We can use digital technology to induce sectoral transitions towards ecological and social sustainability
Data and intelligence can contribute to clean and fair technologies and consumer practices, and it can also help to introduce new ‘rules of the game’
Yet, this can only succeed when we are willing to change the rules of the digital game as well

Can digital technology save humanity?

February 14, 2022

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, technology has played a crucial role in shaping our societies and economies. As such, the technological revolutions of the last centuries have brought us—at least most of us—an immense increase in welfare and wellbeing in terms of, for example, disposable income, healthcare, and education. At the same time, these technologies have also played a major role in climate change, the devastating loss of biodiversity and the concentration of wealth and power in a small number of nations, businesses, and individuals.

These global challenges demand a new Deep Transition; a fundamental overhaul of the structures that make up our society and economy. These structures have emerged with subsequent technological revolutions and give shape to what is called Industrial Modernity.

Today, we find ourselves in the middle of the Digital Revolution and one of the most important questions surrounding this revolution is whether it—like its predecessors—will lead to further environmental and social damage, or whether it can actually play a role in the new Deep Transition. In other words, can digital technology help us fix our problems and regenerate natural and social systems or will it just cause more and bigger problems?

We believe digital technology can indeed contribute to this kind of change, both directly and indirectly. The direct contribution lies in the potential of digital technology to make products and services more sustainable and to allow more people access to those products and services. The indirect contribution could result from digital technology leading to new ideas and norms and the enforcement of new regulations. Yet, all of this can only work once we have fixed the intrinsic problems of digital technology itself, and when we are willing to embrace much needed institutional innovation along with mere technological innovation. 

Innovation spawns innovation

Like the steam engine and electricity before it, digital technology has all the characteristics of a so-called general purpose technology (GPT). It is a core technology that enables many different applications, from computer games to industrial process management. Those applications of digital technology bring direct benefits to users, as they make things cheaper, more effective, and efficient. Another feature of a GPT is that it spawns innovation in other fields. Electricity, for instance, made it possible to precisely manufacture scientific instruments, which in turn enabled researchers to make new discoveries, such as electrochemistry.

In a similar fashion, digital technology is a powerful tool for science. Different types of sensors allow researchers to gather vast amounts of data. From the subatomic level to data from outer space and everything in between. All sorts of modelling techniques and artificial Intelligence can subsequently help them to make sense of that data, make it visible, and to run experiments with it. As a result, progress in science will accelerate and new findings will eventually trickle down to real-life applications that may benefit sustainability or social innovations.

Design by Zeynep Algan. © FreedomLab

The process from fundamental science to applications is far from straightforward and again, digital technology is of great importance. The use of computing power, fine-grained data, and AI can help to improve existing technologies and develop new ones. Consider, for instance, the modelling efforts to make wind turbines so much more efficient or the search for materials that can store energy for new generations of batteries. Those efforts could not have taken place at the current rate if it wasn’t for digital technology.

Existing technologies and consumer and business practices can also be made more sustainable with digital technology. Smart systems for temperature control can increase the energy efficiency of buildings and route planning algorithms can save fuel through more efficient logistics. Asset utilization can also be optimized, for instance, through as-a-service business models that have the potential to starkly reduce the number of cars, tools or other capital goods that are needed to fulfill our needs. Sharing or renting these through digital platforms can thus save costs and material needs. At the end of a product’s life, information about the product’s contents can help to recycle parts and, on a higher level of aggregation, data and intelligence can help to close material loops between different sectors.

Innovation enables new rules

Even though these direct contributions of digital technology to a greener and more equitable world are significant, they are only part of the solution. Much deeper and more fundamental change is needed as well. Technology can play a role in that process. That is, new technology can lead to new insights, inspire new ideas and enable new kinds of public policies that are necessary to make room for alternative consumer practices and new business models. To illustrate this point, the railways changed our notion of time and distance, space travel offered us a new perspective on the vulnerability of planet Earth and the contraceptive pill kick-started the sexual revolution. In other words, technology tends to play a role in revising the written and unwritten rules of society.  Today, digital technology has the potential to inspire and enable new rules in favor of a more sustainable and just society.

First of all, digital data sheds light on the very problems we’re dealing with today. The greenhouse effect could only be discovered with the help of global weather data, sensors to measure concentrations of greenhouse gases and computer models. Data about poverty and its health effects and equal opportunity, for instance, are key to understanding the causes and effects of inequality. Second, on the individual level, this gained “intelligence” can help us to better understand the impact of our own behavior and change it accordingly, by enabling us to compare the emission levels of travelling by train, car or airplane, for example, or by showing the environmental and societal impact of certain types of food or pieces of clothing. In this sense, data “has a will of its own” as it forces us to act on information we did not know before, and might not like knowing. 

These new insights, ideas and norms brought by digital technology will eventually result in actual regulations. Technology could, once again, play a big role in executing and enforcing such regulations. Real-time measurements could, for instance, help limit emissions to regulated levels. More fundamentally, insight into the value chain of consumer goods enables governments to introduce fine-grained taxes based on emissions, pollution, or social harm. These “externalities” are not paid for by the producer or consumer but distributed across society at large. As such, data-driven taxation could contribute to an economy in which consumers pay the true cost of a product, a kind of digital Pigouvian tax. Controversial as it may be, personal carbon allowances for consumers could be enforced by means of dedicated applications that track their behavior and make sure people don’t consume more than they are allowed to.

The digital revolution is also in need of a transition itself

The examples above show the potential of technology in fighting climate change and inequality, but what can we really expect from digital technology? After all, tech has some problems of its own and its contribution to society is thus ambivalent at best. Two problems are central here.

First, the environmental footprint of digital technology is significant and continues to grow as more users start using more and higher-quality services. At face value, the virtualization of all sorts of practices—such as streaming music instead of using plastic CDs and online calls instead of travelling to face-to-face meetings—may be beneficial for the environment. Yet, the question remains whether the net effect is indeed positive. Most virtual practices are cheap and readily available and usage is thus bound to grow further, resulting in increased energy use and growing demand for critical natural resources. There’s no doubt the energy efficiency of data centers will improve, but this will not necessarily make up for increasing use. 

Second, the current workings of the digital economy favor large technology companies that enjoy enormous scale and network effects based on their position in the market and the (user) data they have collected over the years. This means that we, as individual citizens and societies at large, have become rather dependent on their technology and goodwill. Yet, it is hard to imagine that their technology could benefit our common future rather than merely serving their own interests. We could thus argue that we have to break the power of big tech first, before technology can actually have a positive impact on other societal systems. Breaking their power may require public action in the form of antitrust regulation—to break up companies into smaller entities—and policies to regain power over our own data. It could, however, also be the result of users switching to new kinds of service providers that are intrinsically “better” for themselves and society at large.

Indeed, a new generation of internet protocols, such as blockchain and smart contracts, may result in a radical decentral alternative to current business models. If adopted on a large scale, these could allow individual users and (small and medium-sized) businesses to develop and operate their own platforms and services, and, in doing so, help them maintain control over their own data and keep profits for themselves. If neither the regulatory nor this technological route leads to “fixing the internet”, it is hard to imagine how technology could ever help us fix ourselves.

Digital technology can trigger a new Deep Transition

In view of the above, digital technology has the potential to help us save ourselves. Yet, this crucially depends on our collective willingness to use and design technology in such a way that it actually contributes to society as a whole. This means that we must take a radically different approach to this technological revolution than we took to such revolutions in the past. Instead of gearing innovation primarily towards economic growth, we have to place societal interests at the center.

Also, there is no such thing as a purely technological fix to our problems. Along with technological innovation, we will have to engage with institutional innovation to develop a new set of rules for our society and our economy. As noted, these rules cannot be dictated by the current logic of digital technology. This would only lead to further concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few and exponential use of natural resources. Instead, these rules ought to guide us towards a circular and equitable society. This is what we refer to as the process of digital regeneration that should help us break radically with the logic of Industrial Modernity. If we fail to meet these requirements, change will be either limited to a superficial form of ecological modernization or – arguably worse – an acceleration economy along the lines of Industrial Modernity.

The process of digital regeneration can only succeed if we gear innovation towards societal needs instead of focusing on economic growth alone and if a combination of technological and institutional innovation leads to a new set of rules that enforce a more sustainable and just economy and society.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

Sjoerd Bakker is fascinated by the interplay between technology and society, and has studied the role of different actors in the innovation and implementation of new technologies throughout his career. At the thinktank, he is mainly involved in research and consultancy projects for clients, and strategic and thematic research for sister company Dasym. Among other themes, Sjoerd frequently writes and speaks about the power and danger of digital technology, as well as sustainability in both technological and institutional innovation.

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