Is there a place for computers and digital communications in degrowth?, part 2

(this is the second part of the translation, with some links updated, of an article I wrote in June 2007 on this topic. The first part is here).

Are computers limitable?

The concept that you should use a tool only if you can “limit” it, that is if you can foresee and limit its potential damage by defining and regulating in advance how it can or should be used, creates more problems. At least in theory, limitation is easily applicable to things like motor vehicles: they could be “limited”, that is redesigned to support only public transportation with green energy, because they are objects conceived and built to do one thing, very well defined in advance. You can’t compose music with a car. Unfortunately - so to speak - ICT is immensely more flexible than any other technology, with the only exception, I believe, of the written word. In terms of raw materials and manufacturing processes, the differences between a PlayStation, the personal computer with which I wrote this article, a smartphone and an electroencephalograph machine are already minimal and keep decreasing every year.

Above all, the functions of a computer depend mainly on what software it runs: one single “box” could play simultaneously all the roles mentioned above. In short, once you’ve built them, microprocessors simply cannot be restricted to only one type of use. Restricting access to them only to professionals would be deeply unfair, not to mention probably impossible without building any religion in which wisdom is reserved to the priests closed in the temple.

What can ICT do for degrowth?

As further evidence of what I said in the previous section, just remember that things profoundly different from one another and generally considered desirable, like:

  • a culture (the real one, of course) open to everybody, at the lowest possible cost and without intermediaries
  • preservation of all knowledge and human history
  • Health therapies and research to prevent disease, instead of treating them with polluting and expensive drugs
  • photovoltaic panels or wind turbines that are efficient and economical enough to actually make possible to adopt renewable energy on a large scale
  • the enormous economic and environmental benefits of telecommuting, distance education, information services accessible from home and a thousand other ways to reduce unnecessary travel
  • reliable weather forecasts
  • and much more

are all applications of the same ICT “products” that are impossible, or almost impossible without ICT.

Refusing ICT in the name of degrowth would only make sense if you think - because you don’t know anything else - only to the current, more or less portable computers; only to uses like boring jobs or playing games and chatting online to fight loneliness; and only if, in general, you know, or imagine personal usage of computer as an almost exclusively passive activity, like watching a better TV. If, instead, everybody learned as soon as possible, how to choose, use and promote computers well, it could be a great advantage for degrowth.

Unfortunately, without wishing to offend anyone, average awareness and competence in this field are still too low. We often see on the Internet very respectable people who are trying to consume less water, electricity etc. … but communicate and work together via the internet (which is great, and potentially very green!) without realizing that they are using the most polluting and anti-degrowth combination of hardware and software around.

Use and make others use “computers” responsibly

Frugal innovation is possible also in the development and usage of ICT. At the human level, for lack of space I will only say that purely passive uses of personal computer should be avoided. Technology-wise, the impact of ICT on natural resources depends in no small way by which software and file formats are used. Many software programs for office, studio and entertainment only run on modern computers, almost always oversized for what they really need to do. But with the Internet, software such as Free, non-proprietary file formats like OpenDocument, instead of those of Microsoft Office you can communicate, study, work often, coordinate civil actions also with second-hand computers, oe new but very energy-efficient ones, until they physically break.

Using personal computers in this way, or at least demanding that all Public Administrations do it and lobbying for really efficient hardware and software: these are all actions that are in the interest of all citizens, but even more of those who want to promote degrowth.