Last year we devoted much attention during our Green Web Foundation Fellowship to explore how education can help shape more just climate narratives that others will feel compelled to attain.1 We started with the premise that the climate crisis is not only a technical one to assess only through carbon emissions. It is also an existential one that brings up questions about our purpose as humanity and our relationship with nature.
Over the past months, I talked to friends and colleagues from El Salvador working in tech. I asked them if they knew the environmental consequences of their work and noticed that many of them followed similar elements in their career paths:
- Their work consists of specialized services such as computer programming or graphic design provided to companies overseas based in the Global North.
- They work primarily as contractors and believe that their decision power is limited. At the same time, their skills are highly specialized and make decisions over important aspects of the organizations’ business models.
- They have seldomly considered that their work has any environmental impact, or follows the requirements set by their companies or international regulations.
When researching the subject, I realized that it wasn’t just my perception: organizations from the Global North are increasingly hiring highly-specialized workers from developing countries as a way to cut operation costs,2,3 and perhaps unwittingly, to reduce corporate emissions, since this means that fewer workers are coming to an office and fewer offices are built, etc. I thought it was ironic to think of how now these individuals from the Global South, many of them highly specialized, are making critical decisions about the same technologies and services that are driving the environmental impacts in their own communities.
Digital systems are an increasingly important element in this mix because history is also happening in the digital realm while also enabling the devastation of natural resources and climate change. Given the fact that these digital systems exist for the purpose of managing information, the question of openness lies at the heart of the discussion: how we share knowledge shapes our narratives around digital sustainability. We must ask ourselves how we should view openness through a climate lens in an age of unrestrained technological growth.
This article expresses three areas in which openness can influence digital sustainability: the creation of personal consciousness and worldview, the collective and perpetual process of critical thinking, and the actions upon our reality that these dialogues can spark.
Our digital-planetary worldview
The philosopher Vilém Flusser wrote an essay in the 1980s about photography, suggesting that images detach us not only from the material world but also from history. To Flusser, this process of alienation happens because the meaning of an image resides solely on its surface as we stare at it, separating it from its context.4 With this in mind, it makes sense that an implication of new technologies is that it displaces our relationships with the physical world as we bring more aspects of our life into the digital. This idea may not be surprising, as this is how we experience art and other forms of human expression. The difference is that, although we know that digital systems aren’t digital all the way down, as our narratives dwell in a digital world, there are material consequences in practice.5 Yet, we find them hard to grasp coherently. In our post-truth world, this explains why people use songs about how the digital age is our doom for advertising said doom.6
Asking questions about technology and sustainability is a challenge of balancing what we know with what we do not. For instance, we know enough about digital technologies to understand the consequences of humanity’s digital development. Still, at the same time, we must deal with incomplete data and many unknowns, which might be common in other areas of knowledge. This feels very out of place for digital technologies as some sort of digital scientism: we are convinced that digital systems should be able to know and measure everything, even themselves.
Knowing about digital technologies is necessary to understand how they work and their environmental implications, but knowing how we relate to them as individuals can help us make sense of it from a critical perspective. It allows us to understand their extent and impact, both personally and collectively. When considering what we should see as necessary at a planetary and personal level, transparency and openness are essential. However, this is not always the case for digital services, because are concealed under intellectual property laws or secretive practices.
Furthermore, a digital division of labor detaches us from a sense of purpose and meaning. For the digital gig economy, this is especially true in a practical sense, where technical decisions impact the business models directly. Still, the lack of permanence and human interactions can create powerlessness. My premise, in this case, is that awareness of the effects of a person’s technical decisions on the local environment is essential to reconnect them with a sense of personhood, history, and the notion of territory.
Nurturing a collective narrative
As a result of this exploration, I am currently developing a digital sustainability syllabus for tech workers who are part of the gig economy, especially those living in developing countries.7 My premise is that bridging the knowledge gap that the gig economy creates (territorial, the digital-material divide, and the lack of solid organizational ties) will help individuals obtain the tools necessary for critical thinking on the subjects of digital sustainability in their settings. However, as I explored the information and tools available online, I concluded that we need open resources that help develop critical thinking instead of relying solely on data.
How we interact with the environment and our sense of urgency are based not only on what we know but on our worldview lenses, or in other words, how we process this knowledge. For example, I realized this in my experience: about 64% of the energy we use in El Salvador comes from renewable sources,8 compared to 20% in Europe. And at the same time, it is clear that while developed nations produce more carbon emissions, developing countries are the ones most affected by climate change.9 This information led me to understand some of my attitudes towards the climate movement and is also helping me think of ways to address these issues with my peers. The worldview lenses can lead us to different conclusions about what is essential in enabling climate justice.
Our fellowship cohort discussed many of the Paulo Freire on critical education, based on bringing together a constructive dialogue between oppressors and oppressed in a process of liberation. This process can be brought to the aspects of digital technologies10 as our life becomes increasingly driven by digital tools. By doing so, we may find that the sustainability of digital systems is an area where these dichotomies play out in curious ways. For example, we see how climate change is bridging the North-South gap in vulnerability, with many regions in the Global North suffering its effects more commonly at an unexpected rate. We also see that access to technology, especially thanks to open source licenses and tools, empowers people in communities worldwide. These commonalities between power and despair create important spaces where critical dialogues can emerge.
During our fellowship, I found many obstacles as I searched for answers to my questions about the overwhelming complexity of the Internet as a material and immaterial system. It was not because said information was not available, but because I found myself not only looking for facts but for narratives that would make sense to me and for people in the gig economy, especially those who engage with technology yet feel disengaged with the result of their efforts. By learning about technologies and their profound impact on societies and nature, we can come to different conclusions about them. This is why openness is important: accessing knowledge and gaining the skills to act upon our reality is key to forming a worldview. For this reason, considering the facets of our digital persona in this process and ensuring that our digital rights are protected is an important task for open movement. Humanizing is a key to understanding other facets of planetary responsibility.
As a consequence of this, disinformation is also a significant issue to overcome. The problem does not only lie in finding relevant data but in how it is used to shape narratives, and protect our worldviews, and those who are more vulnerable to being bombarded with information. Humans are compelled by stories, which is why we are targeted by fake news and overwhelmed by excessive amounts of information. The open movement has come a long way in the past couple of decades in enabling global access to knowledge and collaboration, but the next hurdle to overcome is ensuring that people can use information in a way that is critical and beneficial in the construction of worldviews and the shaping of their environments. A critical view of openness must ask how accessible knowledge can help personas shape and benefit our environment.
The process of communicating climate data will create a lasting impact when we create spaces for individuals to struggle with information. The open movement will allow this by not only making knowledge accessible but by translating and adapting information, making it accessible, and encouraging others to participate in creating knowledge. In a way, climate change is teaching us that openness must move from a model where information lives in a museum to one where it can be brought to the street and adapted inside the communities that will use it.
A key to critical action
It might sound overboard to ask whether it is possible or not for a coder, by clicking their computer keyboard keys, to generate a hurricane in another part of the world. Still, these are the types of questions that will help us ask about the material origins of the minerals used for making digital hardware, the energy sources that power the Internet, and what are the physical consequences of the digital services we create and use. Openness plays an essential role in making this information available to anyone of us ready to ask these questions, to help them understand its consequences, to draw personal conclusions about our place in history, and to encourage us to interfere with reality. This means that aspects and values around openness as a movement must rally beyond an intellectual purpose.
E.F. Schumacher pointed out that there are two main camps in the discussion about the impact of technologies on society11 (although, admittedly, there are a few more). The first one claims that technologies will “find a way” to solve the problems it is generating and ask societies to be patient while these come. The other camp states that the direction of scientific effort must significantly change if we expect different results that can avert irreversible planetary disasters. This includes climate change. Openness is key to this change, not only because it relates to how we manage information but because access to knowledge can shift a person’s attitude towards the state of the world; this can lead to toppling power structures and enabling a more sustainable future. The discussion about openness and transparency as values in digital principles, policies, and good practices is relevant because it means effectively viewing our material reality.
Over the past years, the open movement was key in creating a global discussion about how we viewed and shared knowledge that led to protecting the right to share and embracing open licenses, despite an unforgiving intellectual property system. What made this possible was not the theory behind open licenses but the action of a committed community. The open movement is not static and is currently moving towards influencing societies in many action areas. Some are in the realm of practice: how we build artefacts, perform scientific research, and develop digital services alongside better principles of sustainable development.
We act critically and become agents of change by co-creating with users, y influencing our peers and employers, and showing good examples to policymakers. Radical openness towards digital sustainability might look like good documentation with a section on digital footprints and design principles,12 maintenance and repair programs for hardware and software, projects to extend the life of products, well-organized source code, or even a sustainable business model. Many of these things already exist as successful projects that are part of the open movement; we need to bring them under a lens that enables critical thinking for actors involved, old and new, with climate change as a priority.
Openness, technology, and ideology
The open movement was born under the pretense of creating a more just culture through a cultural theory of copyright, stating that “in this world, all persons would enjoy both some degree of financial independence and considerable responsibility in shaping their local social and economic environment”.13 This was a drastic change from a view of creativity that aims to generate resources as a measure of welfare to one that viewed knowledge as subservient to the fulfillment of the basic needs of society.
A similar development was brought up by Enrique Dussel when he pointed out that we tend to talk about technology by using ideological languages that relate to humanity’s basic needs. For Dussel, this language serves to understand whether our use of technologies to fulfill basic needs conflicts with profitability as the main criteria and how it affects the environment in underdeveloped nations.14
Both views aimed to move from a view where both knowledge and technologies serve to create wealth to one where societies can thrive. Knowledge and technologies are elements that shift toward power imbalances yet simultaneously create interdependence among individuals;15 for this reason, the digital sustainability lens brings a slightly different approach to the question of a thriving society. Digital services operate globally, and so do the individuals whose intellectual effort helps shape the Internet. These are questions that working with the tech community in developing countries can help us answer, taking advantage of spaces enabled by openness.
About the Author
Emilio Velis is the Executive Director of the Appropedia Foundation. He focuses on applying open principles for impact in areas such as sustainability and international development.
- Berg, J., Hilal, A., El, S., Horne, R., & others. (2021). World employment and social outlook: Trends 2021. International Labour Organization, 282.
- Iyer, N. (2021, August 31). Remote work risks exploiting workers in low-income countries. Quartz Africa. https://qz.com/africa/2053741/remote-work-risks-exploiting-workers-in-low-income-countries/
- Flusser, V. (2013). Towards A Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books.
- Sacasas, L. M. (2021, August 12). The Materiality of Digital Culture. Comment Magazine. https://comment.org/the-materiality-of-digital-culture/
- Velis, E. [@emilio]. (2022, May 20). Is’t Virtual Insanity about how much the digital future sucks? Https://t.co/xZ65EUBKUn [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/emilio/status/1527632202221199361
- Velis, E. (2022). Digital sustainability guide for tech practitioners. Appropedia: The Sustainability Wiki. https://www.appropedia.org/Digital_sustainability_guide_for_tech_practitioners
- IRENA. (2020). Renewables Readiness Assessment: El Salvador. International Renewable Energy Agency; 978-92-9260-293-2.
- The Center for Effective Global Action. (2020, November 21). Evidence to Action 2020: Climate Change and the Global South. CEGA. https://medium.com/center-for-effective-global-action/evidence-to-action-2020-climate-change-and-the-global-south-792b643b2ee0
- Srinivasan, Ramesh (2006). Where Information Society and Community Voice Intersect. The Information Society, 22(5), 355–365. doi:10.1080/01972240600904324
- Schumacher, E. F. (1972, February). The Economics of Permanence. Undercurrents, 01, 49–54.
- Van Amstel, F., Gonzatto, R. F., Junges, E., Costa, R., Veloso, D., da Cruz Costa, K., Marins, P., Giuliano, R., Chuves, V., Fuchs, F., Ferraz, G., & Rückert, A. (2012). Diseño Libre (E. Velis, P. Álvarez, J. Soto Galindo, S. Henríquez, I. Sol, R. Flores, S. Burgos, & D. Palacios, Trans.; 1st ed.). Instituto Faber-Ludens. https://dubsnipe.github.io/disenolibre/
- Fisher, W. (2001). Theories of intellectual property: New essays in the legal and political theory of property. New Essays in the Legal and Political Theory of Property. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- World Council of Churches Commission on the Churches’ Participation in Development & Association of Third World Economists. (1979). Tecnología y necesidades básicas. Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana.
- Villota Enríquez, J. A., & Ogécime, M. (2019). Os Contornos Da Sociedade Da Informação: Entre Informação, Tecnologia E Poder-Tecnología, sociedad y educación: Desafíos de las Tic en el desarrollo social y sus implicaciones en la práctica educativa. Editorial Universidad Santiago de Cali.