of crowdsourcing and the use of hashtags for gathering enhanced data on infection rates for Covid-19.  Things have moved rapidly since then as companies, civil society organisations, international organisations, academics and donors have all developed countless initiatives to try to respond.  Many of these initiatives seem to be more about the profile and profits of the organisations/entities involved than they do about making a real impact on the lives of those who will suffer most from Covid-19.  Yesterday, I wrote another post on my fears that donors and governments will waste huge amounts of money, time and effort on Covid-19 to little avail, since they have not yet learnt the lessons of past failures.

I still believe that crowdsourcing could have the potential, along with many other ways of gathering data, to enhance decision making at this critical time. However the dramatic increase in the number of such initiatives gives rise to huge concern.  Let us learn from past experience in the use of digital technologies in development, and work together in the interests of those who are likely to suffer the most.  Eight issues are paramount when designing a digital tech intervention to help reduce the impact of Covid-19, especially through crowdsourcing type initiatives:

  • Don’t duplicate what others are already doing
  • Treat privacy and security very carefully
  • Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information
  • Keep it simple
  • Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic
  • Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations
  • Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)
  • Collaborate and share

Don’t duplicate what others are already doing

As the very partial list of recent initiatives at the end of this post indicates, many crowdsourcing projects have been created across the world to gather data from people about infections and behaviours relating to Covid-19.  Most of these are well-intentioned, although there will also be those that are using such means unscrupulously also to gather data for other purposes.  Many of these initiatives ask very similar questions.  Not only is it a waste of resources to design and build several competing platforms in a country (or globally), but individual citizens will also soon get bored of responding to multiple different platforms and surveys.  The value of each initiative will therefore go down, especially if there is no means of aggregating the data.  Competition between companies may well be an essential element of the global capitalist system enabling the fittest  to accrue huge profits, but it is inappropriate in the present circumstances where there are insufficient resources available to tackle the very immediate responses needed across the world.

Treat privacy and security very carefully

Most digital platforms claim to treat the security of their users very seriously.  Yet the reality is that many fail to protect the privacy of much personal information sufficiently, especially when software is developed rapidly by people who may not prioritise this issue and cut corners in their desire to get to market as quickly as possible.  Personal information about health status and location is especially sensitive.  It can therefore be hugely risky for people to provide information about whether they are infected with a virus that is as easily transmitted as Covid-19, while also providing their location so that this can then be mapped and others can see it.  Great care should be taken over the sort of information that is asked and the scale at which responses are expected.  It is not really necessary to know the postcode/zipcode of someone, if just the county or province will do.

Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information

Use of the Internet and digital technologies have led to a plethora of false information being propagated about Covid-19.  Not only is this confusing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  Please don’t – even by accident – distract people from gaining the most important and reliable information that could help save their lives.  In some countries most people do not trust their governments; in others, governments may not have sufficient resources to provide the best information.  In these instances, it might be possible to work with the governments to ehance their capacity to deliver wise advice.  Whatever you do, try to point to the most reliable globally accepted infomation in the most appropriate languages (see below for some suggestions).

Keep it simple

Many of the crowdsourcing initiatives currently available or being planned seem to invite respondents to complete a fairly complex and detailed list of questions.  Even when people are healthy it could be tough for them to do so, and this could especially be the case for the elderly or digitally inexperienced who are often the most vulnerable.  Imagine what it would be like for someone who has a high fever or difficulty in breathing trying to fill it in.

Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic

It is very difficult to ask clear and unambiguous questions.  It is even more difficult to ask questions about a field that you may not know much about.  Always work with people who might want to use the data that your initiative aims to generate.  If you are hoping, for example, to produce data that could be helpful in modelling the pandemic, then it is essential to learn from epidemiologists and those who have much experience in modelling infectious diseases.  It is also essential to ensure that the data are in a format that they can actually use.  It’s all very well producing beautful maps, but if they use different co-ordinate systems or boundaries from those used by government planners they won’t be much use to policy makers.

Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations

When there are many competing surveys being undertaken by different organisations about Covid-19, it is important that they have some identical questions so that these can then be aggregated or compared with the results of other initiatives.   It is pointless having multiple initiatives the results of which cannot be combined or compared.

Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)

The field of data analytics is becoming ever more sophisticated, but if those tackling Covid-19 are to be able readily to use social media data, it would be very helpful if there was some consistency in the use of terminology and hashtags.  There remains an important user-generated element to the creation of hashtags (despite the control imposed by those who create and own social media platforms), but it would be very helpful to those working in the field if some consistency could be encouraged or even recommended by global bodies and UN agencies such as the WHO and the ITU.

Collaborate and share

Above all, in these unprecendented times, it is essential for those wishing to make a difference to do so collaboratively rather than competitively.  Good practices should be shared rather than used to generate individual profit.  The scale of the potential impact, especially in the weakest contexts is immense.  As a recent report from the Imperial College MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis notes, without interventions Covid-19 “would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year. Mitigation strategies focussing on shielding the elderly (60% reduction in social contacts) and slowing but not interrupting transmission (40% reduction in social contacts for wider population) could reduce this burden by half, saving 20 million lives, but we predict that even in this scenario, health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed. This effect is likely to be most severe in lower income settings where capacity is lowest: our mitigated scenarios lead to peak demand for critical care beds in a typical low-income setting outstripping supply by a factor of 25, in contrast to a typical high-income setting where this factor is 7. As a result, we anticipate that the true burden in low income settings pursuing mitigation strategies could be substantially higher than reflected in these estimates”.

 

Resources

This concluding section provides quick links to generally agreed reliable and simple recommendations relating to Covid-19 that could be included in any crowdsourcing platform (in the appropriate language), and a listing of just a few of the crowdsourcing initiatives that have recently been developed.

Recommended reliable information on Covid-19

Remember the key WHO advice adopted in various forms by different governments:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Maintain social distancing
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
  • If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early

A sample of crowdsourcing initiatives

Some of the many initiatives using crowdsourcing and similar methods to generate data relating to Covid-19 (many of which have very little usage):

Lists by others of relevant initiatives:

 

Global Covid-19 mapping and recording initiatives

The following are currently three of the best sourcs for global information about Covid-19 – although I do wish that they clarified that “infections” are only “recorded infections”, and that data around deaths should be shown as “deaths per 1000 people” (or similar density measures) and depicted on choropleth maps.

 

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Filed under Africa, AI, Asia, capitalism, cybersecurity, Development, digital technologies, Education, Empowerment, ICT4D, ICTs, inclusion, India, ITU, Latin America, mobile phones, Pakistan, Sustainability, technology

Donor and government funding of Covid-19 digital initiatives

Masai children 2We are all going to be affected by Covid-19, and we must work together across the world if we are going to come out of the next year peacefully and coherently.  The world in a year’s time will be fundamentally different from how it is now; now is the time to start planning for that future. The countries that will be most adversely affected by Covid-19 are not the rich and powerful, but those that are the weakest and that have the least developed healthcare systems.  Across the world, many well-intentioned people are struggling to do what they can to make a difference in the short-term, but many of these initiatives will fail; most of them are duplicating ongoing activity elsewhere; many of them will do more harm than good.

This is a plea for us all to learn from our past mistakes, and work collaboratively in the interests of the world’s poorest and most marginalised rather than competitively and selfishly for ourselves.

Past mistakes

Bilateral donors and international organisations are always eager to use their resources at times of crisis both to try to do good, but also to be seen to be trying to do good.  Companies and civil society organisations also often try to use such crises to generate revenue and raise their own profiles.  As a result many crises tend to benefit the companies and NGOs more than they do the purportedly intended beneficiaries.

This was classically, and sadly, demonstrated in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, especially with the funding of numerous Internet-based initiatives – at a time when only a small fraction of the population in the infected countries was actually connected to the Internet.  At that time, I wrote a short piece that highlighted the many initiatives ongoing in the continent.  Amongst other things this noted that:

  • “A real challenge now, though, is that so many initiatives are trying to develop digital resources to support the response to Ebola that there is a danger of massive duplication of effort, overlap, and simply overload on the already stretched infrastructure, and indeed people, in the affected countries”, and
  • “Many, many poor people will die of Ebola before we get it under control collectively. We must never make the same mistakes again”.

I have not subsequently found any rigorous monitoring and evaluation reports about the efficacy of most of the initiatives that I then listed, nor of the countless other digital technology projects that were funded and implemented at the time.  However, many such projects hadn’t produced anything of value before the crisis ended, and most failed to many any significant impact on mortality rates or on the lives of those people affected.

In the hope of trying not to make these same mistakes again, might I suggest the following short-term and longer-term things to bear in mind as we seek to reduce the deaths and disruption caused by Covid-19.

Short-term responses

The following five short-term issues strike me as being particularly important for governments and donors to bear in mind, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • Support and use existing technologies.  In most (but not all) instances the development and production of new technological solutions will take longer than the immediate outbreak that they are designed to respond to.  Only fund initiatives that will still be relevant after the immediate crisis is over, or that will enable better responses to be made to similar crises in the future.  Support solutions that are already proven to work.
  • Co-ordinate and collaborate rather than compete. Countless initiatives are being developed to try to resolves certain aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, such as lack of ventilators or the development of effective testing kits (see below).  This is often because of factors such as national pride and the competitive advantage that many companies (and NGOs) are seeking to achieve.  As a result, there is wasteful duplication of effort, insufficient sharing of good practice, and the poor and marginalised usually do not receive the optimal treatment.  It is essential for international organisations to share widely accepted good practices and technological designs that can be used across the world in the interests of the least powerful.
  • Ensure that what you fund does more good than harm.  Many initiatives are rushed onto the market without having been sufficiently tried and tested in clinical contexts.  Already, we have seen a plethora of false information being published about Covid-19, some out of ignorance and some deliberate falsification.  It is essential that governments and donors support reliable initiatives, and that possible unintended consequences are thorouighly considered.
  • Remember that science is a contested field.  Value-free science does not exisit.  Scientists are generally as interested in their own careers as anyone else.  There is also little universal scientific agreement on anything.  Hence, it is important for politicians and decision makers carefully to evaluate different ideas and proposed solutions, and never to resort to claiming that they are acting on scientific advice.  If you are a leader you have to make some tough decisions.
  • Ensure that funding goes to where it is most needed.  In many such crises funding that is made available is inappropriately used, and it is therefore essential for governments and donors to put in place effective and robus measures to ensure transparency and probity in funding.  A recent letter from Transparency International to the US Congress, for example, recommends 25 anti-corruption measures that it believes are necessary to ” help protect against self-interested parties taking advantage of this emergency for their own benefit and thereby undermining the safety of our communities”.

In the medium term…

Immediate action on Covid-19 is urgent, but a well thought-through and rigorous medium-term response by governments and donors is even more important, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • We must start planning now for what the world will be like in 18 months time.  Two things about Covid-19 are certain: many people will die, and it will change the world forever.  Already it is clear that one outcome will be vastly greater global use  of digital technologies.  This, for example, is likely dramatically to change the ways in which people shop: as they get used to buying more of their requirements online, traditional suppliers will have to adapt their practices very much more rapipdly than they have been able to do to date.  Those with access to digital technologies will become even more advantaged compared with those who cannot afford them, do not know how to use them, or do not have access to them.
  • Planning for fundamental changes to infrastructure and government services: education and health.  The impact of Covid-19 on the provision of basic government services is likely to be dramatic, and particularly so in countries with weak infrastructures and limited provision of fundamental services.  Large numbers of teachers, doctors and nurses are likely to die across the world, and we need to find ways to help ensure that education and health services can be not only restored but also revitalised.  Indeed, we should see this as an opportunity to introduce new and better systems to enable people to live healthier and more fulfilled lives.  The development of carefully thought through recommendations on these issues, involving widespread representative consultation, in the months ahead will be very important if governments, especially in the poorest countries, are to be able to make wise use of the opportunities that Covid-19 is creating.  There is a very significant role for all donors in supporting such initiatives.
  • Communities, collaboration and co-operation.  Covid-19 offers an opportunity for fundamentally different types of economy and society to be shaped.  New forms of communal activity are already emerging in countries that have been hardest hit by Covid-19.  Already, there are numerous reports of the dramatic impact of self-isolation and reduction of transport pollution on air quality and weather in different parts of the world (see The Independent, NPR, CarbonBrief).  Challenges with obtaining food and other resources are also forcing many people to lead more frugal lives.  However, those who wish to see more communal and collaborative social formations in the future will need to work hard to ensure that the individualistic, profit-oriented, greedy and selfish societies in which we live today do not become ever more entrenched.  We need to grasp this opportunity together to help build a better future, especially in the interests of the poor and marginalised.

Examples of wasteful duplication of effort

Already a plethora of wasteful (in terms of both time and money), competitive and duplicative initiatives to tackle various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic have been set in motion.  These reflect not only commercial interests, but also national pride – and in some instances quite blatant racism. Many are also very ambitious, planning to deliver products in only a few weeks.  Of course critical care ventilators, test kits, vaccines and ways of identifying antibodies are incredibly important, but greater global collaboration and sharing would help to guarantee both quantity and quality of recommended solutions.  International Organisations have a key role to play in establishing appropriate standards for such resources, and for sharing Open Source (or other forms of communal) templates and designs.  Just a very few of the vast number of ongoing initiatives are given in the reports below:

Critical care ventilators

Testing kits

Despite criticisms of the replicative and wasteful nature of many such initiatives, there are a few initiatives at a global scale that do offer hope.  Prime among these must be Jack Ma’s donation of 20,000 testing kits to each of 54 African countries, which will go some way to reducing the need for these to be domestically produced across the continent.  But this is sadly only a small shower of rain on an otherwise parched continent.  Working together, we have much more to be achieved, both now and in the months ahead.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Australia, Health, ICT4D, poverty, research, technology, United Nations

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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Filed under Climate change, digital technologies, ICT4D, Sustainability, Uncategorized

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 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 wind 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]. Furthermore, many of these technologies are themselves not environmentally friendly.  Wind turbine blades, for example, cannot be recycled, and once they are no longer usable they are currently generally disposed of in landfill sites.
  • 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, uncertainties 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 was 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 technology changes 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

[Updated 13 July 2020]


[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; see also BBC, Why your internet habuits are not as clean as you think, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200305-why-your-internet-habits-are-not-as-clean-as-you-think

[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.  Recently the ITU, GeSI, GSMA and SBTi announced on 27 February 2020 a new “science-based” pathway in line with the UNFCCC Paris Agreement for the ICT industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030, but as with so many other initiatives this focus primarily on carbon emissions, and fails to grapple with the wider environmental impact of the tech sector.  See https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Pages/PR04-2020-ICT-industry-to-reduce-greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-45-percent-by-2030.aspxhttps://www.itu.int/ITU-T/recommendations/rec.aspx?rec=14084, and https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Documents/Documents/GSMA_IP_SBT-report_WEB-SINGLE.pdf,

[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.   For a recently reported near miss when two non-operational satellites came very close to each other (possibly within 12 m) over Pensylvania in the USA on 30 January 2020, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-51299638.  More recently still, the dramatic increase in satellite swarms as a result of constellations of small satellites being launched https://slate.com/technology/2019/12/space-satellite-constellations-spacex-starlink-junk.html, as with Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme, is now receiving further criticism from those complaining about space pollution, not least from a visual perspective in the nighths sky.  See for example https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/24/21190273/spacex-starlink-satellite-internet-constellation-astronomy-coating.  In January 2021 a new “record” was set when 143 satellites were launched into orbit by a single SpaceX Falcon rocket https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-55775977.

Updated 24th January 2021

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Filed under Climate change, digital technologies, Environment, ICT4D, Sustainability, Uncategorized

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.  Moreover, much of this technology is itself not particularly renewable.  Wind turbine blades, for example, have to be disposed of in landfill sites once they reach the end of their usable lives.  Likewise, despite solar panels being largey recylable, they too give rise to potentially high levels of waste.  It has been estimated that unless effective recycling processes are put in place there could be 60 million tons of PV panels waste in landfill sites by the 2050Moreover, a recent report by UK FIRES notes that it is important to respond urgently to change using today’s technologies, because so-called breakthrough technologies cannot be relied on to meet the 2050 zero-carbon targets.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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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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On digital happiness

Are digital technologies making people across the world any happier?  I recently posed this question on social media, commenting that I did not think they were, and was challenged by a colleague from Africa who implied that it was obvious that ICTs had increased human happiness in his part of the world.  Whilst I have touched on this issue in my previous work (ICT4D, 2009,  and Reclaiming ICT4D, 2017), I have never really teased out the difficult issues involved in answering such questions, preferring instead to focus mainly on the impact on inequality of economic growth supported by technological innovation , and the differences between development agendas based on absolute and relative definitions of poverty.  It is timely to address this issue in a little more depth.

Defining happiness

Butterfly mediumA large part of the challenge in exploring the relationships between digital technologies and happiness depends on the controversial issue of how happiness is defined.  Philosophers, psychologists, medical doctors, theologians, and even economists have long debated what happiness really is, and each has their own definition.  In psychology, one of the best-known approaches to happiness is Maslow‘s hierarchy of needs, but self-determination theory, free-choice approaches (see some of Inglehart‘s work, as well as Sen’s notions), and positive psycholoy (largely influenced by Seligman) all have much to say about happiness.

In very general terms, happiness is a collective word to describe positive feelings such as success, amusement, gratification and joy.  Many of the difficulties with the word derive from the observation that although we may know when we feel happy or sad, we do not always know the cause of the emotion, and it is not easy to measure it consistently.  Indeed, at the extremes, one person’s happiness might be another person’s sadness.  It is thus perfectly possible that one person playing digital games for six hours on end could feel elated as a result, whilst another could feel suicidal.  This illustrates the well-known view that digital technologies act primarily as an accelerator of things such as economic growth or human emotion.

Digital technologies, international development and happiness

Over the last two decades some work has explicitly explored the interface between  digital technologies, international development and happiness. As noted above, my own work has briefly explored this, as for example has Heeks in his 2012 paper on ICTs and Gross National Happiness.  Both of us, I think independently, were drawn to this important notion coined by the King of Bhutan in 1972, and have highlighted its role in leading Bhutan to measure Gross National Happiness as a key indicator of progress, emphasising that development should be holistic, combining both well-being and economic growth.  This clearly runs counter to the global hegemony on development largely as economic growth, which is enshrined in the MDGs and SDGs, and sees digital technologies as one of the prime drivers of such growth.

There are also now various new initiatives that are explicitly exploring the interface between digital technologies and happiness.  One of the most interesting of these is the University of Oslo TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture’s HAPPY project focusing on Responsible innovation and happiness: a new approach to the effects of ICTs, which is funded by the Norwegian Research Council.  Its core objective is to explore how we can “assess the complex and multifaceted impacts of ICTs on individuals’ welfare, and shape ICTs research and innovation activities towards responsible trajectories”.  One of its partners is NUPI, which has also published Maurseth’s (2017) useful overview on ICT, growth and happiness.

On the dehumanisation of labour

AI for Bad 2019

Most people still read this as “AI for Good”; image altered to make the point!

Until recently most digital technologies or ICTs have been largely seen as agents for good.  The ITU’s “AI for Goood”, or the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress with its 2018 slogan “Creating a Better Future” are but two graphic examples of this.  Underlying this positive image, though, have been the very significant advertising efforts of large global corporations eager to expand their markets by focusing exclusively on the positive benefits brought by ICTs; they truly make the world better, and people happy!   Moreover, this is all too frequently represented through the logic of increasing economic growth, and reducing absolute poverty.

Back in the 19th century Marx wrote passionately about the ways through which the rise of the factory system under capitalism dehumanized labour.  Very similar arguments have also been applied to the ways through which digital technologies are dehumanizing not only labour, but also many other aspects of human life as well in the 21st century (see my, 2016, Dehumanization: cyborgs and the Internet of Things, and more fully in Reclaiming ICT4D).  Almost by definition, dehumanization seems opposed to happiness.   Two simple digital examples can be used to illustratge this.  E-mails and online learning have dramatically extended the working day for office labourers who are now usually expected to be available online wherever they are for well beyond the traditional norm of 8 hours daily work – are they happyer as a result?  Likewise, 3D-printing is now replacing the happiness of human craftsmanship involved in creating fine objects.

Much more worrying, though, is the dark side of digital technologies, which is all too often hidden from the innocent eye.  To be sure, digital technologies do indeed have many positive benefits, but increasing research and attention are now at last shedding more light on their negative aspects.   UNICEF’s (2017) excellent report on Children in a Digital World, for example, provides a well balanced account of both the positive aspects of digital technologies and the harm that they can do.  Increasing evidence points to the link between smartphone use and depression amongst young people (see for example Twenge, 2017), addiction to digital technologies is becoming a growing concern (Brown, 2017) with clinics being set up across the world to treat it (see also Gregory, 2019), online gambling has been widely criticised for the harm it causes, and the role of social media in the rising tide of suicides is now being seen as an urgent prioirty that needs to be addressed by governments.  All these provide clear evidence that digital technologies do not always lead to the blissful happiness promoted in the advertising campaigns of digital corporations.

On method – historical and comparative

There is a clear need for much further research on the conditions under which digital technologies can indeed lead to greater human happiness, and those where they lead to a downard spiral of misery.  Methodologically, we need both historical and comparative studies to identify who is happier and why they are so when they use these technologies.  We need to understand more about the longitudinal experiences of those who were alive before computers and mobile phones became readly available and affordable.  We also need to understand much better what it is that enables some people to use digital technologies quite happily, whereas for others they can be the cause of misery so severe that people kill themselves.

The digitisation of human life

In conclusion, it is worth reflecting on what the future holds.  It has traditionally been thought that human happiness comes in part from the use of all of our senses of feeling, touching, seeing, hearing and smelling.  If this is so, happiness can be seen to derive in large part from fulfilment of this sentient being in the world.  Sitting for hours in front of a computer or other digital device has already been widely condemned for the negative health impacts that it causes: obesity, muscle degeneration, eye damage, back pain, and organ damage.  This is hardly happiness.  However, with the increasing commingling of human and machine, it may be that our cyborg future will no longer require traditional sentient experiences for us to be happy.  Our happiness may derive in the future from electrical impulses directed by neurally connected chips to stimulate feelings of happiness.  The rise of Transhumanism (H+), and the increasing numbers of people who are choosing to have microchips inserted in their bodies, is but one more step on this journey.

BirdI am privileged to have been born long before mobile phones existed, and vividly recall the first laptops, digital typewriters, and the pleasure of physically printing out cards to run my Fortran programmes.  I have also had the pleasure of recovering from broken bones, and the exhilarating happiness of playing the sports that caused them!  This has given me the sense that living life to the full as humans, being truly happy, does indeed require use to use all our senses.   We need wide public debate on the future relationships that we want to have with machines, a debate not driven by the economic interests of global capital, but one in which the joys of human sentient happiness can also be applauded and priortised.

 

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Servants of the poor – WSIS TalkX

TalkXIt was a great honour to have been invited – a few hours beforehand – to give one of the inaugural WSIS TalkX presentations last Thursday evening as WSIS 2019 drew towards its close.  Seven of us had been asked if we would like to talk about our lives in technology for around 5 minutes. I opted to go last – just before the closing cocktail party.  Several colleagues had to leave before the end to get to other commitments and so they spoke first; I knew I would be remaining to enjoy the wine.  Before me there were some amazing, inspirational speakers: Stephenie Rodriguez, Joel Radvanyi, Gloria Kimbwala, Ayanna T Samuels, Sebastian Behaghel and Ted Chen

With little time to prepare it was difficult to know quite what to say.  We had been asked to tell our own stories, and so I chose five images as five “scenes” around which to tell my tale.  Posting the images on social media, I had hoped that people might be able to see them as I spoke…

1 2 3 4 5

 

In reality, I’m not sure that many people actually saw the pictures, and I know many were rather confused when I began and introduced myself in the persona of one of my aliases.  I had, though, been introduced by the Master of Ceremonies as someone learning from the life of Hassan-i Sabbah…

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 20.29.34

To see and hear what I had to say, click on the image above (or here).  Fully to understand it, though, you would need to listen to the other six talks, because I tried hard to link it to what the speakers had to say – especially, for example, about the best university in the world, and the SDGs!

The basic message is simple – if we really believe in empowering the poor and the marginalised through digital technologies we must become their servants…

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Why the notion of “frontier technologies” is so problematic…

The term “frontier technologies” is increasingly being used to refer to the latest generation of technologies, especially digital technologies.  It is often also associated with the deeply flawed concept of a “fourth industrial revolution”.  The UN in particular has latched on to “frontier technologies”, mainly in the context of the impact of  Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning, as for example in the UN Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination’s series of papers on Frontier Issues, and UN DESA’s Economic Analysis and Policy Division’s work on Frontier issues: the impact of the technological revolution on labour markets and income distributionSadly, much of this work is ill-informed, and reflects a particular set of interests.  Whilst there is indeed some interesting academic work on the potential of so-called “frontier technologies” for international development, as with Ramalingam, Hernandez, Prieto and Faith’s (2016) IDS report on Ten frontier technologies for international development, most such research fails satisfactorily to consider the deep problems with the notion and the interests that underlie it.

In undertaking some foresight work for UNICEF recently on the future relationship between digital technologies and learning, I had the chance to reflect on some of these challenges and interests, and I am sharing these reflections below, in the hope that readers will understand more about the implications of such terminology, and will cease to use the term!  These are the introductory few paragraphs to a section of my report for them on Technological changes over the next decade:

“Currently, much attention is being paid to the likely labour impacts of the latest ICTs, and the kinds of education that will be required to enable people to gain appropriate employment in the workplaces of the future.[i]  The term “frontier technologies” is now frequently used to describe the latest technologies,[ii] and their implications for education have recently received increasing attention.

However, the concept of “frontier technologies” is deeply problematic, as is the notion of a fourth industrial revolution.[iii]  Such terms are used largely by, or about, the “heroes” of these self-conceived revolutions, in the hope of a self-fulfilling future; they beg no critique, nor any consideration of those left behind.  For example, the notion of “frontier technologies” draws heavily on the deeply embedded idea of the “American Frontier” in which US “civilization” was forged westwards, in large part through the use of new technologies.

The Frontier is thus conceived heroically, with the “savage” Native Americans, or First Peoples, being pushed westwards, to be replaced by “civilized” people mainly of European origin, as so clearly illustrated by John Gast’s famous late-19th century picture above.  Whilst the frontier was seen as being positive for the Europeans, carrying with it images of heroism and taming of the wilderness, it was anything but that for the Native Americans.  The latest “frontier technologies” of the 21st century can similarly be seen a vehicle through which USAn-led neo-imperialism is being further enforced on “peripheral” peoples and states beyond the “frontier”.  It is therefore strongly to be recommended that such terminology is rejected by those organisations and entities concerned with enhancing education in these poorer, more deprived contexts.

At a more mundane level, one person’s frontier can be someone else’s backwater; a 2G phone may indeed be novel to someone who has never had one before, whilst even a chip implant is now becoming passé for the digital human who has everything. This section therefore seeks to avoid such terminologies, and focuses instead simply on some of the most likely implications of technological change for education in the near future.”

———–

[i] See, for example, DESA (2017) Frontier Issues: the impact of technological revolution on labour markets and income distribution, https://www.un.org/development/desa/dpad/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/publication/2017_Aug_Frontier-Issues-1.pdf, accessed 30th March 2018.  There is considerable debate about the likely impact of AI on labour, and employment, with the latest OECD report arguing that the potential for AI to lead to considerable employment loss has been exaggerated in the past; see Nedelkoska, L. and Quintini, G. (2018) Automation, skills use and training, Paris: OECD, DELSA/ELSA/WD/SEM(2018)3, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/2e2f4eea-en.pdf?expires=1522776823&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=A498DE4EAEA4DDCC90DBE424AFB8DB0A, accessed 3rd April 2018.

[ii] See for example, Ramalingam, B., Hernandez, K., Prieto Martin, P. and Faith, B. (2016) Ten Frontier Technologies for International Development, Brighton: IDS, https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_524607_en.pdf, accessed 30th March 2018.

[iii] World Economic Forum (2016) The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/, accessed 30th March 2018.

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