With nearly one billion people confined at home, digital technologies have demonstrated how fundamental they are to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 and even cut its chain of transmission as shown in Singapore. However, the recent call from the European Union for measures to prevent internet congestion shows how essential the principle of digital sobriety is to business and society.
The pandemic has disrupted lives and economies across the planet, limiting movement, closing schools and constraining people to work from home. Fortunately, digital technologies allow students of all ages to stay connected with their school or university and benefit from online teaching. They also permit working professionals to keep contributing to the economy through their remote activities. However, at the same time, the internet has also become an important source of information and entertainment for people who seek to maintain their social connections, who are in distress or who are simply bored.
As a consequence, internet traffic has surged over the last weeks, putting the network at strain, creating bottlenecks and causing interruptions of connections. It indeed does not come as a surprise that when millions more people exchange on WhatsApp, scroll through TikTok, start a Zoom call, play Fortnite or stream live videos from Netflix, the repercussions on the quality of internet connections can be felt.
On March 18, 2020, EU industry Chief, Thierry Breton, urged video streaming platforms such as Netflix and YouTube to take measures such as switching to standard definition rather than high definition, to avoid straining the internet infrastructure at a time when it is needed for more crucial uses. “Streaming platforms, telecom operators and users, we all have a joint responsibility to take steps to ensure the smooth functioning of the internet during the battle against the virus propagation,” Breton said.
What the sanitary crisis provoked by COVID-19 also reveals is the need for business and society to adopt a general principle of sobriety when it comes to digital transition. The term “digital sobriety” was coined in 2019 by a Paris-based think tank called “The Shift Project”. Worried about the negative environmental impact of digital technologies and of their increased use on our collective effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they commissioned 12 climate-energy experts to analyse the environmental footprint of digital technologies. In March 2019 the rapport “Lean ICT – Towards Digital Sobriety” was published, highlighting the following:
Today, digital technologies emit 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), more than civil aviation;
The use of digital technologies accounts for 55% of its energy consumption compared to 45% for the production of equipment (servers, network, terminals);
Online video alone generates 60% of the world data flow and thus over 300 million tons of CO2 per year, as much as the total emissions of Spain,
The energy consumption of the whole sector is increasing by 9% a year.
To make digital transition compatible with climate and societal imperatives as well as the constraints of resources availability, the Shift Project’s main recommendation is to adopt the principle of digital sobriety, which implies prioritising the allocation of resources as a function of uses, in order to conform to the planet’s physical boundaries, while preserving the most valuable societal contributions of digital technologies.
The digital transition is more than ever at the top of the agenda of governments, institutions, cities and companies across the world. Digital devices and interfaces are becoming part of every aspect of our social lives. This transition brings countless opportunities to improve our wellbeing, from healthcare to education and the environment. This is exemplified in Singapore, where everyone’s smartphone combined with artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics helps track the virus spread and slow the chain of transmission, allowing people to keep working and children to go to school.
However, digital technologies have a material reality as they rely on electronic devices, produce data flows and deal with huge volumes of data of all kinds. This materiality has significant environmental impacts both direct and indirect. The energy consumption required for digital technologies is expected to increase by 9% a year and the lessons we are today learning from Asia and its management of the COVID-19 crisis will not change this trend.
Prioritising will be fundamental in our world of finite raw resources. There is a need to question the pertinence of how we use digital technologies, which includes online video, social networking or any other use of digital technologies. The challenge is to avoid the scenario of a use deemed essential being impaired by the excessive consumption of another use deemed less essential.
Our collective responsibility to use digital technologies for the right purpose and with sobriety will more than ever remain engaged after the COVID-19 crisis.
About the author
Dr. Bénédicte Deryckere is an expert in responsible consumption and production. She has been part of the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions since March 2019.