We are promised new digital and technological advances - many now underway - to improve the way we work and live and that with these new innovations we will become a greener, more responsible society. However, as with any kind of advancement there is a price to pay. With that in mind Denise Oram MBCS considers what the real price is, that we are paying for the digital world we now live in.

We are promised new digital and technological advances - many now underway - to improve the way we work and live and that with these new innovations we will become a greener, more responsible society. However, as with any kind of advancement there is a price to pay. With that in mind Denise Oram MBCS considers what the real price is, that we are paying for the digital world we now live in.

We are living in a society where we are constantly being reminded of the importance of the world’s environmental and ecological needs, where sustaining our planet and its peoples are objectives placed at the forefront of global organisational and governmental agendas.

We are encouraged to recycle and use ecologically friendly resources. Technological innovations can be used to help us monitor and better manage natural resources, and provide us with new ecologically friendly devices, but more often than not it is our never ending quest for ‘the Good Life’, that drives the development of faster and richer digital services.

But is there sufficient transparency to assess the true benefits offered by these new technologies and do the improvements outweigh the actual costs and impacts, or are we at times being kept in the dark as to all their sustainability impacts?

Are we always given a truly comprehensive account of how these new technologies are impacting our carbon footprint so we can judge the full costs and benefit to society and the planet, or are we being obscured by clouds from the full costs and impacts and given a false sense of security? The ‘Good Life’ we get may not be the ‘Good Life’ we envisage if the planet is impoverished by our demands.

The demand for new functions, more data and better performance is leading to an ever increasing cycle of upgrades and disposals, creating a bottomless lake of excessive waste. How can we move forward to achieve future sustainability?

We need to consider upgrade methods and new developments that increase the use of recycled materials, avoid waste and minimise the use of raw materials in new products, which in turn need to become more recyclable. If we are to start that journey we need to understand the full life-cycle costs of a digital service or device and look beyond and behind the purchase price.

Ethical issues and digital technologies

Ethics is a highly conceptual field and human beings may explicitly subscribe to a particular code of ethics; yet it is rare to find a human being who would not confess to modifying their behaviour so as to contravene such a code when faced with a complex situation.

Some see moral responsibility as being on the decline driven by the greater access we have to everyone’s data, and to each other online where we live more and more of our daily lives. Others see this as a process of adjustment as attitudes and freedoms change over time, and different cultures will respond in different ways to the challenges faced.

Historically the ethical focus has changed. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, the applications of ethics took place in organisations and institutions within hierarchies of society well above the individual.

With the advent of the twenty-first century, the ethical focus is shifting to the individual’s personal rights and responsibilities towards others. The responsibility for confronting these issues falls more and more on the individual; this is as much the case with the issues of green IT and digital technologies as it is with any other.

With the continual development and use of digital technologies comes a number of inevitable issues including:

  • the right or ability of individuals to own and exercise personal control over their data
  • division of responsibilities, between the authorities, individuals and suppliers, and the access and data required to exercise those responsibilities
  • accountability when services fail
  • monopoly and power from having such huge volumes of data
  • privacy as to where I am, who I am with, what am I doing
  • accessibility and diversity dealing with the digitally excluded
  • methods of governance and law enforcement
  • measurement and data interpretation accuracy
  • misuse for propaganda, persuasion and coercion.
  • amongst many others and these must all be considered with regard to the development of these technologies.

Underneath it all we need a culture of trust if we are to reap its benefits, but often we see a lack of trust in products such as smart meters where a recent BCS survey claimed that ’68 per cent had privacy concerns related to smart meters and sensors, a relatively straightforward and easily understood IoT application’, which highlights the lack of transparency with the technology.

Articles such as one recently in The Times highlighting that China supplies the majority of our CCTV systems, enhances the privacy and security fears in all of us. There has also been the issue with VW using digital technology to adjust engine performance of their cars when being tested under lab conditions, resulting in ‘the engines when driven on the road emitting nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US that has "broken the trust of our customers and the public"'.

We need to be cognisant of the impact these changes are having on our social activities, the environment and on our psychological well-being: how are we to make the right ethical decisions in the development of new technologies, with all these issues to address? A decision involving investment and probabilities of financial return can be informed by the use of statistical models - a decision involving ethical considerations is not as easy to evaluate - though the two are rarely mutually exclusive we require an explicit model of ethical decision making.

The problem of sustainability is exacerbated by the increasing demands we place on technologies, driving spiralling technology developments and issues, demanding a change in our perceptions and behaviours if we are to make sense of and come to manage these developments. We need to expose and prioritise social and ethical issues, alongside the environmental impacts, power savings, energy efficiency, hazardous substances and pollutants behind e-technologies.

Whilst a critical concern, we must not just focus on waste disposal;, waste comes at the end of the product life cycle, by which time we have limited choices left to us. We must build for sustainability at the beginning; it is a design issue and needs to be addressed at the very inception of the design process when designers from different backgrounds, and with different preconceptions, are coming together as a design team.

Design of new e-products should consider potential environmental, economic and social impacts, alongside technology functionality and performance. We must design for sustainability, and recyclability should be built into new products at the beginning; just addressing how we handle e-waste is to sustain the process and behaviours that are leading to that lake of wasted resources and to close our eyes to the real problems and solutions we must address for sustainability.

Technologies for consideration

The continual growth and development of new technologies is of increasing concern. If it is to be a sustainable and managed benefit to our lives and the planet, consideration must be given to creating awareness of all these issues and impacts, and sooner rather than later given our increasing dependence on digital services across all aspects of our lives as the availability of cloud computing and the continuing evolution of the internet of things (IoT) and the internet of everything (IoE) continues apace.

If we take a look at cloud computing, it enables us to have information at our fingertips, when and how we want it, but do we have our ‘heads in the cloud’ regarding the actual issues that come with this easy ‘life at the touch of a button or screen icon’? Cloud computing comes with a cost; it facilitates shifting of control from users to third parties due to its many layers.

With price drivers to the fore and the huge digital networking capacities available, the manufacture and servicing of its many parts has been outsourced and offshored resulting in the storage of our data in multiple locations across many servers around the world that are owned/delivered by different organisations in different cultures under different government regimes.

We are faced with increasingly expensive lock-in to proprietary systems and organisations that now provide and, are to some extent, in charge of our digital lives such as Amazon and Google.

This brings with it those issues of privacy and security highlighted above, but also major concerns around its physical sustainability - the energy and raw materials required to build and run all the layers of devices between us and our data are in increasingly short supply, we have to move to a renewable perspective, but will supply and demand drivers be enough to shift us in that direction?

Socially responsible computing

The IoT and IoE, where M2M connectivity and related services are increasingly pervasive, create new service opportunities, whilst at the same time creating new problems. We need to raise awareness of sustainability issues and considerations advancing technologies present and look towards the wider perspective of ‘socially responsible’ computing.

We have a responsibility as educators to ensure issues of green IT and sustainability are addressed in the teaching of socially responsible computing and to change the culture of thought and outlook with regards to long-term growth. We need to educate future IT professionals to consider these issues in the life-cycle of developments and their effects on stakeholders in society.

In ‘Clicking Clean: A Guide to building the Green Internet’, a report by Greenpeace, it is claimed that: ‘We cannot make the transition to a renewable powered society fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change unless the internet is also a platform to transition the world toward a renewable energy future’.1

The report supports the need for the cloud to be powered by renewable energy and encourages clean energy investment by technology firms, if the benefits of our new digital world are not to be out-weighed by the environmental costs.

The BCS Green IT Specialist Group consists of academics, practitioners and consultants who are all committed to promoting green IT issues and disseminating information and good practice, and raising awareness in order to address future sustainability issues for all stakeholders and environments.

Green IT and sustainability are an essential element of socially responsible computing and one of the roles of the Green IT SG is to raise awareness of sustainability issues and considerations advancing technologies present, such as cloud computing and the IoT, to name a couple. A change in culture of thought and outlook with regards to long-term growth of these technologies are essential. It is our responsibility to educate future IT professionals to consider these issues in the life-cycle of development and their effects on stakeholders in society.

We need to highlight social issues, environmental impacts, power savings, energy efficiency, hazardous substances and pollutants. Relevant education is essential if we are to equip a new generation of informed managers, engineers and technicians to develop novel approaches to energy needs and sustainable technologies to maximise opportunities for renewable and low carbon generation.

We need to adopt an ethical approach to dumping grounds where there is exposure to toxic waste. We need a change in culture design and development, where the wants and needs of society are driven by finance and trends. Global business demands that ethical factors: ‘must’, ‘ought to’, ‘should’ be considered with honesty, obligation and integrity if we are going to contribute to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.

Further reading

  1. Clicking Clean: A Guide to building the Green Internet, Green Peace Report, May 2015

About the author

Denise Oram, MSc, MBCS, is a senior lecturer in Computing at Glyndwr University. She is also Treasurer of both the BCS Green IT specialist group and of the BCS ICT Ethics specialist group; and a member of the ACM Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE).