Digital (Un)Sustainabilities. Promises, contradictions and pitfalls of digital societies
Edited book proposal to be submitted to Routledge
Call for chapters.
Editors: Chiara Certomà (University of Turin), Federico Martellozzo (University of Florence) & Fabio Iapaolo (Oxford Brookes University).
Using digital technologies to secure more sustainable futures has been proposed by peak international organisations (EU, 2021; Casal et al., 2004) as a response to persistent and rapidly escalating global environmental challenges. Digitalisation is often presented as a unique opportunity to strategically address challenges associated with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is expected to ensure an equitable, environmentally sustainable, and healthy society (Mondejar et al., 2021) while advancing democratisation, accessibility, and transparency of institutions, governments and corporations (see Wagner et al., 2022). Notably, digital solutions for environmental dilemmas are grounded in technocratic claims that digitalisation offer pathways out of the Anthropocene if only data are better understood, freely available and shared; and that technological innovation can suffice to implement more sustainable solutions – disregarding local contextual variables and dynamics of socio-economic processes (Martellozzo et al., 2014).
Notwithstanding, promises of more sustainable futures based on the entrenching of the digital in socio-political processes are accompanied by contradictions and pitfalls that invite further examination. Contemporary anthropogenic environments are dynamic and evolving socio-ecosystems entangled with digital technologies at different and interconnected scales . As such, these present both challenges and opportunities (Sawney, 2022) in achieving SDGs for a larger share of the world population. Presently, there is reason to believe that our reliance on digital platforms, products, infrastructures, and services may result in enabling and/or constraining socio-environmental sustainability (e.g. Griffiths, 2020).
On the one hand, digital development may lead to innovations that potentially improve human and nonhuman life conditions and sustainability in both proximate and remote places (e.g. from telemedicine to 3D printing, to AI-based optimization and monitoring). On the other, it may set out the conditions for the emergence of new forms of exploitation of resources, power concentration and subsequent social shortcomings (from breaches of individual privacy to the paradoxical distortion of reality based on data-centric knowledge). In a more nuanced fashion, recent research on “digital sustainability” has started to question whether digitalisation is actually generating or not better environmental outcomes (as digital corporations frequently claim in their socio-environmental governance reporting, see McLean, 2020). A common concern is that, in the wake of digital solutionism (Kuntsman and Rattle, 2019), the mantra of digitalisation is obscuring a variety of negative impacts, notably the emergence and exacerbation of global environmental and social justice issues (Crawford and Joler, 2018).
By combining multiple analytic methodologies, the book seeks to contribute to the lively, yet dispersed, debate regarding the deconstruction of mainstream digital sustainability narratives. Accordingly, this aims at:
offering a multivocal and plural reading of digital (un)sustainabilities by gathering case studies from around the world on the topic;
developing a research agenda on digital (un)sustainabilities building on digital geographies scholarship to date; and
providing an in-depth analysis of existing digital geography, STS, political ecology, internet studies, ecomedia and other relevant research and grey contributions to clarify the terms of the debate.
Two research themes are identified at this stage:
We propose that potential authors follow digital technologies along the cycles of production, distribution, use and disposal; and analyse the multiple sites and ways through which digital capitalism produces distinctive geographies, and affects environmental systems.
Although it is difficult to comprehensively identify all the environmental consequences of digitalisation, as this is based on complex and interconnected socio-technological systems involving energy consumption and material transformations across multiple scales (McLean, 2019), it has been amply demonstrated that the technology industry has a significant (and growing) environmental impact (Greenpeace International, 2017; Pearce, 2018).
As contemporary societies extend and intensify their dependence on digital processes for performing reproductive practices, new soil, water and air pollution problems are also arising (Pickren, 2014; Schmidt, 2010; Kamiya, 2020). In this regard, it has been recently documented how the irregular geometries of the production and use of digital systems are intertwined with new geographies of raw material control or digital waste disposal (e.g. connected to processes of exploitation of resources such as rare earth minerals or landfills for digital tools and disassembly areas) (Massari and Ruberti, 2013; Krumay and Brandtweiner, 2016; Gabrys, 2013).
Furthermore, the consumption practices of the digital society produce new forms of consumerism and increase global logistics activities (notably in the so-called platform economy), whose negative environmental impacts are displaced from one place to another along global value chains (Dryzek, 2012; Smith et al., 2006).
In this context, digital transformations are also generating unwanted consequences for non-humans on multiple scales. The digitization of the non-human world, for example, in addition to providing humans with new knowledge from unexpected perspectives, also supports new modes of exploitation and marginalization driven by the technocratic logic of market responses to environmental crises (Dwyer, 2021; Nost and Goldstein, 2021; von Essen et al., 2021).
We invite potential authors to consider the socially unsustainable impacts of digitalisation by documenting and discussing how digital capitalism can undermine the implementation of “just sustainability” (Agyeman et al., 2003). On several occasions the digital turn in public life disavowed its progressive promises and rather associated with the monopolistic appropriation of technologies and control of infrastructure (Caprotti, 2014); with data and opinion manipulations that hamper free expression (Nielsen, 2006; Loukis et al., 2014); and with the decrease of the quality of democratic debate (Mohan, 2001; Platteau, 2008).
Digital capitalism’s pitfalls (including the emergence of polarised power geographies, novel social inequities and technology imbalances) reverberate in how data systems, devices, platforms and digital infrastructures are shaping new forms of politics, where issues of ownership, management and use of (hard and soft) digital infrastructures interact with existing social and spatial injustices (Richardson, 2020; Van Dijck et al., 2018; Graham, 2014).
Power concentrations that mark the digital world dominated by big tech companies are, by default, dangerous for sustainability because this undermines transparency, accountability, and public control over ICT companies, whose supranational business model makes them able to elude national regulations (Kalbag, 2017).
In consideration of the multiple emerging issues connecting with Theme 2, the digital dimension needs to be regarded as the new battleground where the struggle for a more sustainable, democratic and inclusive society is fought (Certomà, 2021); and the ideal of digital sustainability is confronted with social justice issues (building on Edwards, 2020 and McLean, 2020).
On both the themes, prospective authors can contribute with chapters that engage with theoretical and empirical analyses of the possibilities and paradoxes associated with the epistemological and pragmatic links between digitalization and sustainability, including -but not limited to- described issues.
Instructions for prospective authors: