I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple of weeks about climate change and digitalisation. For instance the climatic significance of digital technology is increasingly recognised, as well as the resource constraints this implies for some of the wilder claims made about the coming frontiers of digitalisation. This also represents an ideological tension as one emerging grand narrative, or rather cluster thereof, concerns the implications of digitalisation (‘the robots are coming for our jobs!’, the possibility of fully automated luxury communism, industrial revolution 4.0, Jeff and Elon taking us into space etc) whereas the other concerns the implications of climate change. But one aspect I hadn’t thought about was this argument about the implications for economic productivity. From The Unhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells pg 120:
For the past few decades, economists have wondered why the computer revolution and the internet have not brought meaningful productivity gains to the industrialized world. Spreadsheets, database management software, email—these innovations alone would seem to promise huge gains in efficiency for any business or economy adopting them. But those gains simply haven’t materialized; in fact, the economic period in which those innovations were introduced, along with literally thousands of similar computer-driven efficiencies, has been characterized, especially in the developed West, by wage and productivity stagnation and dampened economic growth. One speculative possibility: computers have made us more efficient and productive, but at the same time climate change has had the opposite effect, diminishing or wiping out entirely the impact of technology. How could this be? One theory is the negative cognitive effects of direct heat and air pollution, both of which are accumulating more research support by the day. And whether or not that theory explains the great stagnation of the last several decades, we do know that, globally, warmer temperatures do dampen worker productivity.