Does Tech Hasten an Environmental Apocalypse?

Recent increases in hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, fires, and drought are signs that the world is coming closer to irreversible damage. For example, scientists recently predicted that an Antarctic ice shelf holding up the huge Thwaites Glacier could collapse within 3 to 10 years, leading to the glacier sliding into the ocean and raising sea levels worldwide by more than 2 feet. 

What is digital technology’s contribution to the environmental apocalypse? Energy is used in three ways: (1) to manufacture digital technologies; (2) to operate them; and (3) to dispose of and replace them with newer versions. 

Computer manufacture uses significant energy and employs hazardous materials such as antimony, arsenic, cadmium, and lead. These elements must be disposed of separately from normal garbage, yet they often end up in landfills, incinerators, or recycling, posing dangers to humans and the environment. Alternatively, they are exported from the developed world to developing countries with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ philosophy. 

Making things worse is the cycle of obsolescence and technology replacement. Vendors encourage an insatiable consumer hunger for the latest users — more speed and features. This guarantees that almost all digital technology will be upgraded or replaced by users every few years

A major culprit is the operating system. Developments in Microsoft Windows between 1996 and 2008 increased processor speed required by a factor of 15, main memory required by a factor of 40, and hard disk required by a factor of 30. The average life span of desktop computers is three to five years, laptops about three years, and mobile phones merely one year. Users don’t need all the ‘improvements’, but they are forced to adopt them because vendors stop supporting old models and versions, and because consumers are enticed by the ‘sweetness’ of new technology. 

New technology trends such as cloud computing require large server farms, which burn up huge amounts of energy. The mining (creation by computation) of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin consume vast amounts of energy in both manufacture and operations; machine learning computations also are damaging to the environment. 

Most technology and technology vendors do not support a purchaser’s Right to Repair. They increase their profit margins by withholding technical information and spare parts from third-party repair shops. The good news is that this is changing. President Biden recently signed an executive order mandating Right to Repair rules, and the Federal Trade Commission voted to enforce it

Electronic waste (e-waste) occurs when repair is impossible or undesirable. A 2016 estimate of the amount of e-waste produced in the world was 54 million metric tons, most of which was not recycled. If the remainder of the world follows American habits, where the average household owns twenty-four discrete consumer electronics products, and phones and tablets are discarded and replaced at increasingly fast rates, the accumulation of e-waste will get even worse. 

All of us have a role to play in saving the planet. Computer scientists can do research on computational sustainability. Thousands of Amazon employees publicly demanded in 2019 that Amazon take more climate action, which led the company to adopt an aggressive carbon neutral plan. We must speak out about the contribution of digital technologies to environmental damage, and work to ensure that devices are not consumed and discarded at such a dangerous rate. 


What do you think? What do you plan to so so that you are part of a solution instead of part of the problem? 

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