The dynamics of digital systems. Based on Mulrow, J., Gali, M., & Grubert, E. (2021). The cyber-consciousness of environmental assessment: How environmental assessments evaluate the impacts of smart, connected, and digital technology. Environmental Research Letters, 17(1), 013001.

When looking at a physical item in our hands, we might be tempted to overlook the story of how it got there, since we were most likely not present when its materials were obtained, during its manufacturing, or its transportation. We just went to a store to buy it, or it appeared on our front door. When it comes to the Internet and digital thins (like images on a screen), the divide is even broader due to what Gould (2016) calls the "myth of immateriality",[1] or a view that overlooks many material aspects that make up the digital.

Now that we've explored the physical, mechanistic aspects of these technologies, we must explore the affective or humanistic impacts of the digital in our society in order to understand how the digital impacts society not only societies' infrastructures but also their superstructures.

Direct costs[edit | edit source]

The costs of a digital system are important because we can view money as an equivalent of energy in a system,[2] given that energy is usually spent to obtain money, and that both energy and money are spent in order to obtain a desired result. Furthermore, it matters from an environmental perspective because we want to ensure efficiency—that is, that we save as much energy as possible for all investments while ensuring sustainability.[3][4] Direct costs can include:

  • The initial costs associated with deploying a technology — For example, what organizations spend in making the switch from non-digital to digital.
  • The costs required to pay by users and consumers when making the switch to reduce their carbon footprint — That is, the costs of greener options.
  • The opportunity costs of non-optimized energy usage — Are there major costs associated to a lack of time or effort due to not making the switch to a digital system?
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Direct costs
  • Will costs associated with implementing this digital technology will pay off in the long term to investors, and users?
  • Will the benefits of this technology spread out to society or only a few?
  • Are there any hidden costs that vulnerable populations will end up paying, for example, through an increase in costs of other services?
  • Does the digital product or service substitute a more costly solution currently in place?

Social and health effects[edit | edit source]

As technologies increasingly become a part of human activity, there are other areas of innovation that can be integrated with other systems, which are what constitute integrated innovations.[5] Consider for example, the following criteria:

  • Does using a digital system replace the carbon footprint of other systems in a way that can improve the quality of life of individuals? Examples of this are impact reductions of working from home compared to commuting to an office every day, or replacement of paper-based materials, or reduction of travel due to online conferences.
  • Do digital systems help reduce economic inequalities? In some cases, the environmental costs might outweigh the benefits, especially when these solutions produce a smaller footprint compared to other solutions. Examples of these may be telemedicine or remote education, as opposed to the footprints associated with specialized in-person education and medical assistance.
  • Do digital systems impact the well-being of individuals, and most importantly communities?
  • As the digital system scales up and is used by many more people, does it create positive or negative impacts on health? One small example of this is that the prolonged use of smartphones at night can lead to sleep deprivation.
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Social and health effects
  • Does using a digital system replace the carbon footprint of other systems (e.g. paper-based materials, travel, etc.) in a way that can improve the quality of life of individuals?
  • Does a digital system help reduce economic or social inequalities for vulnerable communities?
  • Does a digital system improve the well-being of individuals or communities?
  • Are there negative impacts on health associated with the use of a digital system?

Feedbacks[edit | edit source]

Despite the claims and projections made by many innovations, many of which are digital systems, sometimes their introduction and scaling will lead to an increase in resource usage. The most famous example of the feedback caused by technology is Jevons paradox, which states that a rise in efficiency can lead to an increase in demand.

  • Does the use of a digital system increase energy usage? An example of this are ride-sharing apps, which despite being optimized versions of taxis, due to an increase in use tend to create more traffic and fuel usage across cities.[6]
  • Does the digital system create a higher demand in resource extraction and manufacturing? An example of this might be how online shopping can lead to a higher demand of products with an embodied carbon footprint.
  • Does the increased use of a digital system also raise demand for computing power, storage or network infrastructure?
  • Does the digital system completely substitute a material good or simply duplicate it? An example of this is the resurgence of the vinyl record, which for some people will not be substituted by digital streaming services, thus increasing the carbon footprint associated to listening to music.
  • Do users rematerialize digitized information? For example, does the service require them to print a digitized document? Consider for example the case of a digital COVID vaccine card or a digital ticket that is printed multiple times in order to use in certain places.
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  • Does the system encourage people to spend more time in it than previous alternatives?
  • Does using the system lead to an increase in manufacturing or the production of goods?
  • Do individual users produce data that is never used again, for example, photos?
  • Is the system redundant of a previous alternative or does it completely substitute it?

Cybersecurity[edit | edit source]

Digital systems often receive and store critical data about its users and businesses, or perform critical services that may turn them into targets of cyber-attacks. The increasing need for security measures and systems often modifies the business logic, often increasing the processing of data, by doing things such as:

  • Encrypting data for protection
  • Requiring various verification steps to identify users
  • Using external services to protect data integrity, such as a VPN or escrow system
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  • Is the service provided considered critical? This means that lives or basic services depend on it.
  • Does the system require extra cybersecurity measures?
  • Is the information managed by the system sensitive to hacks?

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Gould, A. S. (2016). Restor(y)ing the Ground: Digital Environmental Media Studies. Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, 9(5), Article 5.
  2. Rashkovskiy, S. A. (2021). Economic thermodynamics. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Its Applications, 582, 126261.
  3. Huber, P. (2005, October 31). Thermodynamics and Money. Forbes.
  4. Lichtenthaler, U. (2021). Digitainability: The Combined Effects of the Megatrends Digitalization and Sustainability. Journal of Innovation Management, 9(2), 64–80.
  5. Visser, W. (2020). Integrated Innovation: Applying Systems Thinking to Sustainable Innovation and Transformation. Sustainability, 12(13), 5247.
  6. Schaller, B. (2021). Can sharing a ride make for less traffic? Evidence from Uber and Lyft and implications for cities. Transport Policy, 102, 1–10.
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Keywords climate change, icts
SDG SDG12 Responsible consumption and production, SDG07 Affordable and clean energy
Authors Emilio Velis
License CC-BY-SA-4.0
Organizations Green Web Foundation
Language English (en)
Translations French, Spanish
Related 2 subpages, 12 pages link here
Aliases Carbon footprint guide for tech practitioners/Digital dynamics
Impact 385 page views
Created May 21, 2022 by Emilio Velis
Modified January 29, 2024 by Felipe Schenone
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