Back to the drawing board?

The Industrial Society is dead; long live the Information Society! A step closer to sustainable development, or simply new technology to speed up environmental deterioration? Peter Arnfalk, of the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics, wrote this on his PC.

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The new era that we are entering is called the Information Society, leaving the Industrial Society behind. This societal shift has been compared to the industrial revolution that transformed the agrarian societies. The Industrial Society resulted in an enormous impact on the environment. What will the environmental effects be as we enter the Information Society?

IT is perceived by many as a major key to attaining sustainable development. The EU working group Forum Info 2000 places a lot of faith in IT, answering the question “what developments are leading the way to sustainability?” thus:

“Contributions towards attaining the goal of sustainable development can be made along the following three directions of innovation and change: innovations in the area of technology, behaviour and social systems. In the area of technology, information and communication technologies (ICT) play a central part. ICT radiates into almost all other societal parts.

Voices supporting the idea that (the use of) IT can induce a better environment can be heard among a multitude of politicians, IT manufacturers and telecoms companies. A more critical view of the environmental benefits of IT, however, has been presented by Hojer in the Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice:

“There is, however, nothing that guarantees that the move towards this information society is going to prove a positive development on broader human, social or ecological grounds.”

The IT industry has grown to become one of the most important industries in the world. A study undertaken by the World Information and Technology and Services Alliance in 1998, on global IT spending and economic impact, documented an industry valued at US$1.8 trillion. The market development for some IT products is best described as explosive, such as for the PC and cellular telephone. “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said in 1943. Upwards of 100 million PCs were sold in 1999, and Intel, the worldÕs leading microprocessor manufacturer, envisions that one billion computers will be connected via the internet in the near future. This unimaginably rapid development and diffusion of such technology has exceeded our capacity to adapt social and economic systems.

Brains that click

In 1949, in an article entitled “Brains that click”, the Journal of Popular Mechanics claimed: “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” Dematerialisation of products and services – the term used to identify a process where the total weight of materials used in industrial products has declined over time – has been considered to be one of the basic requirements for a shift towards environmental sustainability . One of the most important potentials of IT is the ability to facilitate such a dematerialisation process, since it is based on a high flow of information and a low material and energy intensity.

Dematerialisation can be realised by several means, such as process improvement, product improvement, product to service conversion and structural change. Different applications of IT can play a role in the realisation of some dematerialisation through all these means.

  • Process improvements: digitalisation of printing processes, telecom switchboards.
  • Product improvements: miniaturisation of the computer, mobile phone, walkman and a multitude of other equipment; CD-ROM-based instruction manuals, dictionaries, directories, encyclopedias, etc; copper cables replaced by fibre optics.
  • Product to service conversion: a newspaper becomes an on-linenews service; a letter becomes an e-mail; an answering machine becomes a built-in service in the telecom network.
  • Structural change: i.e. a change in the way markets are organised, in the way our transport infrastructures are organised and used, and in the way we work and live. This dematerialisation trend can be exemplified by a possibly reduced need for office space, cars and public transport, roads and rails, due to increased use of teleworking and a reduced need for administrative documents, transports and storage of paper.
  • In addition, selling a function instead of a product can be seen as yet another step towards dematerialisation. The Xerox Corporation has been prominent in this area, introducing the idea of selling the service of copying instead of copying machines. In this way, the customer can (if he/she is lucky) get the most modern, least material and energy-consuming piece of equipment, maintained such that it retains its energy efficiency. It is also in the service providerÕs interest to re-use or recycle the equipment to as large an extent as possible. More people can, in this way, utilise the same equipment, improving the degree of utilisation during the time the equipment is modern and attractive.

    On the rebound

    But has the IT revolution so far had the effect of dematerialisation to any significant extent? When personal computers entered the scene in the early 1980s, the vision of the ‘paperless office’ was born. Even though digitalisation in many cases has made paper documents redundant, we experienced the opposite trend. We have never used so much paper. In the mid-1990s American business produced around 90 billion documents per year. These docments are photocopied an average of 11 times to generate something in the region of one trillion copies. If you built a stack of all this paper, it would soar more than 300,000km into space. Use of the internet, particularly, has increased US paper consumption. New hopes have been pinned on technologies such as videoconferencing, believed to be the best opportunity to push paper out of offices. Since the technology offers people the opportunity to collaborate on documents and then save the finished product, there is less need to exchange paper. In theory this is technically possible, but with the experience of previous digitalisation and its effect on paper consumption at hand, the chances that this particular technology would prove to be a paper killer, are quite small.

    The rebound effect describes a situation where the effects of dematerialisation, energy savings or transport substitution, such as those offered by IT, which can be impressive per unit level, are eaten up by an increase in other effects that fully or partially reverse the sought after effect. Historically, technology-induced dematerialisation effects have, as a rule, been exceeded by the rebound effect. Improvements are usually achieved in specific areas, only to be rendered insignificant by an increase in consumption or deterioration of other environmental components.

    Technological development has a tendency to stimulate materialisation in the short run, as new products and their applications function as additions to the old technology rather than as substitutes. New products and services, along with their environmental impacts, are added to the present ones. It is possible to assert that the telephone never became a complete substitute for the letter, the way television did not stop us from also owning a radio (or several), or the way the computer could not eliminate the demand for paper. This might further become the case for IT.

    The magnitude of the rebound effect is enhanced by the fact that the production of personal computers is very energy demanding and involves a number of toxic substances. In addition, the user phase requires energy as well, and may lead to an increase in the consumption of paper due to the ease with which current users of computer technology can print and photocopy their documents. It has been suggested by the European Commission Working Circle on Sustainability and Information Society that all of these effects taken together have completely eradicated the benefits of any specific dematerialisation effect realised by IT so far.

    The problems that are the sources of environmental degradation are often to a larger extent social, behavioural and political in nature, rather than just technical. Focusing too much on the technological solutions of the problems might make us forget about the other factors involved in shaping our behavioural patterns and our society.

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