Digitalization as Misdirected Sustainable Development

The Web has become the epicenter of our cultures, and we continue to accept that the remainder of human existence will work in conjunction with internet technology; but in this dependency, we become unable to ask ourselves whether this coexistence is desirable, or even functional. If the Internet were to collapse, the rest of society would collapse — cyber attacks demonstrate the highly unsustainable, yet completely likely, possibility of this. Other evidence of its vulnerability is the computer’s manufacture through resources like coal and oil for its physical hardware and use-power.

As these resources become scarcer — a very near reality — the Web project in its liberation becomes increasingly threatened. Until then, the nature of technology and our own nature of adaptation will have it so that we don’t even notice the growing disparities.

Still the Web continues to propagate as the newest of basic human rights. Notions of tech neutrality abound in declarations of scientific progress and new forms of democracy; in 2011, the United Nations declared the Internet as a fundamental human right. This is, of course, an effect of our westernized morality in bringing information, products, and services to the ends of the earth,coupled with the faith in a seemingly-infinite cyberspace. The open acceptance of Web symbiosis is now training our minds to function like computers, causing negative effects on well-being and the erosion of human potential; growing rates of anxiety, depression, and addiction are evidence of this. And in accepting computerized ways of thinking as ideal, we lose exactly that which makes us superior to the Internet. However, any acknowledgment of this is viewed as anti-modernization by the traditional modes of thought.

We have developed a dependency on simulated socializing as substitutes for human forms of interaction: dating apps, for example, are inherently reductionist, yet as these new forms of interaction come to us guised in traditional perceptions of technological progress, we still welcome it. As we continue to enhance our relationship with Web capabilities, we do so without the awareness of its potentially destructive consequences or its erosion of our own spirituality; the danger continues in corporations vying to mesmerize consumers with lines of new technologies, with little regard for externalized costs.

Meanwhile, corporate initiatives for sustainability often relate to slight mitigation within the system, centered around new tools for efficiency, accountability, and complex modeling systems that fail to create longevity or ecological understanding. These initiatives — termed “sustainable development” — maintain concepts of growth and object fixation and consequently direct attention away from movements for real sustainable
change. Traditional uses of design and science are inappropriate in the context of complex systems or ecologies, as are eco-friendly products based in market values. Arguments or expectations for new technologies to rectify current pollution trends only prolong consumption; growth continues to outpace efficiency developments, while reduced environmental impact even becomes in some cases further consumption stimulus. Computers have increased paper use by 40% as well as general electricity demand and social dependency; durability revolves around materiality and optimization, rather than user-product relations.

Sustainability becomes a “green gallery,” using apparently efficient and eco-friendly materials, as well as moral messages, to mask nastier raw impacts. The “green” lifestyle is now a gentrified eco-luxury brand, evoking further consumption and lacking consideration of impacts beyond singular, and often minuscule, ecological focuses. Green marketing is similarly superficial, as it circumvents real product appeal and focuses on costly add-ons designed for consumer guilt and altruism; marketing in this way is obstructing creativity and the pleasure we can derive from products.

These developments fail to address the full scope of contemporary issues and are generally only used to differentiate products in the competitive marketplace; greenwashing is a deflection of public concerns into an extension of modern ways of living, and still uses principles of exclusivity, vanity and pride which are inherently at odds with sustainability. We can call these adaptations by corporations to public concerns an attempt
to “have-our-cake-and-eat-it,” where the progress and environmental command that drove unsustainability is redressed into superficial efforts for ecology — ultimately causing nihilism for sustainability workers.