Chapter 01 - The invisible consequences of our digital lives
The invisible consequences of our digital lives
Our modern lives are increasingly digitized – furthering connection, aiding our work, and offering new perspectives. Digitalization is a core driver for a sustainable future but pollution from the data economy is ever-increasing. The digital impact is hidden to the human eye, making it difficult to fully envision the scope of digital technology’s effects on humans, society, and the planet. More attention need be given to digital technologies, and how they can contribute positively, both socially and environmentally.
The veil of digital impact
Digital society has grown into a machine too complex to fully comprehend. Digital development has been treated in isolation, ignoring wide-ranging implications for society, and discussion regarding a sustainable digital transition is still very much in development. Danes are aware that their general actions affect the sustainable transition of society, but they don’t know their digital behavior is a critical component for sustainable change.
In other areas Danes do consider sustainability matters, such as transportation, grocery shopping, and energy consumption. The number of electric vehicles sold is rising , the share of organic products sold is rising , and people are more willing to sort their waste . But when it comes to the digital sphere, knowledge and focus are lacking. Advice’s survey shows that Danes generally don’t reflect on sustainable or unsustainable effects of digital technologies. 83% of Danes state they can’t comprehend how digitalization affects society, and 66% do not consider sustainability as a parameter when they download and use apps.
52% of danes are aware that their digital behaviour has an impact on society. 78% find it difficult to understand how and why.
Modern life is embedded in digital technology. 98% of Danish residents use the internet, and 90% use the internet daily . Young people spend more than five hours on social media daily . Our social lives and our digital behavior are intertwined, and the distinction between the two is often invisible. Communication, shopping, social life, and work takes place online.
Nonetheless, the digital revolution brings about challenges that are rarely part of public conversation.
"Digital products are a big help in our everyday life where efficiency is important"
Respondent in survey
33 pct. of the 16-89 years old population use smart home-products.Share this fact
Welfare technologies have become more widespread. 12% of the population has used welfare technological services in 2020.Share this fact
Four out of five citizens shop online.Share this fact
Technology is transgressive. Often, we’ve seen that while technology in one part of the world is used for good, in other parts it is being used for bad. Look at the platforms from biggest tech companies. Their technology allows us to communicate, to exchange views, give unprecedented access to information and voice to the voiceless. But critical side effects of their solutions are harming the well-being of young people, disrupting the democratic conversation, and challenging decent working conditions. These differences globally on the role of technology is increasingly playing out in a bifurcated manner where we witness big clashes between East and West when it comes to freedom of speech, biometrics and facial recognition.
Anne-Marie Engtoft LarsenDenmark’s tech ambassador in Silicon Valley
To this day, the world has seen multiple divides in attitudes between East and West regarding new opportunities that the digital transition supports. Approaches to the use of facial recognition, new forms of digital assembly, or freedom of speech in the digital realm differ vastly across nations. There are multiple instances of government intervention – in Russia, China, and the Philippines – taking advantage of biases and excluding mechanisms to suppress their populations. Digital platforms also open possibilities for ‘gig’ work, which adds a sense of freedom to the individual’s life but challenges our collective agreements and social security schemes. Digital platforms affect people on multiple personal levels. Our mental health is challenged when the algorithms are optimized for length of use, and studies show many algorithms contribute to sustaining bias based on gender, age, and ethnicity . Meanwhile recent studies suggest reducing recreational digital screen use improves adults' well-being and mood .
The digital transition has an enormous impact on our everyday lives. But as societies, and as individuals, we are ill-equipped to handle digitalization in a way that complements our ability to live healthy and sustainable lives.
"Technology creates new habits that don’t necessarily benefit us"
Respondent in survey
The invisible pollutor
We rely on digital technologies to solve some of the world’s biggest problems - climate change and resource scarcity. But as our digital consumption increases worldwide, the need to act on the environmental impact of digitalization becomes more pressing.
Danes are digital optimists when it comes to combatting climate change and environmental deprivation. 19% think future digital technologies will worsen the current climate and environmental challenges; 43% think they will have a positive impact on climate and environment overall.
New technologies and big data environments are not free from greenhouse gas emissions. Digital activity relies on an enormous quantity of energy, and the environmental effects should not be overlooked. Currently, there is a lack of transparency surrounding new digital technologies, such as the carbon footprint from data storage, or the environmental damage caused by materials used in phones, tablets, computers, and other hardware. The environmental impact will continue to rise as more citizens gain access to digital services and devices, and extremely polluting technologies such as streaming and blockchain technology gain even more momentum.
The full environmental impact of our digital behavior is largely invisible. It is easier to conceive of negative effects when we can see the results of certain actions – oil floating in the ocean, plastic littering public spaces, car exhaust, and rising temperatures. And so, we are subject to an optical illusion, because algorithms and data are invisible and therefore difficult to grasp. But the population is invested. 69% of Danish residents agree that technological inventions are essential for the sustainable transition, while 51% of the population are convinced their actions in relation to digital technologies matter for society.
As societies, companies, and individuals, we need to understand the mechanics of new digital technologies in order to pursue optimal solutions. While certain digital technologies contribute to negative environmental effects, these technologies also lead to new sustainable, often circular business models.
More attention should be brought to the ways digital technologies can contribute positively to the green transition – whether it’s by integrating low impact design in the digital solutions or by rethinking digital business models entirely.
Only 18% of the Danish population believe tech, software, and data industries are doing enough to enhance sustainability. This puts them below the fashion industry (30%), and at par with the finance and culture industries (15% and 19%, respectively).
Data pollution as a concept means that big data-environments have adverse impacts on our personal, social, and natural environments at the same time. We have had policy and public debates on the privacy and social implications of big data since the early 2000s, however, there is very little awareness about data pollution as an ‘environmental problem’ or as a disturbance of an entire ‘eco system’. What we need is a new green movement for data pollution.
Gry HasselbalchPhD in data ethics and co-founder of DataEthics
In 2021, our digital lives constituted appr. 4% of the total global CO2-emissions. That is more than the entire aviation industry.Share this fact
One hour of video streaming corresponds to driving 2-3 kilometers in car.Share this fact
A Bitcoin-transaction uses 834.000 times more energy to complete than a regular transaction of money.Share this fact
The amount of data has increased more than 30 times since 2010.Share this fact
If every online gamer in Denmark spends 7 hours a week on gaming, it corresponds to 3,2% of Denmark’s total CO2-emissions.Share this fact
Circular economy is essential for making production and consumption more sustainable, and managing waste. Data and digital solutions, can play an important role in supporting a transition to a circular economy. For example AI can be used to improve design processes, while blockchain can be used to improve information transfer about materials and products within value chains. Solutions like IoT and 3D printing can also offer interesting prospects for reuse and repair. However, digitalization can become a sustainable enabler for circular economy only if also its own climate and environmental footprint is addressed.
Annika HedbergHead of Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme, European Policy Centre
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Humans at the helm
The digital value compassNavigating towards a new digital paradigm
We have identified a set of nine values needed for developing a truly sustainable digital society. These values constitute a value compass, which companies, organizations, politicians, and citizens can use to navigate towards a more sustainable digital future.