Written byOliver Fry
Our addiction to smartphones and other digital gadgets is killing the planet, according to a new book by Professor Sean Cubitt from Goldsmiths, University of London.
In Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies, Professor Cubitt challenges the widely-held perception that digital media are “frictionless”, “immaterial” or live lives of weightless purity in “the cloud”.
In fact, digital media are intensely resource-heavy and energy-intensive. Our equipment require millions of tons of cables, routers, switches and servers, and a growing proportion of the energy produced across the globe.
From lithium mines in the High Andes to the electronic waste dumps of southern China, and from the chip fabrication plants of Ciudad Juarez to the immense hydroelectric dams of the Himalayas, network media have hugely negative impacts on people and places around the globe.
Computing now has a bigger carbon footprint than the airline industry. There are no longer enough of some key trace elements for everyone in India to have the number of devices typical in the West.
There is more indium, used in DVDs and computer screens, in waste sites than there is left in the ground. As consumption increases, demand for strategic metals like lithium and tantalum is fuelling increasing conflict and environmental degradation.
Professor Cubitt argues that ethical consumerism has proved inadequate as a response, and that institutional apathy in the face of corporate greed requires a fundamental change in our concepts of politics and communications.
Professor Cubitt, professor of Film and Television in the the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, says:
“We are wilfully ignorant about where things come from and how they work. A new smartphone for Christmas may seem like an innocent purchase, but these gadgets are made of materials that are far from harmless to our environment.
“Far better to make things last, and resist the temptation for needless upgrades. But individual decisions to consume less or consume better won’t be enough. Public policy must acknowledge that we owe everything that we possess to a planet that we are destroying.”