Page 2 – Foreword – Gina Neff, Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy
Page 3 - Take Back the Sense – Anna Berti Suman, Tillburg University
Page 4 - Blue Solutions to Greening the Internet – Anne Pasek, Trent University and Hunter Vaughan, University of Colorado
Page 5 - A Responsibility Void: - Federica Lucivero, University of Oxford
Page 6 - Big Tech Goes Green(washing) – Joana Varon, Founder Directress, Coding Rights Fellow on Human Rights and Technologies, Harvard Kennedy School and Camila Nobrega, Founder, Beyond the Green PhD Candidate, Free University of Berlin Fellow, The New Fellowship
Page 7 - Driving Headless into Autonomy – Helen Stamp, University of Western Australia, Julia Powles, University of Western Australia and Audrey Guinchard, University of Essex
Page 8 - Carceral Systems Will Not Save Us from the Climate Crisis – Mallika Balakrishnan, University of Cambridge and Julia Slupska, University of Oxford
Page 9 - Beyond Big Tech’s Epistemic Imperialism – Jessica de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal, Technische Universität Berlin
Page 10 - How Can We Democratize Decision-making on Data Centre Construction? – Julia Rone, Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, University of Cambridge
Page 11 - Digital Participatory Technologies and the Environmental Impact of ‘the Extractive Gaze’ - Dr Brenda McNally, School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin – UCD
Page 12 - Entanglement - Fiona McDermott, Trinity College Dublin
Page 13 - AI is perpetuating climate injustice – Dr Theodora Dryer, AI Now, New York University
Page 14 - Commoning: An alternative governance paradigm for our digital futures – Deborah Thomas, Fellow, Young Leaders in Tech Policy, University of Chicago & Foundation for Ecological Security
Please cite this
Minderoo Centre for Technology & Democracy. The Cost of Convenience. September 2021.
We reached out
across several academic fields to challenge an international group of experts
the task of writing a provocation on the impact that digital technology has on the environment, pushing otherwise careful academics to enter into speculation, critique, exchange, and dialogue in order to bring transparency to this opaque issue.
We quickly discovered a need for bridging across several distinct and siloed conversations and across the problems of media infrastructures, the tech sector’s environmental impact and the potential harms of our digital information environment our natural environments. We found a need to scope new research on tech’s environmental impact and a need for collaborative and international efforts to identify areas that require immediate action and research. What you are reading is the first step in this process. Like the ‘zines’ of the Punk Rock era that inspired our report’s style, we also see our work as a provocation for you to join us in continuing.
These provocations are a fitting start for us at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, because we see our main goal as supporting the democratic values in everyday digital technologies. As a centre, we challenge assumptions about power in two senses. The first, as we and our international collaborators do here, is to think about the material consequences of our digital lives - how electricity and resources and infrastructures of digital technologies are implicated in the choices that we make as every day.
Four key common themes emerged across the provocations that we present here. The first set of provocations concern the extraction of data and resources needed to power technology-saturated lives. The second cover the costs incurred without a ‘right to repair’ - the planned obsolescence of the digital age that encourages people to consume without regard to costs over the lifecycle of digital products. Third is the challenge posed by greenwashing, including the prevalent narratives about digital technologies as weightless, clean and green and the companies that produce them as blameless in the environmental crisis. Finally, these provocations question the digital exhaust and the resources and infrastructures needed to maintain it.
What links these
four themes and the provocations that follow is that they all suggest how
citizens and communities can question the values and choices of technology
companies through a lens of power. That brings us
to the second sense of power that we at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and
Democracy are committed to: restoring the balance of social and political power
to citizens in light
of the increased dominance of large companies making choices about data-driven infrastructures
in our everyday lives.
We convened the Cost of Convenience Workshop in June 2021 when much of the world was still grappling with COVID-19 restrictions. What emerged was a model for collaborative thinking and the first steps in new connections to help us reclaim that collective voice, articulating what counts over what is convenient, what is valuable over what those in power value.
We hope that we can inspire you, too, to begin new ways of challenging the cost of convenience with us.
Gina Neff, Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy
Citizen sensing, environmental monitoring from the grassroots with the use of our own senses or sensors, can be regarded as a practice that aims at appropriating technology for the sake of health and environmental protection.
However, when it comes to using sensors to monitor the environment, it is a contradiction to use tools produced by the tech industry which is one of the main causes of those adverse environmental effects that people fight.
Civic actors try to resist to such mainstream technologies by building their own frugal equipment to track environmental degradation otherwise.
I will discuss how the auto-production of technologies is a needed counterforce, although still not enough.
I will defend that we need to ‘take back the sense’ and focus on using our bare senses (e.g. sight, smell…) to detect environmental contamination as only this way we will truly reconnect with nature,
without contributing to further waste production.
Let’s talk about network infrastructure...
Many of the provocations in this zine are concerned about the environmental impacts of the Internet. But the different parts of the Internet are not equal in impact and benefit.
Our research group focuses on the
subsea cables that carry over 95% of our global commerce and communications.
They’re an essential, but small, part of the ICT sector. Their carbon footprint
is also really marginal, so much so that they’re often omitted
from attempts to quantify the climate impacts of digital networks, or seen as something
of a rounding error.
As such, scholars and policy makers
who work on the problem of the tech sector and climate change generally ignore subsea
cables. Why look for solutions where there doesn’t seem to be a problem?
Because sometimes problems - and solutions - exist
deep below the surface.
Our provocation is to change this, asking how taking cables into account might help us imagine different and greener forms of network connection.
A shift to moving more data over the subsea, rather than duplicating and storing it in an extensive system of terrestrial data centres and content delivery nodes, would be a win for the climate. What’s more, it might also be a win for the communities in which cable landing stations are built: small island nations and coastal municipalities facing uncertain energy futures and increasing rates of sea level rise. We are currently investigating how these global infrastructures could be leveraged to provide local benefits to public health and economic development for historically marginalized populations by shifting to 100% renewable power. Engagement at this level of the Internet could also provide avenues for lessening the global digital divide.
In short, to focus on the hidden parts of our global networks is to focus on local geographies, community-based approaches, and alternative networks.
We find much hope and many opportunities at this scale.
Despite the promises of enabling sustainable development goals, the infrastructures that make digital services, data production and processing and training of AI models possible have a relevant environmental impact throughout their lifecycle. This is due to CO2 emissions, deployment of natural resources for hardware manufacturing and emissions of toxic substances during the disposal of electronic devices.
Who should be accountable for this digital pollution?
Shall I watch less streamed videos? Delete my photos and send less emails? Yes, perhaps, but responsibility cannot be placed uniquely on individual citizens as they are only one element of a larger ecosystem that should enable sustainable behaviours.
The larger ecosystem, however, does not seem to offer reliable accountability instruments. Currently, there are very few regulatory tools, as policy makers seem to hold to the hope that digital technologies will evolve to the point of reducing their own environmental footprint. Action is left in the hands of the private sector, where companies agree on codes of conduct and self-regulatory tools that are not binding, very diverse, and not adhering to common standards.
Some stakeholders in the field don’t find this fluidity helpful as the lack of guidance implies that some industries (for example the ones developing infrastructures) need to do all the work while others (the ones developing digital services) are not considered as liable.
How to fill this responsibility void? My contention is that to fill the void we need to start by rethinking the concept of responsibility that we use in this context.
Responsibilities for technology-related impacts are traditionally understood in terms of the liability model, where one person can legally be made to pay for the adverse effects of their actions on others. However, the climate change discussion on responsibility often moves away from this individual-focused and retrospective model of responsibility to stress the need to adopt a collective approach that takes into account the distributed dimension of environmental actions and allows a prospective look at its implications.
My question is, can we reconcile these framings in thinking about the sustainability of digital technologies?
Over the last years, following the buzz around the Green Economy, most big tech companies have made a series of commitments to reduce carbon emissions, all widely disseminated in marketing campaigns.
In parallel, they have also positioned themselves as the suppliers of almost magic “techno solutions” to solve climate change. Once they were gonna save democracies... now they will save the Earth?
Our take is that
Big Tech are going green (washing), profiting from a perfect match of Green
Economy and Technosolutionist narratives. Therefore we bring feminist lenses to unveil the connection
both discourses, and their role in recent theoretical frameworks.
Dangerous discourses that erases damages.
Alphabet have suppliers extracting minerals from mines devastating the Amazon forest and bordering indigenous land. What other
information do we have about social-environmental
conflicts caused by big tech businesses?
From mineral to data extractivism, what power relations are being imposed in particular territories? Which inequalities are being reinforced? How can we build a decolonial and non-extractivist digital society?
The tech and automotive industry pitch that autonomous vehicles deliver a safer, more efficient future than current cars is so pervasive that it has become an unquestioned touchstone for policymakers. But what is the true environmental impact of the intensive computation and data processing required to develop and use autonomous vehicles?
When fleets of
autonomous vehicle are trialled over countless miles to earn our trust,
what is the scale of the computational demands and ongoing strains on digital infrastructure? How does this compare with a human driver’s emissions? And, most importantly, how is this impact weighed against the ever-alluring goals of increased vehicle safety and driver convenience, promoted by tech firms and endorsed politically?
Let’s do a quick addition on just some of the hidden environmental costs of autonomous convenience:
· Energy and infrastructure needed to sustain network connectivity, transmit data, and render maps and offer computer vision across vast geographies. One of the most interesting and neglected dimensions of this is the subsea telecommunications cable network (see work by Anne Pasek (Trent University) and Hunter Vaughan (University of Colorado));
· Energy needed to run data centres (see work by Mél Hogan (University of Calgary) and Julia Rone (University of Cambridge));
· Water-intensive needs in order to build the various computer chips in both vehicles and data centres (see work by Janna Z Huang (University of California, Berkeley))
· Metal extraction costs of the elements needed to build electronic circuits, leading to destruction of tropical forests (see work by Joana Varon (Coding Rights) and Camila Nobrega (Free University of Berlin));
· Carbon emission costs to get components from where they are extracted to where they will be used. Similarly, the absence of rights of repair drives waste and further extraction (see work by Steve Jackson (Cornell University), Maio Lu (The Chinese University of Hong Kong), and Jack Qui and Ziyi Wang (National University of Singapore)).
the picture further. What if our democratic requirements for autonomous
vehicles don’t reduce these demands on the Environment, but instead compound
What if it turns out that data retention is necessary in order to investigate and determine issues of fault and liability when autonomous vehicles inevitably crash, and the uncertainty around applicable rules incentives a culture of ‘collecting everything’?
Some technologies, most particularly autonomous weapon systems, provoke a sharp normative question: should we build them? A quick addition on the environmental consequences of autonomous vehicles suggests that if we want better futures, we should at least ask the same question. Should we?
Environmental activists disrupt the convenience that powers climate change. Whose convenience has been a source of tension in the environmental movement: the past years have seen a shift from disrupting individual consumers (e.g. by blocking roads to promote a message to drivers) to corporate and state decision-makers. In 2019, thousands of Silicon Valley workers went on strike in protest of their employers’ climate impact, directly targeting tech companies (1).
Silicon Valley positions itself as having the tools to save the planet, but its business model of extraction and accumulation are part of the problem. Further, its technologies facilitate the surveillance of environmental activists, including through contracts with law enforcement. Carceral systems will not produce the tools to save us from climate crisis.
Digital platforms prompt activists to share data, offering a variety of affordances that help activists mobilise and connect with others. In doing so, these platforms also make activists more legible to law enforcement. In India, Google, Facebook, and Zoom seemed to cooperate with the government’s arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi for sedition (2). In the US, Facebook turned over detailed records on the indigenous-led protests against the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines (including messages to and from the group’s page and a list of everyone “invited” to the protest event) (3).
Surveillance of protest movements both during and in between protests takes up a much larger share of police time and resources than is commonly understood (4). In the UK, undercover police officers posed as members of environmental justice groups and initiated romantic relationships with women, in one case even fathering a child while assuming a false identity (5). UK police also placed Extinction Rebellion (XR) on a list of extremist groups that should be reported to Prevent. Even so, groups like XR which are predominantly white and middle class, and have a history of cooperating with police, are likely to be treated much better than people of colour doing this work. Surveillance tech and environmental destruction target racialised communities hardest.
We must investigate the cost of convenience in terms of convenient platforms, convenient contracts between tech and the state, and convenient ideas about clean, green tech that produce billions for a few while entrapping the rest of us in racial surveillance capitalism.
White-washed climate activism and green-washed tech obscure the need for systems change towards sustainability, as opposed to quick fixes. Rather than treating tech companies as saviors, we should hold them accountable for extending carceral systems that harm our best shot at environmental justice. We look to movement-led structural change that tackles environmental destruction and its links to broader systems of oppression-- that means no surveillance tech in our climate justice.
1) Matsakis, Louise. 2019. “Thousands of Tech Workers Join Global Climate Change Strike.” Wired.
2) Klein, Naomi. 2021. “India Targets Climate Activists With The Help of Big Tech.” The Intercept.
3) Davis-Cohen, Simon. 2018. “The Justice Department Helped a County Prosecutor Target the Facebook Records of Anti-Pipeline Activists” The Intercept.
4) Gillham, P.F. 2011. “Securitizing America: Strategic Incapacitation and the Policing of Protest Since the 11 September 2001 Terrorist Attacks.” Sociology Compass, 5: 636- 652 - https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1751-9020.2011.00394.x
5) Lewis, Paul and Rob Evans. 2020. “Secrets and lies: untangling the UK 'spy cops' scandal”. The Guardian
The realm of ubiquitous computing has a singularity; it spreads everywhere but is nowhere to be seen.
Hooked on our screens and the digital worlds they display, we overlook the devices themselves.
We choose to ignore the resources, both human (data labellers, Uber Eats drivers) and material (rare metals, silicon), necessary to the magic at play.
The digitalisation of the product and the fragmented globalisation of its production lead to the uncontrollable growth of Big Tech. I argue that the only sustainable and desirable futures must draw on theories of degrowth.
But they are often limited to an economic, ecological, or post-colonial framework.
I propose epistemology to frame the dichotomy between growth and degrowth within the well-known cultural, epistemological, and theological dialectic of universalism/particularism, objectivism/subjectivism, and transcendence/immanence.
Big Tech’s epistemic imperialism is nothing else than a modern and technological continuation of the perilous project of Man: the domination of both Nature and the Other.
As more and more forms of communication become mediated by digital tech, the need for storing and processing data dramatically increases. Thus, it is no wonder that in the last few years we have seen a boom in the construction of data centres whose high electricity and water demand is a stark reminder of the “costs of convenience”.
Drawing on my work on local resistance to data centre construction in the Netherlands, I argue that decision-making about data centre construction has such important environmental, social and economic impacts that it cannot be left to big private companies and government executives alone (at any level of government) but should be much more democratic. The question I want to pose is then: How can we democratize decision-making on data centre construction?
This is not an abstract, theoretical question. Exactly the opposite: it was triggered by my analysis of the discourse and grievances of citizens of the Dutch province of North Holland who were angry not only about the environmental consequences of data centres but also because no one had even bothered to ask them for their opinion. Rather than being against data centres per se, citizens of North Holland argued that they wanted more information, more ways to participate and to discuss whether/how data centres could work for the benefit of their communities.
To be sure, we
still need to figure out whether the demands of building a global
communications infrastructure by global corporations could take
into account factors such as community well-being. Maybe yes. Or maybe
this is a lost cause and we should rather think of
ways to scale-down and build a communications infrastructure that is more
In any case,
finding how to balance our communication needs with not destroying the
environment and local livelihoods requires a decision-making process that
includes more voices, more involvement of national parliaments but also of
municipal councillors and “ordinary” citizens. The current practice of
behind-the-curtains negotiations between big private corporations and
executives (be they at the national or local level)
is increasingly contested.
Ultimately, democratic participation is both normatively and practically desirable. If we want to think seriously about the environmental impacts of tech and how to mitigate them, we need to involve the very local communities that experience first-hand the impacts of data centres. Informing citizens and their representatives about digital infrastructure and guaranteeing ways for them to participate is not utopian. It is exactly how democracy should function.
Our daily lives are dominated by images. Today, we live in, and through, digital media which are made consumer-friendly by prioritising the visual content. Within this context, questions about what is made visible and how seeing, knowing and power are related, are essential to understanding the impacts of digital media on contemporary society. However, these questions also apply to the use ofdigital participatory technologies which are fundamentally changing our way of seeing and encountering nature.
Citizen engagement with the climate and biodiversity crisis is considered essential to enabling the radical social transformations required to address these challenges in a democratic way. These engagement processes are increasingly mediated, drawing on a range of digital participatory technologies, such as drone technology, AR/VR, geolocation platforms and visual apps to emotionally and experientially engage citizens through geometric abstraction of nature, place and landscape.
While government and local authority actors understandably focus on the efficiency and effectiveness of these tools compared to traditional engagement initiatives, we must also ask how digital tools are reshaping socio-ecological relations. For example, drone technology is increasingly deployed to engage citizens via film, documentary and advertising with nature and the environment.
However, these dramatic images also represent nature as geometric abstractions, thereby visually separating people from nature, and normalising existing unsustainable nature/society hierarchies.
Similarly, critics of participatory mapping technologies argue that these new ways of seeing radically change our experience of geographic knowledge from the God’s-eye view of the map to the embedded subjectivity of GPS. In doing so, these visually spectacular renderings of nature subordinate the land to human purposes, perpetuating and justifying existing power relations. This raises the question, what are the environmental impacts of this ‘extractive gaze’ and cartographication? As digital participatory technologies increasingly dominate citizen engagement initiatives with environmental challenges, we need to ask: what is being prioritised and marginalised in these new nature/society encounters and with what future environmental impacts?
Most significantly, how do we balance the need for increased, democratised participation, with the associated costs of data intensification and the normalisation of unsustainable socio-ecological relations?
This provocation to consider the cost of convenience of data technologies, comes in the form of a physical exhibition entitled Entanglement, as curated by the interdisciplinary design, art and research group, ANNEX.
sets out to dispel the myth of the internet as an ethereal or
abstract entity and instead provokes visceral understandings of
how data production and consumption territorialise
the physical environment. The exhibition argues that the digital
is material - the cloud is a complex, spatio-temporal reality that has distinct material and
In particular, Entanglement examines the position of Ireland in the evolution of global data infrastructures, both historically and into the present day. Today, the materiality of the data economy reveals itself locally across the Irish landscapes as a vast network of data centres, energy grids and subsea cable landing sites. in 2019, Dublin overtook London as the data centre capital of Europe. By the year 2027, data centres are forecast to consume thirty-one percent of Ireland’s total electricity demand.
The exhibition uses the prism of heat, to foreground the thermodynamic processes necessary for data production, storage and distribution. Foremostly, the pavilion asserts that from the burning of campfires to the management of waste heat generated by contemporary data processes, the production and dissemination of information is intrinsically connected to the production and dissemination of heat.
Entanglement questions if any single discipline can understand and meaningfully respond to the environmental challenges brought about by the exponential growth of data technologies.
The complexities of these new territories require interdisciplinary connections between the humanities and engineering, as well as the bringing together of those from industry, activism and academia.
Artificial intelligence developed in the name of benefiting the environment is not the same thing as establishing environmentally and socially conscious AI systems.
AI is a powerful terminology advanced by technological developers that can refer to a broad suite of technologies, data collection and storage infrastructures, and automated decision systems. It often describes predictive statistics-based digital systems such as machine learning.
Ascertaining whether or not this variegated typology of technological systems can be used to address the climate crisis foremost requires identification of locally situated technologies and data, as well as the environments they extract data from and transform through subsequent AI-backed decision-making procedures that determine environmental policy and resource access.
This is especially true in the domain of water rights and water access. Digital automated decision systems are currently in prolific use in water allocation, distribution, and diversion policies. In these contexts, the water data fed into these systems streams from a longer history of information extraction and control that is inseparable from the natural resource policies and legal apparatus that it functions within. Extant conditions of inequity and coloniality at work in these contexts are often hidden by the technical function and opacity of the digital systems.
It is therefore imperative to center justice and sovereignty rights, rather than economic growth agendas, in assessments of AI and environmental policy. Furthermore, by clarifying the terms - of what exactly, is meant by ‘artificial intelligence’ - it is evident that promises made that AI will ‘solve’ the climate crisis are in direct opposition to how AI functions in perpetuating climate injustice.
commoning involves collective action by communities
and people groups; the institutions, governance frameworks, and rules required
for such action are based on systems of knowledge. It is these systems of
knowledge that shape environmental discourses and resultant
action at nested levels of governance, both of the community
as well as the state.
I posit that commoning of technology (data, information and digital systems) is essential to building technologies and systems of knowledge that are environmentally and socially just.
The idea of commoning, as an alternative socio-economic and governance paradigm, provides a framework for actors at nested levels of governance to self-govern and determine the future of tech.
It refers to the participatory governance mechanisms that we should build around data, information/knowledge and digital systems. Since each of these constituents of digital tech have their own logics and political economies, it is necessary to delineate what commoning means for each.
Environmentally just data involves countering the extractive logic that separates data from provenance (of people and lands) and reinforces power hierarchies.
Power is embedded in each stage of the data lifecycle, and hence environmental data justice would mean that questions of access, production, infrastructure, governance are to be asked at each of
A Commons framework which is premised on ideas of self-governance and collective action, mean that communities determine what data is digitized, ensure that data stories (provenance and metadata) are ground-truthed, and can mobilize data to challenge environment policy that is premised on extractive logics. It can also lead to data infrastructure and production methods that are participatory, equitable, and transparent.
Going by Fritz Machlup, information, and subsequently knowledge are built over the foundation laid by data (or, raw facts). While it is necessary that this information is not digitally barricaded, the social systems that assimilate this information into knowledge and enable its use in decision making, are equally crucial. The evolution of these social systems, in ways that embed considerations of local livelihoods and ecology, can be fostered by the participatory processes that commoning entails.
Finally, digital systems themselves, both hardware and software, must also be ‘commoned’. Both design and technology management practices are central to ensuring that tech does not cause unintended harm ; and that the knowledge systems intermediated by tech reflects pluralism.
Common forums between technologists, their end users, and other stakeholders, leading to collective action that debates visions of social good, prevents centralization and shifts power, could provide avenues where the true costs of convenience are judged.