Our bright digital lives: some critical thoughts

By Basile Boulay

We find ourselves at a strange crossroads. Never have we been more aware of the devastating impact of consumer goods on the environment and never have we been so dependent upon them. Technological innovations are embedded in the daily lives of even the most critical among us, and both usage of and demand for devices grows exponentially, leaving us to contemplate the ravages of climate change on our brightly lit screens. Understanding our relationship with modern technologies as well as conceptualising a coherent framework for a collective liveable future requires us to engage with difficult questions while avoiding counterproductive moralising pitfalls. In this blogpost, I suggest that a critical political economy outlook coupled with an effort to reconceptualise the ‘good life’ could be a useful starting point.

The problem with tech thinking

Critical takes on the numeric revolution and our digital lives are often met with accusations of being anti-technology or anti-progress, or with the eternal mantra that ‘we have to live in our times’. But being critical towards certain new technologies and their use is not about being anti-technology, it is about politics with a big P. In particular, the critical discourse about technology focuses on certain aspects and uses, and not on ‘technology’ as a single and homogeneous category. A comparison between medical discoveries and targeted product advertisement on social media is enough to convince us of that. The current critical discourse focuses on those technologies that emerged out of the numeric revolution, which are used in a voluntary (i.e., non-coerced) way by individuals, and that predominantly (but not only) rely on the interface and connectivity provided by smartphones. These connected devices also share a rather inglorious common denominator: they are hungry for energy and personal data, and are subject to very limited regulation. We thus face a threefold problem: ecological, social, and democratic.

The tech-friendly global discourse relies on two key pillars. The first, beyond the scope of this piece, is the behavioural responses triggered by a constant use of technologies, particularly for kids and young adults, as shown by the growing evidence of changing behaviour patterns in the literature at the intersection of sociology and cognitive sciences (see Gérald Bronner’s latest book, for instance). The second, more directly relating to international development, is the (a)political discourse around these technologies, which effectively manages to hide their environmental and socio-economic consequences, by over-emphasizing positive aspects such as flexibility, freedom to express oneself, and greater availability of goods and services. This tech-discourse has fully espoused the political characterisation of individual citizens as ‘consumer citizens’, where citizenship progressively shrinks to the freedom to enjoy an ever-growing variety of consumption goods and services in a liberal democratic environment.

While this glossy vision of modern technology prevails, a closer look at the very objects we use every day brings a bitter story. However, making sense of these scattered pieces of news requires a coherent intellectual framework for the big picture to emerge. For example, we know that our usage of smartphones is unsustainable: prey on the one hand to social pressure and ever more-performing devices, and on the other to the lack of software support for older devices, we change our phones way too frequently, an aspect reinforced by special offers from providers. At the same time, we often lack understanding of the global value chain at work in their production. Our awareness of the ecological impact of production is very partial. We know that manufacturing phones generates heavy CO2 emissions, but are often unaware of the energy and water required in the extraction and refining process of key components, leading for example to hydric stress in countries already battling for water security. This connects to another point, namely that the geographical location of specific key components is concentrated in particular countries.

In the case of cobalt, at least half the world supply is located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has led to violent conflicts for access to resources, rising number of soldier children and population displacements (see for example the chapter by Allard in Écologies du smartphone). The global pattern of inequalities between global north and global south is therefore clear when looking at the manufacturing part of the value chain, but also at the other end: Ghana is among the main receivers of used and damaged phones from the entire world. A giant open-air dump outside the capital where smartphones are burnt to separate components has resulted in chronic soil and air contamination (including by arsenic). Similar resource- and waste chains come along with other increasingly connected devices: cars, household appliances etc.

Where are we headed?

Change in politics with a big P will necessarily have to come with a common reflection on the good life at every level of society. Small technocratic and isolated fixes such as specific taxes or consumer nudges will not do the trick, and the demand for radical political changes will have to go hand-in-hand with ground level changes in consumption patterns. While reducing our consumption is a necessity (scientists estimate that to sustainably achieve a goal of 100% renewable energy, total consumption will have to fall by half), this must be coupled with a global reflection on the good life in a broad sense: to what end to do we use our rapidly growing free time? What would be appropriate new work arrangements that are compatible with a slower and less environmentally damaging lifestyle? How do modern technologies, which suck up an increasing share of our attention span and time, prevent us from conceptualising and implementing new forms of individual and collective life? Arguably, these questions are more easily asked than answered but turning a blind eye to them won’t do.

Another related lever of action is to demand political change regarding the (lack of) legislative framework that surrounds modern technologies. Digital technologies have evolved at a much faster pace than the law. To take an example, the ‘right to repair’ should be enshrined in the law but has instead been fiercely, and until recently largely victoriously, fought by corporate interests. As time passed, manufacturers stopped providing details about the breakdown of components and assembly of devices, failed to engage in exercises of transparency regarding the operation of softwares, enclosed critical pieces into sealed compartments, followed strategies of planned obsolescence and practiced a policy of no tolerance vis-à-vis independent attempts at repairing devices. This goes deeper than it seems, for it does not solely have to do with limiting the lifecycle of devices. Indeed, this practice effectively turns us into mere users of a technological service. In that sense, our position is closer to one of powerless consumers than empowered citizens.

However, things have been slowly changing over the past few years, especially at the EU level, where the right to repair, primarily conceived as a tool to fight climate change, is now receiving support from the commission. This is an important lever, as the environmental impact of tech devices largely stems from the production phase, which makes the extension of products’ life-cycle an important policy aspect, as explained for example here. Individual countries such as France are going further, by considering since 2015 planned obsolescence as a criminal offense. This paved the way for successful battles against manufacturers led by civil society organisations (see the collective contribution of the Mobile Camera Club in Écologies du smartphone).

Although repair cafés started to burgeon all over the planet, their operational capacity and the range of tasks their can perform remain limited in this slowly changing environment (see Nova and Bloch in Écologies du smartphone). A legislative framework more aligned with social and ecological priorities rather than corporate ones would also help with the consolidation of these small business which typically provide local employment with a strong human component and generate local ecosystems of knowledge. In a society where technologies have entered all aspects of our lives (our phones are literally on us: in our hand, in our pocket etc.), developing technology education is important. A healthy society is one in which citizens understand the technologies they interact with, not one in which they are compelled to use devices without basic knowledge about them, as recently argued by Voigt. Understanding technology is a form of democratic empowerment, and this aspect should not be de-coupled from ecological and economic aspects.

Last but not least, at the international level, changes in our consumption patterns and lifestyles as well as more people-centred regulatory frameworks would also be a first step towards decolonising technologies. As we saw, the negative consequences of production and consumption patterns of tech devices disproportionately fall on countries and population from the global south, thereby reproducing and expanding global inequalities that perdure since the onset of colonialism and capitalism under new forms of ‘techno-racism’. A more reasoned use of tech devices, a better understanding of value chains and a thorough reflection of what a good life should look like would be first steps to start addressing these pressing global issues.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

Basile Boulay is Senior Executive at the EADI secretariat and holds a PhD in Development Economics

Image: The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions under a creative commons licence on Flickr

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