No technology is immaterial

  • 2022-10-04
  • featuring
  • Pierre Ragois
  • EN / FR

Machina Mundi #

Every component, every cable, every terminal, every element that makes up our technical environment is interconnected to an incredibly complex social and technological system. Digital infrastructure is no exception to the rule and has had major impacts on our ecosystem for several decades now: extraction of raw materials from fragile ecosystems (ore, fresh water), soil pollution, pollution linked to landfills and the end life of equipment, greenhouse gas emissions, generalized pressure on living things, for the best known or the most easily identifiable.

The figures related to digital activity are also increasingly precise despite gray areas maintained by many companies. These figures tell us about the strong growth trend of the Internet and its ever more important and visible ecocidal impacts on our planet. This information is essential when we situate this industry in the objectives of ecological transitions, for instance those of the Paris Agreement.

Impacts #

The digital world represents 3.3 to 4.2% of global energy consumption (crude oil, raw coal, gas, water, before transformation). In 2019, it released 2.8 to 4% of the world's total greenhouse gasses, a figure higher than civil aviation. It consumed the equivalent of 0.2% of the world's fresh water, mainly during the mineral extraction phases necessary for the construction of the terminals. Today there are approximately 34 billion electrical and electronic devices and 3.9 billion internet users in the world. The waste resulting from this increases by 3.5 to 4% per year and is counted in megatons: 53.6 Mt, i.e. the equivalent of more than five thousand Eiffel Towers per year, of which 20% of this waste is traced but where 80% disappear in nature without anyone knowing what it really becomes.

Growth #

The annual global digital growth rate is around 9% while its greenhouse gas emissions are increasing by 8% year after year. The digital footprint is therefore evolving very quickly and its impacts are also constantly increasing mechanically. The general consensus foresees a doubling of these figures by 2025 (2)

Distribution #

The distribution (2) is as follows:

We quickly understand here that the impact of usage and electricity are much less important than the renewal of equipment. As seen above, digital objects have environmental and social consequences throughout their life cycle: from the extraction of raw materials (800 kg for a computer weighing 2 kg on average) to their transport, their transformation, their sale, their use and then their recycling (very rare) then their burial in ever larger and more toxic landfills.

Keeping equipment alive as long as possible is therefore a crucial and very effective strategy

Essential Design #

But what about the content (sites, web apps, platforms) that these devices provide access to, their ecological footprint and the general role of design?

If electricity is not an environmental indicator (3), we can already affirm that any eco—design strategy must aim in priority to drastically reduce the number of equipment (telephones, computers, servers, infrastructures, etc) necessary for the proper functioning of the Internet. This is crucial to limit the creation of new equipment as much as possible and to ensure a better lifespan, optimal and low-tech operation of any equipment. Essential Design, which I have been developing for several years in my design practice and within my collective Kuroneko, brings together strategies to attain these objectives.

Accessible #

Access to content must be possible for all users, regardless of their access environment (Edge, 3G, ADSL) or their physical conditions.
→ Older infrastructures remain useful and efficient, delaying the arrival of new devices.

Ethics #

The services and products deployed must respect the time, privacy and data of each user in order to combat the attention economy and all digital ecocide logic.
→ Less time lost or captured by advertising agencies, less data produced, fewer artificial needs.

Essential #

Each data and each content is essentialized to the maximum, in order to meet 80% of usage with 20% of the resources.
→ Navigation becomes limited to essential needs, reducing the impact of use, wear and tear on equipment.

Conclusion #

In this framework of action, the understanding of design, its levers and user experience is decisive in the effort to essentialize a project. By answering these questions, we collectively identify its essential elements and focus exclusively on shaping them. This work of essentialization leads the reasoning as much as the difficult exercise of functional and visual simplification: We seek to achieve the smallest architecture, the most important services, the most vital contents without making concessions on the general artistic direction. This research leads us to rationalize the use of certain media, in particular the abundance of images and videos as well as their sizes and weights, which again become highly strategic gains.

Finally, it is obvious that the work in terms of ecological digital technology is ahead of us. The strong mobilization of the community is a powerful signal which announces, I hope, a change of mindset in the profession and an awareness of the ecological footprint of digital technology in the general public area. Beware, however, of what Gauthier Roussilhe calls the fog to come (5), where companies use eco-design as a marketing trick to camouflage their ever-growing historic ecocidal activities.

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