SOCIETY | Dec 18, 2019

About sustainability, technologies and the reversal of cause and effect

What is digital sustainability and why should it not be confused with sustainable technology?

Sustainability has for some time now become a topic on the agenda. Something that, wishing to be optimistic, means that it is finally being given the space it deserves, and to be pessimistic, is an elegant way of saying that it’s now fashionable. Having become a topic on the agenda means that everyone, but everyone indeed, has started to talk about it. And it’s a bit like football matches, each of us – at least one day a week – thinks they are the best coach of the team they support. Only to move on to something else the next day. And within this trend, which is certainly not born with social media but which finds a fertile breeding ground in social media, it is particularly interesting to look at what happens when an agenda (or fashion) topic intersects with another agenda (or fashion) topic, which is that of digital technologies.

Because where it is true that everyone can be an expert in sustainability for a day, it is equally true that everyone – as regards the digital world – has the famous cousin who is an expert. And so, speaking of sustainability and digital technology, here’s something wonderful: ranks of sustainability experts for one day discuss its role in relation to technologies, interweaving learned speeches with platoons of expert cousins.

The results of this process can be devastating, but there are four most significant effects.

The retreat of the experts

It’s inevitable: lower the level of the debate and those who have a bit of expertise in one area will tend to give up on it. The problem is that when there are two sectors – in this case sustainability and digital transformation – it is unlikely that those who are competent are so in both areas. But because of a fatal consequence of the Dunning-Kruger effect few will actually realize this. And the result is that we will see a feast of improvised hybrid experts. That is, competent in one field (usually the digital one, hoping that it’s not the notorious cousins) who will improvise as experts in the other (that of sustainability). With an immediate outcome and a consequent result: the consequence is that even the “most expert” experts of Digital Transformation (and therefore not just their cousins) run the real risk of saying “rubbish ” when talking about sustainability. And the consequent result is that the sustainability experts will notice this rubbish and, will consider, on the whole, the expert of Digital Transformation unreliable, and the issues he is dealing with inapplicable. The overall result is that sustainability experts will move away from digital issues, thus losing opportunities and not taking advantage of its various possibilities. Or, something which is almost worse, in symmetry with those involved in Digital Transformation who trespass into sustainability, they will think they can overstep into Digital Transformation, finding themselves at best at having to reinvent hot water and at worst, at also getting burnt.

Repetition compulsion

According to the dictionary of medicine of the encyclopedia Treccani, the repetition compulsion is the “incoercible tendency, completely unconscious, to place oneself in pathetic or painful situations, without realizing having actively set these up, nor the fact that it is the repetition of old experiences”. In our case, this translates into the irrepressible tendency to always start from scratch when problems arise regarding the impact of technology on society. When someone invented the loom, learned economists debated its role in destroying jobs as they did in the century after with computer science, and in the subsequent millennium with Artificial Intelligence. Never has anyone wondered whether the fact that for hundreds of years we have been asking ourselves the same questions without ever finding answers, may be due to the fact that it is the questions which are wrong, or at least badly put. And so, no matter how harmful that may be, every time we start over. And we are going to do it again today with sustainability, with legions of experts saying that technology moves away from social, economic and environmental sustainability paradigms, and similar but opposing factions claiming the opposite.

The tendency to hyper-complexity

The repetition compulsion is emphasized by the fact that, partly to dress up a bit and partly to justify one’s existence, these experts – whatever their field – have an insane tendency to make simple things complex. Take the theme of Artificial Intelligence as an example. Judging by the level of the current debate, it really seems that someone expects to go down into the street and find Asimov’s robots walking around from one day to the next. If the topic isn’t well contextualized, talking about the ethics of Artificial Intelligence, on balance will look a bit too dangerously like talking about the ethics of a microwave oven. Which, of course, does not mean that it is not necessary to pose ethical problems in relation to the development of technologies. But shifting the focus of the debate to technology is not only methodologically incorrect, but also dangerous. Because it leads, among other things, to a real inversion of the relationship of cause and effect.

The inversion of the cause and effect relationship

Ethics of Artificial Intelligence? Good. Then we also need the ethics of the hoe. Or at least, we would need this should the hoe be given its dignity as an individual, when today it is – and has to be – an object, and therefore an instrument. By dint of constantly discussing the impacts and consequences of technology, we risk losing sight of the fact that it is an object, and not an individual in relation to the aims we have.

The concrete result when talking about sustainability? The concept of digital sustainability, which represents the way in which technology can be used to build models of sustainable development, is confused with that of sustainable technology, which at most recalls green data centers. The current debate on the relationship between technology and sustainability – just do a Google search to see this – is the plastic manifestation of the reversal of the cause and effect relationship on the role of digital technology. Instead of wondering how to use technologies as a tool for sustainability, one wonders how sustainable technologies are. A question which is legitimate, certainly, and appropriate. But one which should not be confused with the main topic. Because reducing the meaning of digital sustainability to that of sustainable technology means asking oneself about the sustainability of the process of manufacturing an instrument rather than about the possibilities that this instrument enables. As if to say that a medicine is evaluated by its production cost, and not by the result it produces when taken by the patient.

Stefano Epifani