by Spencer Robinson '20
Think fast. Think new. Think smart. Think powerful. Think technology. Here at Stanford, a leading research university in the Digital Age, a large majority of the students are focused on development, design and implementation of new tools to solve real world problems. Being a part of the development of ‘the next’ phone application or ‘the next’ computing software is, likely, the dream of many students. At least in my experience, students genuinely have faith in the power of technology to solve the world’s issues— including environmental problems. Indeed, there is merit in this view—the whole science of predicting the effects of climate change, for example, depends heavily upon the use of computer models. However, more education and deeper conversations about the relationship of the tech-industry’s relationship to the environment is well warranted.
Before we admire technology for its ability to solve problems of energy and resource use, we should first consider the tech-industry’s own significant energy and resource demand. A 2013 report released by Northwestern University Faculty Fellow Mark Mills, The Cloud Begins With Coal, states that Information Communications Technology uses approximately 10% of global electricity. A large portion of this is used by data centers which allows for storage and instant access to information. Of course, the Internet is a key part of the global economy today, but the infrastructure of the internet has an impact on the environment that isn’t negligible nor beneficial. It may be convenient to think of “The Cloud” as some abstract, nebulous entity. In reality, however, “The Cloud” is a network of data centers (massive rooms full of energy hungry computers) that take electricity to run, need water for cooling, and require a whole industry of resource-intensive electronics manufacturing to develop. Similarly, although the annual release of new smart phones seems to be a hallmark of technological development and progress, the smart phone industry involves a great network of exploitative and environmentally taxing operations. For example, Apple has over 200 suppliers worldwide that produce the components of its products—the touch ID sensors are from Taiwan, the batteries from South Korea and China, the accelerometer made in Germany, and the gyroscope produced in Italy and France. Despite the carbon intensive process of manufacturing, transporting and assembling devices such as smart phones they are readily thrown away and new ones produced. In 2014, the world generated 42 million tons of these toxic materials with over 80% not properly recycled. Perhaps it’s not a software designer’s responsibility to know about the manufacturing system for the product they are working with, but I still feel like there needs to be more discussion about the technological tools we develop, and their resource and energy costs.
Perhaps more directly relevant to students who seek to design and produce software is the environmental impact that online on-demand services create themselves. Today’s online platforms now have begun to determine how people use transportation and how they buy goods. This has led them to significantly alter consumer behavior and the collective environmental impact of people in our society. The arrival of these online platforms has provided people with the privileges of having consumer goods delivered to their doorstep and taking chauffeured car rides with the click of a button. These developments have made it is easy to say that technology has allowed for greater efficiency— for example, the reduced carbon impact of one van delivering several goods instead of many people driving to shops in their own cars. However, such a priori assumptions cannot always be made about technology. What about how people are buying goods impulsively on amazon? What about people who order products everyday delivered separately? What about the impact of packaging? One research paper entitled Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping by Dmitri Weidli at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics concludes that that though online shopping on the whole has reduced the carbon footprint of most shopping behaviors, not all consumer behaviors that utilize online shopping reduce carbon footprint. There are lots of factors to be considered. For example, shoppers that use public transportation to shop may have lower carbon footprints. Additionally, online shoppers have higher product return rates.
In a world of finite resources where human collective behavior determines the health of our world as a whole, software engineers need to recognize their agency in shaping how resources are used. What are your priorities? Is it to allow your company to satisfy demand in a profitable way? Or could your program influence consumer dynamics and lower the resources use and energy consumption? Do these technological solutions take environmental impacts into account, and couldn’t minor changes in these priorities lead to a large reduction in environmental impact given millions of people are now dependent on these tools?
Rather than framing the development of technology as a consumerist evil, I would prefer for people to look at it as a powerful tool with the potential to help people find amazing solutions to problems of combating human development and poverty as well as issues of environmental importance. I think that the focus on technology as the silver bullet, however, should be taken with caution. Regardless of the power of the tool as a software engineer designs it, billions of other people who use the tool may not use it in the way the designer intended.
With technology at the center of much education here at Stanford, we should consider that although technological tools can be used to help people find efficient and sustainable solutions, they equally have the potential to change human behavior for the worse and intensify our resource and energy use. The tech-industry isn’t the most significant contributor to ocean pollution, global warming, habitat destruction, and other environmental issues. But these issues are the result of the actions of billions of individuals. Technology products now currently connect, influence and empower billions of people worldwide, so those in the tech industry now have the best opportunity to influence the behavior of individuals on a global scale. They are best poised to solve the world’s toughest problems—helping billions of world citizens act in their best collective interest to ration our precious environmental resources in an efficient, equitable and innovative way.
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