Digitise Everything” is the mantra of the day. Offices take pride in being paperless, hot-desking because our laptops and mobile computing devices have, more or less, become our workspaces. Governments are investing heavily in digitising archives, putting faith in the notion that digital preservation is the way forward for the future. Magazines and newspapers have had no alternative but to move into the digital realm to keep up with the new information ecosystems. Various campaigns make us believe that to be smart we need to be digital, and that it is more sustainable to have digital real estate which enables ease of access and reduced travel time and energy in engaging with different information systems.
The digital infrastructure is often presented as green, sustainable and efficient. These claims might have had some merit in the early days when computing was still exclusive and open only to a select few. The classic example that would be given within the research circles in the late ’90s would be, that in order to do historical archival research from India, a researcher would have to travel all the way to the archives of the British Library in England. The costs of travel, the energy required for the overseas journey, the finances of access that would be required to complete such research were characteristic of the pre-digital era. Now, a historian looking at the same archives through a simple broadband connection, can access this information at a fraction of the cost, speed and time.
However, it is difficult to take at face value the fact that this efficiency is sustainable in any form. As we go increasingly digital in almost all our devices, there are three massive environmental costs which are often made invisible. The first is in the sheer amount of electricity that our digital ecosystems consume. We all know the frustration that arises out of batteries dying and phones not carrying enough charge is, indeed, a harrowing experience. But at the back-end of it is an enormous power surge. The large network of service providers, surveys, information storage and distribution consumes an extraordinary amount of energy which is, generally, still dependent on fossil fuels. It is estimated that one hour of cellphone usage with data connection uses the same amount of energy that a family house uses in an entire day. Because while your device might be energy compliant and very low in emissions, the large array of the Internet of Things that needs to be in place to support your device, is an invisible energy cost that takes its tolls on the environment.
Even more than active usage, it is the storing of everything on the cloud that is, perhaps, more problematic. As we stream everything on Netflix, Spotify and YouTube, we have to realise that all this information is being stored in huge data centres powered by massive electricity sources to keep it all alive. The energy cost of our digital histories is almost impossible to compute in environmental measures.
The third big problem that we often don’t recognise is our obsession with updating our devices. We throw and exchange our electronic devices at the blink of a trend. Mostly, older phones and laptops are not recycled but broken down into e-waste. Huge landfills are now the graveyards of old electronics which have components that cannot be recycled, and have elements that are no longer useful. Most of these electronic devices are made with metals and precious components that are mined at huge environmental costs.
I was recently at a conference where we were given books as mementos. One of the delegates jokingly exclaimed, “Why am I being given a dead-tree object?” referring to the pages of the book and the trees that must have been felled to make the book. It was telling that he didn’t realise that his ebook, loaded on his tablet, probably killed more trees than that one physical book, which will lend itself to recycling more easily than his tablet would.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.