Excessive consumption of digital technology is one of many ‘ordinary harms’ to the environment that people in the global North routinely commit. ‘Always-on’ digital connectivity sits alongside air-conditioning, eating meat, short-haul flights, and driving a car as environmentally harmful actions that nevertheless are considered wholly acceptable, if not wholly unavoidable, aspects of living ‘comfortably’ in modern society.
While there is growing awareness that the over-use of digital technologies is a contributing factor in environmental collapse, it nevertheless seems utterly impossible to change. How can I continue to function without a smartphone? How can I keep in contact with distant family and friends without Facebook? Any efforts to establish alternate climate-friendly ways of living over the next few decades therefore need to address this impasse … in short, how can affluent global North societies break their destructive cycle of mass over-consumption of digital technologies?
This sense of powerlessness to change environmentally-harmful habits runs deep. It is perfectly understandable for someone to feel that it is simply not possible to stop using a smartphone, driving a car, or eating meat without wilfully disengaging from mainstream society. These are all acts that are engrained into our dominant cultures. We are encouraged to do these things by the companies that sell such products. These are all acts that are celebrated in popular media. We are compelled to do these things by our peer groups and our governments. Anyone acting otherwise is likely to be accused of consciously attempting to not conform, being bloody-minded, and/or wilfully awkward.
As a result, many people have reached a state of internal compromise, where they can remain largely untroubled by the environmental harms implicit in their ordinary acts – after all, these are socially acceptable and encouraged behaviours. Some others might remain aware of the problems, but still consider it unimaginable to live without a car, switch the A/C on during a heatwave, or Facetime their parents. A few people might be able to contemplate possible ways that they could act differently, but ultimately see it too great an inconvenience to actually follow through. All told, unless one is being particularly self-sacrificing and/or masochistic, it can often appear impossible to actually cease doing these things altogether … even if there is a small chance of mitigating the worst of the climate crisis.
The criminologist Robert Agnew (2020) makes a number of salient observations about this apparent impasse and sense of inertia. First, he reminds us that “individuals cannot engage in ordinary harms unless they have the opportunity to do so” (p.63). In this sense, it is important to reflect on how our ‘digital societies’ (and attendant IT industries) are set up to facilitate and normalise the over-consumption of digital technology. Indeed, the past ten years has seen everyday life shift quickly from being full of opportunities to make use of digital technology, to offering very limited opportunities to not be making use of technology.
Think, for example, how a seamless (read: relentless) use of digital technologies is now accepted as the default state of being in most contemporary situations. Downloading apps and doing things online has shifted from being ‘innovative’ to being utterly unremarkable. Working in digitally ‘fluid’ ways is now a pre-requisite for any employee wanting to be seen as productive and ‘in the loop’. Conversely, most of the main institutions in our lives now operate along rigid digital lines to ensure conditions of efficiency, standardisation, individualisation and progress. If you need to do anything then there will likely be an online form to (auto)complete. All these prevailing conditions make us feel compelled to engage in the ordinary harms of excessive tech consumption – while, at the same time, providing IT industry producers and providers with legitimate markets to sell even more technology to.
Of course, the flip-side of this excessive digitisation is that it becomes extraordinarily difficult not to engage in technology use. On a personal basis, it can be incredibly difficult to not make use of social media if one wants to maintain contact with friends and family. It is increasingly difficult to pay bills, purchase items, or prove one’s vaccinated status without going online. In many work contexts, one cannot simply decline to log into the company system, to refuse to use a prescribed device, or choose to ignore texts and emails. In many schools and universities, opting out of the mandated ‘learning management system’ is not an option unless one is prepared to opt out of the school or university altogether. In all these situations, people have little choice but to engage in the ordinary harms of tech consumption.
Yet, this is not to say that we are each absolved of any personal responsibility for the environmental harms of our digital lifestyles. Agnew’s second point is that while “the harmful behaviour of individuals is a function of larger social forces”, this does not mean that individuals are absolved from the consequences of their own behaviours and actions. At present, he observes that “most individuals have become enthusiastic practitioners of ordinary harms” (p.64). For all we might complain about ‘digital overload’, most people continue to enjoy the immediate pleasures of downloading games, streaming online videos, and making online purchases, while feeling free of any real personal culpability.
Instead, Agnew reasons that we all need to develop more nuanced understandings of the ‘symbiotic’ relationship between our individual online actions and the continued dominance of a digital economy predicated upon ‘Big Tech’ corporations and digital over-consumption. Whether we feel like we have a choice or not, continuing to purchase a new iPhone every three years and indulging in other acts of over-consumption simply perpetuates “the harmful behaviour committed by states and corporations” (p.64). In other words, any consumer of digital technology living in a high-income country is complicit in the environmental harms arising from the global actions of Google, Amazon, Facebook and the like.
So, how might this cycle be broken? Here, Agnew makes the point that the environmentally harmful consumption of digital technologies must be understood in dual terms – i.e. as arising from the actions of individuals and the actions of larger groups. As such, efforts to change state and corporate behaviour must also include efforts directed at changing individual behaviours. In short, individual actions and corporate behaviours are two sides of the same coin. From this perspective, any efforts to break the current mode of digital dependency and digital excess therefore need to be both top-down and bottom-up – focused on the actions of individual citizens and the large institutions in their lives.
So, if we are concerned with the environmental harms resulting from the over-consumption of digital technologies then we need to continue working to address state and corporate behaviour at a macro-level. Big Tech and state actors need to be challenged further at all levels to take their environmental responsibilities seriously, and work to mitigate their exacerbation of climate emergency. Yet, at the same time, we can also attend to stimulating ‘bottom-up’ change and shifts in local cultures – supporting the efforts of individuals and their communities to alter their own practices. In this sense, shifting people’s personal behaviours will require changes in the ways in which digital technologies are implicated in the dominant cultures and social structures of their communities, cultures and support structures. At the same time, this will also require changes in governance, regulation and investment to support such changes. This suggests a ‘digital divestment’ on the part of governments, public services and other institutions – i.e. instigating alternatives to the all-encompassing digital systems and digital infrastructures that dictate people’s capacity to engage in everyday activities.
All of this suggests a need to radically rethink how local communities and wider societies are arranged to support people to live, work, come together and enjoy themselves. In short, we need to think of ways to move away from conditions where one requires a smartphone to access welfare payments or other public services. We need to encourage a culture where status is not accorded to owning the latest model X, where engaging in environmentally-harmful practices is restricted and discouraged, and where offline non-digital alternatives are promoted and prioritised. Such transitions are unlikely to be initiated by the Big Tech corporations currently profiting from these conditions. Instead, this might require governments and official institutions to commit to increased regulation and taxation, public education campaigns, and role-modelling of less harmful digital practices. Such countermeasures would undoubtedly be initially expensive, electorally-unpopular, and slow to take hold.
Nevertheless, while encouraging and supporting people to radically reconsider their everyday dependency on digital technologies will be a big task, it is not be totally impossible. Agnew reminds us of how societies have previously achieved significant turnarounds with similarly ‘impossible’ changes – such as the decline of cigarette smoking over the past 30 years. This was achieved by multiple means – undermining the cultural cache and social status of smoking, increasing the costs of buying cigarettes, and challenging the beliefs (often perpetuated by the media and tobacco industry) that fostered a smoking culture. It is not unimaginable that a similar shift in digital behaviours might be achieved over the latter half of twenty-first century. In a few years’ time, it might be just as socially unacceptable to be live-streaming in a public place as it would to be chain-smoking. In the near future, Big Tech might well go the way of Big Tobacco … and our societies might be all the healthier as a result!
Agnew, R. (2020). The ordinary acts that contribute to ecocide: A criminological analysis. in Brisman, A. & South, N. (eds). Routledge international handbook of green criminology (pp. 52-67). Routledge.