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

(this is the translation, with some links updated, of an article I wrote in June 2007 for Rivista Italiana della Decrescita (Italian Degrowth Magazine). Since then, I’ve written and spoken more on the same topic, here and elsewhere.

According to Fran├žois Schneider (1) “some technologies, by definition, can not be limited or restricted and must therefore be (completely) refused”. The theme of this article is to see if computers and the Internet are indeed limited, if and how they are compatible with degrowth or whether they should instead be abandoned in the interest of degrowth itself.

First, some definitions

As far as we are concerned, a computer is any physical object (hardware) directly controlled by one or more integrated circuits (chips) capable of executing generic instructions written as code (software). The Internet is a communication network among computers spread throughout the world, but today, thanks to technological advances and market pressure, we’re going faster and faster towards convergence, that is the use of one network and one type of devices to create and exchange all possible types of information: texts, phone calls, TV shows, games, whatever. The official acronym for all these technologies is ICT (Information and Communication Technology).

Environmental Impacts

ICT is based on hardware and software products that, by and large, are still produced following the “growth is always good” mantra: build more and more “products” every year, always bigger and with more “features” than the previous ones, then induce or force people to buy those products, even if they don’t really need them. Any electronic object pollutes a lot when it is built and can waste a lot of energy: a desktop computer consumes more than $ 100 for the current year even if it stays on continuously, without being used. It has been calculated that in the United Kingdom, TVs, VCRs and similar devices always left on standby waste the energy of two power plants every year.

Software seems immaterial, but it can pollute a lot if, just to increase the earnings of its producers, it forces users to change their computers much more often than necessary. Windows Vista was called “a landfill nightmare” by the English Green Party for this very reason.

Could you produce or buy hardware locally, as it’s possible with food?

The fifth of the eight R’s of degrowth says “Relocalize production”, but I don’t think that production of state of the art integrated circuits and other electronic components could be relocalized and happen on a small scale. A modern microprocessor isn’t a cup of yogurt: at least in the foreseeable future, objects like that can be manufactured only with highly sophisticated machines are necessary, whose huge cost makes sense only with mass production.

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(1) this sentence in italic is the literal translation of a the one that an Italian degrowth advocate wrote to me (saying that he was quoting Schneider!) to mean that we should give up computers. If you have the source for this statement, please let me know. Exact or not, that sentence is was prompted the Italian version of this article.