As the 2020s progress, so does the realisation that the ever-increasing digitisation of our everyday lives and societies comes at an unsustainable cost. One of the many dark-sides of the digital age is the ruinous production, consumption and disposal of digital technologies – not least, the extractive and exploitative logics of resource depletion, high energy demands, ecological destruction, and low-income forced labour.
As is well-documented, all of these burdens fall disproportionately on the poorest parts of the world. Much of the digital technology supply chain is fuelled by the global South – from Congolese colton mines to electronic waste-sites of Karachi. Similarly, when massive resource-hungry data-centres and silicon-chip factories are located in richer countries, then these tend to be in the most vulnerable and marginalised communities – such as Google’s strategic decision to locate water-greedy data centres in rural Texas.
These exploitative practices and processes are as unsustainable as they are unfair, and apply to all areas of digital technology use. Facing up to EdTech’s part in the desecration of some of the poorest parts of the planet is therefore a necessary part of current commitments to decarbonising and decolonising education. Ultimately, this requires us to work toward the establishment of reparative environmentally-aware forms of education and technology that are rooted in the interests and experiences of the global South and some of the most disadvantaged parts of the Global North. There is much work to be done here.
Shifting the EdTech mindset
These are confronting topics and issues for the education technology community to face up to. For example, thinking about EdTech in terms of environmental sustainability demands that we engage with digital technology along material and planetary lines – acknowledging the ways in which EdTech is implicated in deforestation, rare-mineral extraction, water politics, and other forms of unreciprocated extraction. As Will Davies (2022, n.p) contends, “The difficulty of climate politics lies not only in the global nature of the problem, but in the way it brings hypermodern centres of technology and power into relationship with far-flung glaciers, forests, oceans and tundra”.
More specifically, these discussions require middle-class EdTech practitioners in North America, Europe and Australia to pay serious attention to lands and peoples in regions that colonialist histories have long conditioned them to see as expendable. The extraction of rare minerals in central Africa to maintain silicon chip manufacturing is certainly not unprecedented. Neither is the reclaiming of desert lands to house Google data centres, or relying on forced labour in Malaysian factories to manufacture laptops. Indeed, the digital revolution is reliant on the exploitation of many of the same lands and peoples that forcibly enabled the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.
As such, it is not uncommon for EdTech audiences to collectively bristle at talk of decarbonising and decolonising EdTech – seeing these debates as making unwarranted punitive demands to stop their current practices. Yet, the idea of a reparative and environmentally-aware approach to education and technology is not an argument for shutting EdTech down completely. Instead, the underpinning spirit of a reparative EdTech is the challenge to start doing different things. As Bhambra and Holmwood (2021) remind us, decolonisation is “not necessarily about taking things out, but putting them in”. In this sense, calls to align EdTech with decarbonisation and decolonisation efforts as not solely a demand to cease engaging in unsustainable forms of digital technology over-consumption, but also as an ultimatum to develop different sustainable ways of making use of technology in education.
This requires the rethinking and reframing of future forms of EdTech from post-colonised viewpoints – drawing on knowledges, practices and experiences of peoples and places far removed from the tech-hubs of San Francisco, Seattle, and Singapore. If we can no longer buy a new replacement laptop every 12 months, then what might be learnt from repair and reuse cultures in Kenya? If there is no longer the guarantee of ‘always on’ connectivity due to energy blackouts, what might be learnt from off-grid digital infrastructures run on solar, turbine or wind-up power? As Zoellick & Bisht (2018, p.1797) observe, “perspectives from the Global South might enhance the understanding of ‘technological development’ from a degrowth perspective and provide paths forward to sustainability”.
EdTech and the need to redress Climate Coloniality
All of these arguments chime with broader calls to develop new forms of sustainable digital technology in light of what Farhana Sultana (2022) describes as the ‘climate coloniality’ that has underpinned the rapid (over)development and the planetary impact of the digital technology complex to date. In short this requires ensuring that:
- the material impacts of continued digital technology use are shouldered primarily by regions and populations in the global North.
- redistributive benefits of future digital technology use – i.e. that any curtailments of digital technology use are primarily directed towards the global North (whose populations have benefitted most)
- epistemic privileging of global South perspectives on developing ‘appropriate’ forms of digital technology best suited for conditions of scarcity.
The first of Sultana’s dot-points emphasises the need to scale-back and slow-down the consumption of digital technology in the global North regions that hitherto led the excessive over-consumption of digital education. In contrast, the second dot-point foregrounds principles of redistributive benefits – meaning that increases in digital technology use in low-income regions might well be necessary in some circumstances in order to meet core human objectives.
Sultana’s final dot-point emphasises the need to move away from the “hegemony of Eurocentric knowledge” (Sultana 2022, p.3) which has driven the development of digital technology (and digital technology in education) over the past 40 years or so. In education terms, then, this requires a de-centring of EdTech discourse and development away from the Western, white, middle-class, male perspectives and passions that have hitherto driven the development of this field. This requires us, for example, to remain wary of ‘green-growth’ promises currently being pushed by IT corporations of developing more carbon-efficient, environmentally-sympathetic forms of ‘green’ and ‘clean’ digital technologies. Indeed, there is an implicit neo-colonialism in Silicon Valley and Big Tech claims to be soon able to overcome the environmental crises resulting from current forms of digital technology through the development of new technical fixes and clean energy solutions.
As such, the rethinking of future forms of digital technology consumption and use in a domain such as education is not something that global North industrialists, policymakers and practitioners should be seeking to take a lead on. Instead, this is a world-wide problem that requires genuine international collaboration and a privileging of global South knowledges. It also requires a deliberate move away from neo-colonial structures of governance that perpetuate vested global capitalist interests and structural barriers, and lessen the likelihood of any meaningful transformation. As Farhana Sultana (2022, p.6) puts it, “decolonizing climate necessitates radical alterity and shifts in imaginations and obligations”.
There is a clear need for better aligning EdTech with conversations around climate coloniality. Working with such ideas and imperatives bring discussions of education and technology into dialogue with broader discourses around the decolonising of education in the global North, and the burgeoning interest around decolonising EdTech. This gives those interested in the challenge of rethinking education and technology in light of climate coloniality some strong foundations to be building from (see Taskeen Adam’s living list of ‘Decolonising EdTech’ resources).
In taking up this challenge, it is crucial that well-intentioned education technologists in the global North see their primary role as listening and learning from others, rather than attempting to lead and innovate ‘solutions’. A key part of reparation for the problems arising from the excessive forms of EdTech that have come to dominate education over the past 20 years or so is making sure that the same mistakes are not repeated. As such, it is crucial that what happens next is not similarly rail-roaded by education technologists, EdTech innovators and corporations of the global North … the stakes are far too high!