Information and communication technology has a huge impact on society and the environment. Many approaches to ICT and sustainability ultimately only maintain the status quo. What could a more radical approach look like?
In the final synthesis of the sixth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s scientists have given humanity a stark final warning: we are destroying the planet, and we need ‘deep, rapid, and sustained’ reduction in emissions in order to avoid irreversible loss and damage to nature and people.
Along with the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated the need for climate action ‘by every country and every sector and on every timeframe’. For those of us that work in the ever-growing sector of information and communication technology (ICT), we face the question: what action should we take?
How you heat your swimming pool
The media has made much of one recent example: a startup company heating public swimming pools with the excess heat from small, local data centres that process machine learning and artificial intelligence. At face value, the story of the ‘digital boiler’ is fun, innovative, and feels like positive action. But in the face of catastrophic climate change, driven by capitalism and aided and abetted by the Big Five tech companies (Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, Meta, Microsoft), is this kind of activity enough?
Commenting on the inadequacy of dislocated, parochial attempts to challenge capitalism, Jodi Dean famously remarked: “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens”. Relocating this sentiment to the capital-driven digitalisation of the world, we can ask: “Does Amazon care how you heat swimming pools?”
The IPCC is unequivocal as to the cause of the crises of our times: human activity. We are altering the planet to such a degree that the change has been proposed as its own geological epoch: the Anthropocene. Others hone this further, asserting that it is not the presence of humans per se that is the cause, but the very particular configuration of our recent history: capitalism and growth. We are in the Capitalocene, and only an alternative to capitalism will get us out of it.
In all of this, one of the sectors with a major role to play is ICT. Computing and communication devices are now integral to our society – from our phones to our computers to the servers and the global infrastructure that networks them together. ICT has a significant environmental impact of its own through the lifecycle of its physical devices, but also an enabling and structural effect on the impact of other sectors and society in general. ICT plays a huge role in how the world operates.
Unfortunately, much of ICT has been captured for capitalist ends. Big Tech corporations are some of the largest in the world. They represent the majority of companies to have ever attained over $1 trillion in market capitalisation, and they have resulted in “an intensification of labour and environmental exploitation on a planetary scale“. The paradigm of digital capitalism needs to be challenged and reversed if we are to stand a chance of combatting climate change. What can challenge its dominance?
ICT for sustainability
Sustainable development and the sustainable development goals are well-known organising principles that aim to put people and planet first. The field of ICT for sustainability (ICT4S) explores the principles of sustainable development as applied to ICT. Yet, as with sustainable development as a whole, there are various approaches to ICT4S, and the majority either sustain the status quo or offer only mild reforms – such as repurposing excess computational heat rather than questioning its presence in the first place. Much more transformative strategies are needed to make the changes that we need in the timeframe that we have.
On the radical end of the spectrum of sustainable development lies ecosocialism. It melds socialist and environmental politics, with a strong anti-colonial and anti-capitalist sentiment that moves beyond private profit to socially useful and ecocentric production. Digital ecosocialism is the extension of ecosocialist ideals into the digital realm. It is ICT that embeds the values of planetary stability, social equity and agency throughout the sector.
Many of the building blocks are here already: for example libre software and creative commons licenses. Digital ecosocialism combines resistance and regulation with the building of alternatives. Examples of digital ecosocialism in action include the cultivation of platform cooperatives; the socialisation of physical infrastructure; federated and democratically governed social media platforms; the building of data commons; the right to repair; tech worker unions; and activism against the excesses of Big Tech.
Perhaps one day in a post-capitalist future community-run digital boilers will power municipal infrastructure, but right now Amazon does not care how we heat swimming pools. Big Tech will care about strike action and worker empowerment; campaigns against exploitative practices; the deconstruction of intellectual property laws; regulation against monopolistic practices and early obsolescence; technology appropriation for the common good, and digital degrowth. As concerned ICT workers we need to urgently agitate, organise and educate to foster digital ecosocialism.