The ecological limits of datafication

I went to a mind blowing talk by Kira Allmann this morning about the ecological costs of digital activity. This is something I was aware of but entirely in the abstract, recognising that digitalisation manifests itself climatically without any specificity about what this relationship entails. There are many things this talk made me think about which I’m noting here for future retrieval:

  1. The climactic cost of computation means there are ecological limits to datafication which social scientific accounts of it are entirely failing to recognise. For instance can we have a viable theory of surveillance capitalism which doesn’t have the climactic impact of ever expanding datafication at its heart?
  2. What will the politics flowing from these look like? For instance Kira flagged the significance of the Chinese Big Tech complex and the difficulty of reigning it in in terms of carbons costs. We are already seeing the geopolitical significance of this, suggesting how states might get behind their tech champions under the sign of national security in a way that overpowers any countervailing civic movement to reform and control on environmental grounds.
  3. How do we increase awareness of the climactic impact of digital technology in a way succeptable to politicisation? Kira had a fascinating comparison to past environmental campaigns and some of the tactics may certainly be applicable here. But there’s an underling problem of public understanding of digital infrastructure, something which might be declining as this infrastructure is platformised because it is becoming vastly more opaque. She convincingly argued that there are many steps one must go through before being able to have a dialogue about the politics of this.
  4. The cultural barriers to recognising this are deeply entrenched, after decades of thought and talk about digitality in terms of distance, disintermediation and immateriality. Despite being immersed in these debates, I only really ‘got’ the environmental materiality of the digital during Kira’s talk: the climate cost is not a manifestation or consequence of digital activity, as I would have previously put it, it’s actually constitutive of it.
  5. To what extent are there competing narratives at work here? The great disruptive project being led by Facebook, Amazon, Uber et al and the expected rise of the robots (and mass automation) surely constitutes a meta narrative which has little place for climate considerations. Can we fuse the two into a climactic narrative of digital disruption and what we must do to reverse it?

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