Facing up to the dilemma of sustainable digital futures

Photo of a young child in nature taking a picture on a smartphone

By Neil Selwyn, professor at the faculty of education, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

How can we balance our desire to help all young people become actively engaged in digital lifestyles, with the long-term environmental unsustainability of current technology use?

The ever-increasing consumption of digital technologies around the world is a clear ‘existential dilemma’ in this era of climate change. On one hand, there is growing awareness that any tech use comes at an environmental cost. Our digital devices are built on the extraction of rare minerals and exploited labour. Manufacturing this hardware involves massive energy expenditure, as do the data storage centres required to support software and online services. Emerging innovations such as training AI models and trading in crypto-currency incur huge carbon footprints. The disposal of e-waste is another major environmental burden. All told, we cannot continue to consume digital technology at current rates for much longer.

On the other hand, it increasingly seems that we cannot live meaningful lives without digital technologies. Lack of opportunity to use digital devices is seen as a major contemporary form of inequality. Digital technologies are now a key part of how we work and learn (particularly given post-pandemic enthusiasms to continue to ‘WFH’). Sensible levels of use of social media, games and other forms of digital entertainment are recommended to support our mental health and well-being. Put simply, it feels that one cannot participate fully in contemporary society without being ‘plugged-in’ and ‘connected’ for at least some of the time.

It is no surprise, then, that there is little mainstream discussion about the environmental impact (and ultimate unsustainability) of our societies’ dependence on digital technology. Yet, these are conversations that urgently need to be started – especially by projects such as DigiGen which are grappling with the uncertain technological futures that await current generations of children and young people. Indeed, these conversations are perhaps best driven by the current generation of young people whose lifetimes will be far more digitally-connected and climate-impacted than their predecessors.

So what exactly can be done? How might we best start thinking seriously about the prospect of climate-friendly digital societies? First, we need to reflect on the reasons why digital technology is not being talked about along such lines. As this article started by observing, pursuing environmentally sustainable forms of digital technology can seem completely out of reach, and therefore not worth contemplating. In short, even if we accept that excessive digital technology use is an aspect of society that is obviously unsustainable in the long term, we are living in societies where everyone is constantly being pressured to be more digital. With excessive digital technology use so utterly embedded into how most people feel compelled to live their lives, we understandably feel ambivalent and disincentivised to act any differently – part of what Ojala and Anniko (2020) term ‘climate pessimism’.

So how might young people start engaging with the prospect of more climate-friendly digital consumption and use – reframing this as a realistic issue that can be meaningfully engaged with rather than ignored? Above all, it is important to stress that this is not a problem that can be quickly fixed, solved or eventually overcome. In contrast to the ‘solutionism’ that tends to pervade societal discussions of new technology, balancing non-negotiable environmental imperatives with potential digital benefits is better seen as a predicament that everyone will simply have to learn to live with. As such, Ojala and Anniko (2020) suggest that young people need to be supported to think about this ambivalence, talk through the reasons underpinning  inertia to change, face the conflicted feelings implicit in the idea of leading a digital lifestyle, “and be active in spite of it”.

This might involve introducing the topic of excessive digital consumption into ongoing conversations around climate action and sustainability. Young people can be supported to explore how to locally implement ideas of right to repair, the ‘re-start’ movement, modular consumer technologies, the digital circular economy, and ‘e-waste’ activism into their communities. Young people can be supported to lobby the main institutions in their lives to incorporate such principles and practices – from their families and schools, to local municipalities and firms. Younger generations can also play a key part in beginning to creatively work out the practicalities of proposed longer term shifts such as ‘Computing Within Limits’.

An initial step might be to support young people in making digital technology commensurate with other high-profile forms of personal climate action. Current generations of young people are coming around to the prospect of more climate-friendly behaviours in terms of travel, food, and other sustainable lifestyle decisions. We need to begin to similarly unsettle our societies’ current ‘cornucopian’ assumptions of an endless abundance of digital technology. This suggests a radical shift away from current cultures of excessive digital consumption – expectations of owning multiple devices which become obsolete after a few years, continuously streaming high-bandwidth content, demanding unlimited cloud storage and high-speed connectivity. Instead, we need to reimagine alternate sustainable forms of technology production, consumption, use, and re-use. Young people should be supported to play a leading role in all these forms of push-back.

Of course, such issues are far-removed from most of the concerns that are usually raised by projects such as DigiGen. Current debates around young people and digital technology are understandably preoccupied with immediate challenges such as the digital divide, e-skills, digital citizenship, cyberbullying, and digital competencies. These are all laudable ambitions. Yet, as the 2020s progress we need to start looking further ahead, and anticipating a very different digital society where less – rather than more – technology use is desirable (if not essential) to our continued quality of life.

Ojala, Maria  & Anniko, Malin  (2020).  Climate change as an existential challenge. Psyke & Logos.