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Digitization and Sustainability

Richard Worthington

When the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, the assemblage of ideas, artifacts, and practices that is now known as the Internet was a research and development program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the U.S. Department of Defense. At the time, ARPANET, as it was called, connected a few dozen researchers at eight corporate and university sites around the country. Outside this limited circle, few could imagine what lay in store, but the ensuing tsunami of digital devices and systems that has since washed over society is arguably the most significant sociotechnical development of the intervening decades.

Environmental advocates of the 1970s often viewed large, complex technological systems such as nuclear power or industrialized agriculture as threats to both the ecosphere and democratic self-governance. Yet critics rarely applied such concern about the political characteristics of big technological systems to digital systems when business and government began to use these in the 1980s. Instead, information and communications technology (ICT)* was often thought to bode well for environmental improvements such as the dematerialization of production, stronger democratic accountability of private and public decision makers to environmental goals, and collaboration in environmental initiatives at the grassroots level and across vast distances.

These potentials associated with ICT have since borne fruit, but for the most part only in isolated cases or through nascent initiatives that have done little either to rein in ecologically damaging production or to contain the consolidation of power in the hands of global elites. These mixed outcomes suggest the value of exploring more deeply the role of digital systems in environmental governance. Such inquiry can highlight important opportunities and risks now facing humanity in light of the dramatic digitization of our technological infrastructures and world since the 1970s.

A rich framework for interpreting this sprawling topic is provided by the idea that “technology is legislation.” This argument was first presented in a doctoral dissertation more than 40 years ago, when ARPANET was still a fledgling project and the invention of the term “Internet” lay more than a decade into the future. In setting the terms of everyday routines as well as societal possibilities, however, today's digital systems rule more clearly and consequentially than most laws.

Consider the controversy caused in the United States in late 2013 by a poorly functioning website that was created to help citizens sign up for health insurance coverage made possible by policy reforms. It turns out that, despite the availability of other means of accessing the new insurance program (telephone, post, and government offices), the website mentioned only the online option on its home page. No doubt the administration of President Barack Obama deserved much of the criticism it received for a rollout that was, in many respects, clueless. Yet practically no one (critics included) noted that other means of learning about and signing up for the program were available, a condition that persisted even after Obama himself pointed to the alternatives in a national speech. Here, a technological mindset “legislates” behavior by constraining virtually everyone's consideration of the tools available for accomplishing an important task to the most “sophisticated” of them, even when that tool is not working and alternatives are readily available. Laws rarely exact such compliance.

If digital technology is a form of legislation, then what are its rules for environmental governance, and how can they be navigated, applied, resisted, or changed? Exploring the prospects and pitfalls of environmental governance in a digital society raises several questions:

• Has digitization contributed to more-sustainable production systems?

• How are digitization and democracy connected, and what have been the outcomes for sustainability? Specifically, does digitization promote a governing system in which ordinary people have meaningful input into the decisions affecting their lives?

• What role has digitization played in the allocation of resources available for sustainability?

None of these questions can be answered with great confidence, because ICT has rapidly permeated virtually every aspect of society, yet the transition to a digital society is probably only in a beginning phase. Sorting out cause and effect is no easy task under these circumstances. Nevertheless, the pervasive character and powerful potential of digital systems make inquiry into them an urgent matter, and there are enough patterns in experience to date to at least identify the questions that should be considered as the governance of sustainability becomes an increasingly practical issue.

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