INTEGRATING THE CRITIQUE OF THE DIGITAL INTO THE ECOLOGY

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Since the summer of 2018, protests in response to the ongoing environmental disaster show the rising level of concern. Thousands of people regularly take to the streets to express their anger at the damage. Ecology, globally reduced to climate, gets

more space in the media and public debates. In Belgium, in the November 2018 communal elections, the Ecolo party is enjoying great success. The Prime Minister even saw a conspiracy: the media coverage of global warming would have served the Ecolo party («  When the RTBF opens its 7:30 p.m. news on Saturday on climate change, we know that everything is in place for Ecolo to win  »).

However, while the shared observations echo an increasingly serious situation, the proposals are, curiously, still very light. The « alternatives » put forward to respond to socio-economic and environmental problems do not seem to be related to the seriousness of the situation and to the awareness of many phenomena caused by the dominant economic, capitalist, productivist and technological system. The ICT (Information and Communication Technology) sector is progressively becoming the heart of this ongoing ecological disaster, with all its social, health and political implications. However, it is totally absent from the debates, or even seen as the remedy defended in almost all the political horizon.

An example illustrates this point. On November 20, 2018, the free, ad-supported newspaper Métro interviews Philippe Bihouix, author of such public service books as The Age of Low-Tech: Toward a Technically Sustainable Civilization and The Digital School Disaster: A Plea for a School Without Screens, with Karine Mauvilly. Previously, he published an academic book in 2010, What future for metals? Metal scarcity: a new challenge for societyin which he showed that sustainable development and green capitalism are impossible because they are based on technologies that require metals, some of which are reaching their peak production. In an interview with the newspaper Métro, Philippe Bihouix denounces the extraction of minerals and oil at an ever-increasing environmental cost, which is not taken into account, and repeats, once again, that  » high tech is taking us away from a sustainable world « (1). This does not prevent the newspaper from offering a full page, with twice as much space as the interview, to highlight « Seven applications for a greener lifestyle », insisting mainly on individual efforts to be made. A symbolic example of how the media can describe irreversible environmental damage and, on the next page, try to make people believe that the problems will be solved by small measures or gadgets that only increase the extractivist footprint.

No wonder, coming from a free newspaper. The treatment of ecology in the general media, reputed to be more serious, differs very little from what Metro offers. These « big » media, little known for their independence, because they are almost exclusively owned by big families or big capitalist groups, are also financed by advertising as well as by the State and its aid to the press.

MEDIA UNANIMITY ON TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS

Monday, August 13, 2018, in Le Soir : Robots will replace tax agents, we learn on the front page. We find out that the finance administration has set a goal of becoming a paperless administration with fully digitized processes by 2025. Has the public been consulted? Is this desirable and feasible? In what interest is this imposed? These questions seem unnecessary when you read the journalist’s words. Indeed, Le Soir points out these citizens who are resistant to progress, concerning rental leases:  » Despite the launch of the my rent application that allows landlords to register their leases directly via the internet, 52% of them continue to go physically to the 42 registration offices owned by the FPS Finance « . This does not suit the FPS Finance, which wants to reduce the offer of local physical services and eliminate them in the short term! Once again, AI (highly artificial intelligence) is put forward as the solution to achieve this self-proclaimed progress.

In its Tuesday, July 31 edition, Le Soir devoted a full page to  » Google’s crazy projects « . However, nothing very critical except vaguely mentioning a reputation for crazy experiments and a very particular corporate culture in the Google X Labs company. For the journalist, projects such as the one called Loon of the company X (formerly Google X Labs), which aims to develop Internet access in the most remote areas of the planet by using stratospheric balloons inflated with helium, are not problematic. These balloons can offer a 4G network within a radius of 80 km. Without the slightest questioning of the commercial, political, security and geostrategic interests of this project, the newspaper announces that it was used following floods in Peru and hurricanes in Puerto Rico. Google puts forward so-called social missions centered on the belief in progress to justify any technology; and the discourse passes like a letter in the media that constantly proclaim their neutrality. Another project:  » Competing with Amazon’s Prime Air, Wing aims to generalize delivery [de marchandises] by drones not piloted by a human, in order to reduce the carbon cost of delivery . An ecological project, it was necessary to dare.

Given all these generous projects, it is hardly surprising to read, in December 2018, the appearance of an innovation principle that should see the light of day in European legislation,  » imagined to neutralize the precautionary principle « , yet already not very binding.

WHO SAID  » TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTIONISM « ?

Leafing through the newspaper Le Monde, one learns everything and sometimes its opposite, but above all the benefits of digital technology and its latest avatar,  » artificial intelligence « . Small anthology of some self-proclaimed benefits and reported in the press(2):  » About Notre Dame de Paris 3D historical reconstructions or even digital architectural models offer a now valuable documentation to rebuild the monument ravaged by the flames.  » (April 17, 2019).  » In the Veolia plant in Amiens, a mechanical sorting system carried out by a robot facilitates the work of the operators … (April 15, 2019).  » Health, agriculture or education…, the Indian foundation Wadhwani AI wants to put technology at the service of the fight against poverty in emerging countries… Artificial intelligence (AI) is exploring new territories. It could soon be used in India to reduce mortality.  » (April 11, 2019)

Unfortunately, we will not read anything or too little in these media about the resistance against Linky or especially against the 5G, which is announced as  » an unprecedented societal change on a global scale, » according to doctors, scientists, members of environmental organizations, and citizens who signed a recent call to stop 5G.(3) They call for immediate action to protect humanity and the environment in accordance with ethical imperatives and international conventions. On the other hand, other headlines tell us that artificial intelligence will allow us to predict food crises, to process the 460,000 contributions of the « great debate » orchestrated by Emmanuel Macron, how to organize one’s nature trip thanks to applications, how AI will respond to the challenges of development…

Great forgotten of the debates in connection with the ecology, the digital and more widely the technological world also induces the question of the economic model that we wish. Integrating this data into the analyses and reflections for social and ecological mobilizations is necessary if the objective is to really fight, both in the North and in the South of the planet, against inequalities, the exploitation of nature and for a dignified society. On the side of the protest movements, more critical of the dominant discourse and of the big capitalist media, they demand social and ecological justice, which requires a profound change of model. The reflections and claims about extractivism have been integrated for some years, but not yet linked to a global analysis of the implications in terms of refusing unlimited technological development.

The digital transition as it is currently implemented contributes to climate change more than it helps to prevent it. This is recognized by the report on the environmental impact of digital published in October 2018 by The Shift Project, a carbon transition think tank . Digital’s share of greenhouse gas emissions has increased by half since 2013, from 2.5% to 3.7% of total global emissions.

The consideration of technologies as factors of pollution and inequalities is totally absent from the discussions. If it is of course very important to demand the reduction of the flow of air transport, a transformation of the agricultural system towards a peasant system and a food with 5 to 10 times less animal proteins, two of the measures most often put forward, should also be considered a questioning of digital totalitarianism since the ICT sector, since 2009, consumes as much as the world civil aviation. Moreover, ICTs are now attacking a transformation of all areas of life: housing with personal assistants such as Alexa and with connected cities, connected agriculture with the invasion of all kinds of machines performing tasks previously done by humans, work with the disappearance of 10 to 50% of jobs (depending on estimates), transport invaded there too by the excessive digitization, including so-called autonomous cars promoted even by the Ecolo party. An Ecolo party that sees no problem in proposing a game application on smartphones  » to educate young people « . At the beginning of March 2019, he launched the game Planet Alert in order to promote  » a model, more horizontal, more participatory and egalitarian « , dixit the communication intended to promote this game.

As Bruno Poncelet has shown in studies and conferences, the multiple and increasing uses of various technologies are not the result of a natural movement in history. This technological invasion that surrounds everyone in 2019 comes in particular from the recommendations of Digital Europe, a group of powerful Asian, American and European trading firms that are organizing to defend their interests with the European Union.  » One of their work streams is to present a general argument to give meaning and legitimacy to the company’s digital transformation. « Not really surprisingly, one finds much the same discourse in a large number of governmental policy reports (or on the official website of the European Commission) dedicated to digital projects. They all assert the same idea: digital tools are a benefit to the general interest as long as we have control over them, which implies acting as quickly as possible to digitalize our societies… But, in concrete terms, what does  » digitalizing society  » mean? For Digital Europe, this can be summed up in one sentence:  » We need to create (at least on a European scale, if possible on a global scale) a digital market that is as global as possible . »(4)

The European Union is also indirectly financing habitable floating platforms for life in international waters, a project driven by, among others, transhumanist libertarians from Silicon Valley such as Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and a historic investor in Facebook. In 2009, he stated that he  » no longer believes that freedom and democracy are compatible … ». He also said that he was  » opposed to the ideology of the inevitability of death « . Another leader of this project, Joe Quirck, announced in an essay  » how floating nations will restore the environment, enrich the poor, heal the sick and free humanity from politicians « . The article in Le Monde recounting this project(5) explains that the financing of this island life will be enabled by a cryptocurrency, ethereum, and will therefore require high-speed internet connections. Of course, this project would also serve the populations already threatened by rising waters.

DIGITAL GENEROSITY

In November 2018, The European Commission announced the Wifi4EU initiative. A budget of € 120 million is available to 8,000 municipalities within the EU borders until 2020. Nothing very complicated, no environmental and health measures envisaged by the public authorities. The municipalities were able to « apply online to request a coupon with a unit value of €15, 000″. What does it consist of in concrete terms?  » With this coupon, the municipality will be able to install a Wi-Fi access point in public places, including city halls, public libraries, museums, public parks or public squares . » An initiative that would benefit everyone and that could even be described as ethical, according to their communication:  » The use of the networks financed by the WiFi4EU initiative will be free of charge. These networks will be free of advertising and will not collect personal data.(6)« How to reduce the digital divide? But isn’t this divide itself introduced by the same institutions that have fostered connection on all sides?

This digital capitalism, intimately linked to multinationals, is denounced by left-wing and environmental movements, but it is difficult to face it. However, there can be multiple oppositions and modes of action. Any use of Google, whether via Youtube or for a Doodle (agreeing on a date for a meeting) is unfortunately to enrich this multinational and therefore finance their transhumanism projects (Ray Kurzweil, chief engineer at Google, wants to transplant a human brain on a computer by 2040). It is not a question of refusing all technology but of considering it in a systemic framework, of questioning progress and of broadening contestations and reflections: the fight against extractivism and against ecological debts implies a refusal of the digitalization of the world. Ecology and digital are as incompatible as ecology and capitalism.

Robin Delobel

Notes et références
  1. Métro, 20 novembre 2018.
  2. Comme on l’a vu par ailleurs, de telles surprises sont publiées dans Le Soir, dans La Libre on peut lire des tribunes affirmant que « Sans notre modèle économique et technologique, il sera impossible d’atteindre l’excellence écologique », signée par Corentin de Salle, directeur du Centre Jean Gol (le centre d’études du MR) et Damien Ernst, professeur à l’ULiège, spécialisé en énergie et intelligence artificielle.
  3. « Pour une planète viable, arrêtons la 5G » https://reporterre.org/Pour-une-planete-viablearretons- la-5G, 8 avril 2019.
  4. « La révolution numérique : créatrice ou destructrice d’inégalités ? », Bruno Poncelet, novembre 2017 https://www.cepag.be/sites/default/files/publications/2017_-_cepag_-_etude_-_revolution_numerique_0.pdf .
  5. Des racines et des îles, mardi 2 octobre 2018.
  6. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/news/wifi4eu-2018-nov-05_fr .
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