Debates in Digital Culture 2019/Digital Culture and the Environment

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Introduction[edit]

When discussing the topic of digital culture and the environment three subtopics are worth considering; the global village, digital media consumption, and digital media production. The introduction of digital media has made the world a considerably smaller place, changing the way in which people and society act. This has serious implications when it comes to the environment, creating new problems and solutions. By discussing and analysing how people use and consume media, the current efforts, how seriously people are thinking about the impact of their media consumption, and ways consumers could improve, we can get a better idea of just how much impact digital media consumption has on the environment. It's also important to consider media production. Specifically, looking into the comparison of traditional and digital media production, negative and positive impacts of digital media production, the justification and business approach, and alternative sustainable solutions.

Main Concepts[edit]

How Living in a Global Village Impacts the Planet[edit]

Marshall McLuhan at Cambridge University

The term "Global village" was popularized in the early sixties by Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy[1]. In the book, McLuhan reflects on the impact that print media had on the world when it first became mainstream. Books were our first, and for most of history only, ‘teaching machine’. Today, we have access to all kinds of teaching machines and with the digital world at our fingertips, we can learn anywhere. In his interview "The World is a Global Village"[2], McLuhan talks about the ways in which the world and people are being transformed by media. The world is now a single unit, a 'continually sounding tribal drum’ through which messages spread. As an example, the live news coverage of the attack on the twin towers on September 11th 2001 comes to mind. In this article [3], a journalist recounts his experience of reporting the attack in New York, relaying information and footage via the internet to his boss in the UK. The attack was broadcast to audiences in different countries in real-time making the date 9/11 a universally recognised day of tragedy. Now eighteen years on, the digital space has become much more advanced and instead of exclusively relying on news outlets, we have smartphones in our pockets and access to social media - ready to distribute any 'news' we deem important. This network that connects the globe impacts not just the digital environment, but also the physical environment of the planet. As his work began to develop, McLuhan adopted the term "Global theatre", as he felt it was more descriptive of the ‘surrealist cornucopia’ of American culture that dominated the media space during the 1950s. [4] He claims that other countries have been 'westernised' and have adopted the wasteful and harmful business practices that are prevalent in western culture.

Eco Tourism[edit]

A captive orca performing at SeaWorld San Diego in the mid/late 1960s.

With such a wide audience viewing this global theatre, it's not surprising that places shown in films have become popular tourist attractions. Film has encouraged visitations to specific locations and certain species of animals. The market for ecotourism has increased considerably.
Following the release of the successful Free Willy films, whale and dolphin watching has become the fastest growing sector of the eco-tourism industry. Orcas are now the most recognized and well-known whales by the general public, and this rapid growth has consequently “industrialised the ocean”. Undoubtedly, dolphin and whale watching is leaving a trace. Studies have shown that human interaction with cetaceans can cause short-term changes in the behaviour of these creatures, such as alterations to foraging strategies or reduced maternal care, which in the long term can lead to the displacement from preferred habitats or reduced reproductive success (Blewitt 2008) [5].

The “David Attenborough Effect” perpetuates the ecotourists’ expectations of close encounters with wild animals. David Attenborough offers “closeness to nature”, but his documentaries fail to detail the months or years of research into a particular population of animals and the hours of filming required to “get the shot”. Consequently, his documentaries can convey the wrong message of wild animals and their willingness to connect with humans in non-threatening ways. One can argue that the David Attenborough Effect has influenced even captive animal viewing, and has created unreasonable expectations of viewing animals in close proximity, which the ecotourist seeks and expects when wildlife viewing (Wearing et.al 2011) [6].

Social Media Companies, Their Environmental Goals and Their Current Impact on the Environment[edit]

Facebook Data Center

When discussing social media and its environmental impact, it is crucial that we assess the actions of companies such as Facebook and Twitter, and judge them on how effective their attempts at sustainability have been. Articles such as [7] highlight the enormous environmental impact top digital companies have. Amongst other things, it was revealed that Google's CO2 emissions in 2010 were significantly higher compared to the likes of Facebook, with "Facebook emitting 285,000 metric tons of CO2 whilst Google's annual emissions were 1.5M metric tons of CO2". This was followed up by a statement from Facebook headquarters revealing the construction of a large Data centre in Sweden, with the cold temperatures helping to reduce energy consumption in the process of cooling the data servers. What can be taken away from this article is that digital companies are somewhat environmentally conscious and actions are being undertaken to maintain their services without damaging the environment. Another source found that the effects of Facebook CO2 on an individual level are rather small each year [8] However, "It’s estimated that by 2021, there will be 3.02 billion users of social media." That’s 41% of the world’s population. Facebook claims that each user emits an average of 299g of CO2 per year. Not bad. But for 3.02 billion users? The numbers add up quickly, especially keeping in mind that facebook's user base will likely keep growing far beyond 2021.

Data Centers – the Production of Media and Their Impact on the Environment[edit]

Because we are part of an ever-advancing civilization, we have to deal with ever-increasing data volumes being processed, stored, and accessed. This results in growing energy demands as to keep Data Centres alive. [9]. When thinking about electricity usage and energy efficiency, Data Centres are a huge concern as they need to be in constant operation, as can be seen in this video Inside a Google Data Center. Data centres are needed for the dissemination and production of digital media services, data transfer, film and video streaming, communication, cloud based storage. "In order to provide reliable and scalable computing infrastructure, the high network capacity of data centres is especially provisioned […] thus use a huge amount of energy (Zhang & Ansari 2013)[10] servers, storage and communication equipment, and power distribution infrastructure and cooling infrastructure are the three main contributors to power usage of data centers". Technology company [Google LLC] and leading data centre manager has recently announced the shut down of consumer Google+ for April 2nd, 2019. As a result, all content, including Photos and videos from Google+'s Album Archive and Google+ pages, will be deleted. However, some Data Centers are able to operate on an efficient level such as the ones based in Iceland Landsvirkjun-Iceland Data Center. As part of a concerted effort to reduce emissions and cause less damage to the environment, Google was awarded a multi-site certification employing greener and more efficient sources of energy.

Media Consumption and its Impact on the Environment[edit]

How People Use and Consume Media and How That Affects the Environment[edit]

Consumption of electronics is becoming inevitable and combatting negative environmental impacts more insurmountable than ever.

Ever since the invention of TV and smartphones, people have been able to consume digital media faster and more readily than ever before. Whereas the spreading notion of Information society allows us to be more connected and involved through digital media, there is a price that comes with that. In their article, Chandaria, Hunter, and Williams (2011) note that "(...) a 2007 study for Ofcom (Forster et al.) estimated that television and related peripherals account for around 1.8% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions". [11] Although that study was conducted in 2007, it can only be assumed that those numbers have increased alongside the growing interaction with digital culture. In their work, Sui and Rejeski (2002) write that "(...) the Internet is responsible for one-half to two-thirds of all growth in the U.S. electricity demand in the last decade. For every 2000 kilobytes of data moving on the Internet, the amount of energy obtained from burning a pound of coal is needed to create the necessary kilowatt-hours." [12] In fact, a lot of the environmental issues associated with digital culture stem from the energy use of technology, and not only on the individual consumer level - server warehouses, mostly immaterial to consumers, took up to 2.2% of the total energy supply of the US in 2010 and numbers are estimated to double every five years (Maxwell et al. 2012)[13].

A view intangible for many people living in information societies.

Not only does digital media consumption require increasing amounts of energy, but the gadgets themselves also provide another burden on the environment. Consumer behaviour is highly influenced by business models that encourage decreasing device lifespans and increasing online content interaction. As networks keep creating activities that increase time spent online and the number of coinciding user interactions, they further impede the environmental benefits of "dematerialisation" (Wood et al. 2014)[14]. The Office for National Statistics (UK) reports a significant increase in interaction with online newspapers and magazines [15]. Accordingly, Salesforce Research outlines a decrease in printed material consumption worldwide[16]. Furthermore, with devices such as televisions, computers and mobile phones being replaced on average every two to ten years (Robinson, 2009[17]; Statista, 2019)[18], leads information societies to produce incomprehensible amounts of E-waste.

Regardless of consumer efforts to recycle, countries often bypass recycling regulations for E-waste due to high labour costs and lack of facilities (Robinson 2009)[19]. It has been reported that up to 90% of the world's early electronic waste, which is estimated to add up to 20-25 million tonnes, is illegally dumped [20] in countries where recycling techniques disregard the protection of the environment [21]. Yet, information regarding the recycling of these materials often fails to reach the everyday consumer.

Current Efforts Surrounding Digital Media Consumption[edit]

It appears that consumers don't consciously think about the environmental impacts of consuming digital media. This is relevant because of the ongoing shift from traditional print media to digital libraries which use up lots of energy. Meanwhile, the demand for technology and especially their ownership in the era of developing information society is increasing. The everyday consumer seems to have very little faith in the potential of an increasing technology to possibly have a positive environmental effect[22]. In his research, Chowdhury (2012) found that "Many recent studies show increasing interests in the use of specific types of digital information products(...) It is estimated that ICT’s [information and communication technologies] own sector footprint currently stands at 2 percent of global emissions and it will almost double by 2020 (The Climate Group, 2008). [23] This is concerning and further highlights how little consumers think or know about the consequences or their consumption.

Meanwhile, news and media networks work hard to meet energy demands without having to sacrifice the impact on nature[24]. An increased awareness of the environmental impacts of technology usage and media consumption has the potential to drive the development of more efficient and sustainable uses of technologies. As the Internet of Things (IoT) is more and more becoming a part of our everyday lives, its increasing energy consumption is an active concern. However, as recent discussions point out, the IoT also has the potential to further develop functions that contribute to more sustainable technology usage. For example, sensing technologies can provide functions to adapt to changes in the environment and help with the distribution of resources. We currently employ cars that turn off when stopping at a red light and lights that turn off when there is no movement detected in order to increase sustainability. Such functions have the potential to offer energy savings of up to 10-15% by managing user behaviour [25]. As user behaviour seems to be a significant determinant of the energy consumed as well as the GHG emissions produced, it is crucial to encourage changes on a practical level [26]. However, only minimal changes are predicted regarding reducing data intensity and reducing demands on users' devices [27].

To encourage consumers to overthink their consumption habits, it is vital to expose them to the detrimental effects their choices have on the environment e.g. e-waste landfills in Africa[28]. Because consumption usually doesn't affect the consumers' immediate environment there can be dissociation. However, if consumers were better able to see and comprehend the environmental effects of their choices have, they might be more likely to make environmentally friendly decisions.

SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM YES NO
Instagram 24% (10 votes) 76% (32 votes)
Facebook 29% (6 votes) 71% (15 votes)
Table 1. Poll conducted on Instagram and Facebook asking whether a person considers themselves to be informed/aware of the environmental impacts of their digital media use

Solutions for Sustainable Consumption[edit]

A generic Google search that billions of users conduct every day and consequently uses just as much energy.

Fighting ignorance is detrimental to get consumers to actively consider their effects on the environment. Digital media's status as the eco-friendly, paperless option to its predecessors has recently been contested due to the incredible amount of power it requires to be sustained. According to Chowdhury (2012), "(...) even on a conservative estimate, one billion grams or 1,000 tonnes of CO2 is emitted only for Google search every day". [29] Digital media is ever growing and while it uses its own share of resources, ways to mobilise it in monitoring carbon footprint have been discovered.

In the age of climate crisis, utilising IoT in energy production, city infrastructure, transport, agriculture and urban housing has the potential to lower carbon emissions through pollution tracking and effective communication between manufacturers and devices [30]. This is applicable both on industry and grassroot level. In the 'Global e-Sustainability Initiative and Accenture Strategy' study #SMARTer2030 [31] the concept of smart buildings is discussed as a way for individuals to track the energy consumption of their home. Smart buildings are implemented with monitors, automation systems and meters that forward data on energy use to the user’s smart device. Embedding houses into the smart grid network can lower users’ bills and help integrate renewable energy sources. The European Union is currently aiming to install smart meters in 80% of households by 2020. [32]

A Nest thermostat that reports energy usage is an example of a smart home feature

Monitoring consumption is a part of the way digital media promotes environmentally conscious behaviour. Spreading environmental awareness has been proposed to be a key factor in endorsing pro-environmentalism and environmental groups have taken to social media to spread information on current issues. However, social media can be harnessed beyond raising awareness - Zapico et al. (2009) find that social ICT applications can be used to persuade users into adjusting their behaviour to be more ecological. This happens not just through real-time feedback on the users' carbon footprint, but through social comparison and monitoring by others.[33] This is supported by Kaur and Chalal [34] who also found that the comparative powers of social media endorses pro-environmental behaviour over other types of media, which should be taken into account in future green ICT application design.

Media Production and Impact on the Environment[edit]

Living in a weightless Society

Because we live in a world dominated by media and new technology, we are described by some as living in a ‘Weightless Society’- a society having been de-materialised through digitalisation.[35] However, just because it is 'weightless', doesn't mean that our economy is sustainable - some experts go as far as stating that the use of modern-day technology may be more damaging than e.g. the overuse of paper and other materials which are known to put a strain on our planet's natural resources. For example, despite not being able to blatantly see the damage caused, in order to produce and consume media, whole ecosystems are being torn apart so that we can tweet, make Instagram posts or share our location on Facebook. These small actions only take seconds, which is why people seem to fail to grasp the scope of them. However, the causes are detrimental to landscapes, the people who inhabit them and their culture. Moreover, overexposure to media might further disconnect us, decreasing social interaction and even emotional development as we become consumed by the social bubbles within our smartphone.

Aaron Paul on the set of Breaking Bad - which features many SFX

How the Production of Film Impacts the Environment[edit]

Film lighting powered by generators on the set of 'Your Money or Your Life' by Jean-Pierre Mocky (1966)

Film and television production has been known to negatively impact on the environment. Filming often requires access to remote locations which are often harmed during the filming process. For example, film sets are known to pollute the environment around them through special effects, stunts, and even the lavish lifestyles of those on set. Like most large corporations and projects, the trail of a carbon footprint can begin from administration all the way up to the editing room. A prime example of this is the production of the film Mad Max: Fury Road. An article by Wired notes that: "(...) parts of the desert until now untouched by vehicles had been driven over, leaving tracks -- in one area a "ploughing device" had been used.[36] Even worse, to try and level the tracks as they left, the crew had dragged nets across the ground, ripping out small plants." An Article by Kaleem Aftab explores the pollution and environmental damage caused by film sets: "From the generators to the caterers delivering food onto set, making a film eats up energy like no other art form."[37] Aftab states that, despite the endeavours of stars, directors, and companies to highlight green issues, they would be better shifting their focus to the movie industry itself. With the article now being over a decade old the longevity of the problem is highlighted and, considering the recent boom of the industry and the growth of film as a medium, one can only assume that circumstances must have worsened since then. Maxwell and Miller discuss this concern in their book ‘Greening the Media’. They explain that to this day, it is mostly traditional pollutants such as energy which are the problem: “In California, as a whole, film— and television-related energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) are about the same as those produced by aerospace and semiconductor industries.” [38]

Current Efforts[edit]

Some directors are already paving the way forward: Aftab cites Roland Emmerich, director of the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, a natural-disaster movie which explores global warming as a cause of environmental disasters. Emmerich "sought to ensure that production wouldn't contribute to global warming by offsetting the carbon footprint of the film and by taking measures to reduce its environmental impact." To ensure this goal was met, Emmerich paid out of his own pockets and further encouraged his agents, UTA, to become carbon neutral. This is uncommon for a director to do: as Aftab states, such measures usually rely on directors or authority figures making demands. Aftab also shares a variety of possible ways in which the film industry could change to become more sustainable, highlighting that there are viable options to ensure a greener film set: Opting not to use cine-film, lights which don't rely on generators, as well as to recycle, using local restaurants and reducing crew sizes are all steps in the right direction. However, it's currently up to directors and producers to push for these changes.

Conclusion[edit]

Overall, when we discuss digital culture and the environment, topics such as the 'global village', 'media consumption' and 'media productions' impacts on the environment' are just a few of the many important aspects worth considering within this debate. Regarding this discussion, it's important to note the ways in which people use and consume media, the current efforts utilised to combat related issues and how individually and globally, efforts can be made to reduce digital pollution and e-waste. There are an abundance of examples as well as academic research exposing the harsh reality of e-waste. Awareness surrounding the point in question is becoming ever more important, but in a world where governments and corporations often turn a blind eye, the question of responsibility needs to be re-evaluated. After all, it is no less than the future of our planet which lies in the smartphones in our palms and behind the silver screens of tablets and TV's.

References[edit]

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