When we talk about digital, we talk about technology and usage, but also consumerism. Innovation, even if useless, allows us to sell more and more new hardware: computers, tablets or smartphones, or many connected objects. The explosion of these new technologies has several effects that make us wonder there is the undeniable environmental impact, but also the social impact. How can we think about the evolution of digital technology by taking into account these two dimensions, and how could a sovereign approach be one of the elements supporting this evolution?
The environmental impact of digital technology
The negative aspects
Contrary to what some people may still imagine, the digital world described as virtual has very real effects on our environment.
One of the first we can think of is the necessary use of rare earths for the manufacture of our computers, smartphones, tablets, screens but also many connected objects. The extraction of these rare earths is extremely polluting, and for the moment only China agrees to pay the price (Frandroid). But the race to innovate leads many consumers to regularly change their equipment to obtain performance and functionalities that they will not use.
The other point that comes to mind is the data centers that are the product of the “cloud” policy. These huge server farms often raise real environmental issues, of which the energy aspect is not necessarily the only significant one, even if the digital footprint is estimated at 25% of greenhouse gas emissions (CBRE). Indeed, the gigantic size of such installations poses the problem of their location and their impact on the local ecosystem …
Another area that suffers from a sulphurous reputation regarding its environmental impact is that of cryptocurrencies based on blockchain technology. The energy-intensive operation is “mining”, which is the mathematical resolution (cryptographic equation) that allows the creation of a new page (Le Monde Juin 2021). However, the question of energy cost arises for blockchain technology in a more general way. And according to an article from the CNRS (EcoInfo), This energy expenditure depends mainly on the consensus protocol chosen.
Among the new dangers that I sense as representing a prohibitive ecological cost, is the arrival of Metavers. If they are multiple, they mechanically lead to a higher consumption of the machine capacity and thus fatally their energy impact is negative (Reporterre – mars 2022).
The positive aspects
But as in all aspects of life, nothing is ever completely negative, and a certain number of advances in the digital domain also allow us to reduce our environmental impact.
The pandemic crisis we have been through has accelerated our digital transformation. We had to set up remote working capabilities. How could this have a positive effect on the environment in particular?
First of all, remote working eliminates the ecological cost of local personal transport (daily work-home journeys) for each employee, but the widespread use of videoconferencing also reduces international or inter-regional travel, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of the players. One of the translations of this evolution is the concept of “Digital Workspace”. Indeed, a collaborative tool by design will be better in terms of carbon footprint than an email, as Alain Garnier, CEO and co-founder of Jamespot, explains. Simply because the storage is not duplicated unlike an email tool… and that makes a big difference in the long term for the carbon footprint. We must then encourage users to adopt virtuous behaviors, including in collaborative tools, for example by encouraging the archiving or even the deletion of old and irrelevant data. This is also a question of UX of the product, and one of the areas of reflection and work of the Jamespot teams.
The other factor that should not be overlooked, and which is a step in the right direction, is that “sovereign” tools that are not “fremium” (a mix of free and premium features) like the GAFAMs do not have a business model of “pushing consumption” in terms of storage. While we see that this is the model of some freemium GAFAMs. This is totally contrary to sobriety. In this sense, sovereignty too is in itself an antidote to the unbridled carbon footprint of GAFAMs tools.
Concerning metaverses, if we have evoked the undeniable negative aspects linked to their nature, Alain Garnier proposes a more optimistic vision in which he thinks that if they are mastered and especially coupled with classical collaborative tools, then there too we can have the best of both worlds.
From the perspective of having a more environmentally responsible approach to digital, sovereign solutions have their place.
Indeed, the use of “local” solutions with hosting close to the users will undeniably have a positive effect on the carbon footprint for example. The fact that these solutions are more adapted to the cultural environment in which they will be used will also lead to a gain in productivity, and thus to greater energy efficiency. The fact that a certain number of digital platforms propose to favor short circuits, such as #smartrezo, also allows to have a positive impact, especially when we compare their actions to the extremely negative impact of the use of large American digital platforms…
Social and societal impact
Our societies are undergoing a radical transformation in their mode of operation, which is accelerating and going further with the digitization of our society and the relationships between individuals. This transformation has already been described on a philosophical level by the advent of the Technician System (Jacques Ellul Le Système Technicien – Cherche Midi – Essay originally published in 1977).
Even if I invite you to discover the reflections of this philosopher, which are still relevant today, I will rather focus on the direct effects that we can see and imagine of digital technology…
Although digital technology represents a step forward in many areas, it also has negative effects that must be taken into account, even if these negative aspects are not necessarily intrinsic to it. We will first focus on these negative effects.
One of the first that comes to mind is what has been called the uberization of certain sectors of the economy. This expression covers in particular the casualization of a low-skilled workforce, most of the time, by platforms that make an intermediation, and especially took advantage of an artistic vagueness on the labor laws of our different countries, claiming that the platform is not an employer but a way to match a customer demand with a “self-employed worker” offer … The most famous of these platforms was Uber which was the intermediary between VTC drivers, said independent with their customers. Another platform, Air B&B, has played a big role in the field of tourism, because the generalization of its use puts the hotel industry at risk, as they have to respect drastic standards, standards that do not really apply to the users of this platform. We see here the intrinsic nature of any transformation, industrial revolution with both a destructive force of jobs, especially in industrial sectors that become obsolete, and the possible creation of new jobs related to new technologies and their uses…
Another negative, which we don’t think about, especially as a young metropolitan, is the digital divide. This divide manifests itself in two distinct ways. The first one is due to the infrastructure coverage (mobile and fiber), where we can only notice the deficiencies of this network coverage in rural areas. This effect is linked to a political choice to privatize telecom networks, which probably slows down their deployment on the whole national territory, especially in sparsely populated areas, and therefore less profitable… The other digital divide that can be observed is the accessibility to a certain number of public or commercial services that are only available through the Internet. Some people, even if they are not in the majority, have a real problem with the computer tool, and this makes their administrative tasks or access to services that everyone is entitled to expect extremely complex…
The 3rd aspect is the massive shift of many sectors (individuals, public and private sector) to the use of the cloud. Because of the hegemony of American players in this field, 95% of the value of the service is exfiltrated to the US… This is an economic and therefore social hemorrhage.
Finally, we can’t talk about the negative effects without talking about the impact of social networks and the perverse effects of their operation as filter bubbles. The observable effects are of several kinds, radicalization of behaviors linked to anonymity with the drift towards harassment that we can observe. Algorithms lock Internet users into the comfort of being with people who think like them. The fact that the majority of social networks (there is a part missing in your sentence) make that the possible moderations are made according to their own culture and conception of the freedom of expression, which can also pose a problem of democracy. Moreover, the general idea of the “like” taken up on all the social networks, provokes an addictive effect of short-term satisfaction, it reinforces our incapacity to project ourselves in the long term.
The positive aspects of digital
This is a new industrial revolution that started around 2000 and is accelerating. One of the positive sides of this transformation is the creation of skilled jobs.
The increasingly massive use of telework also brings its share of beneficial effects, allowing those who benefit from it to better organize their work / private life balance…
Online shopping platforms have made it easier for people all over the country to access many consumer goods.
Collaborative work has simplified the way to develop internationally, and videoconferencing tools in particular offer unparalleled flexibility for a modest price, if we refer to what was possible 15 to 20 years ago. This allows the international development of many small companies…
The digitization of our public services, when it does not replace the presence of local agents, but complements their action, leads to better access to public services, and also allows a simplification of administrative processes … The most obvious example of a digital transformation rather successful in my opinion at the level of administrations, is that of the tax administration.
And the sovereignty ?
As noted above, digital technology is the next source of job creation. Digital sovereignty allows us to maximize this job creation by capturing a larger part of the value generated by this industry.
On the cloud aspect, as we saw earlier, choosing an American player means losing up to 95% of the value. Here again, the choice of digital sovereignty makes sense and allows us to change the deal, and it is possible! As Alain Garnier indicated, in the case of Jamespot, less than 10% of their expenses are outside Europe. A more responsible approach to digital benefits the entire national community, particularly through contributions such as taxes and social security contributions.
On social networks, American players remain hegemonic, however sovereign initiatives are trying to break through. There are two of them that I can think of, one that I use, #smartrezo, is a social network media platform, and the other one #qwice which aims to qualify the shared information, and presents itself as a collective intelligence application!
These two initiatives, propose another conception of social network and internet media, they are in fact more respectful of the French socio-cultural aspects. #smartrezo has an ethic, which guarantees that the user is not tracked and therefore does not see his personal data collected without his knowledge, #qwicez is also part of this approach. So there are also virtuous behaviors, which allow to promote a local anchoring of digital technology…
Digital technology in itself is neither good nor bad, but it can be a source of opportunity to improve our lives by mitigating some of the environmental impacts of our personal and professional lives. However, if we are not careful, these beneficial effects could be quickly erased.
However, if we have a local and sovereign approach, digital technology can be a source of wealth for our development by promoting high value-added jobs in our territories, while limiting the more negative impacts in environmental terms. It therefore seems important to me to explore this sovereign and “local” approach to digital technology, which allows us to envisage positive impacts in terms of CSR. We must therefore dig this furrow, and the apparent awareness of the state by the appearance of a Ministry of Economy and Industrial and Digital Sovereignty seems an encouraging sign. It only remains to judge on the real actions!