Digital Geographies: Exploring the Shadows of Our Technological Landscapes

Editor Liberty Lawson sits down with SEI Research Affiliate Jess McLean to talk about the material impact of technology, and why it is so easy to forget the true environmental cost of our digital lives.

Image by Benjamin Voros, via Unsplash

Could you tell us about your background and your previous research?

My PhD research involved working with Miriwoong and Gajerrong people in the Kimberley to examine the negotiation of resources, including water, in light of a new Indigenous Land Use Agreement in the region. Since being awarded my doctorate from the University of Sydney in the field of Human Geography (School of Geosciences), I have developed my geographic research in two broad areas: digital geographies and water cultures. Both research areas are interdisciplinary and involve initiating and developing collaborative research relationships with institutions and people from non-academic contexts.

Currently I am a Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University and am fortunate to be visiting the Sydney Environment Institute during my sabbatical. In the digital geographies research area over the past six years at Macquarie, I have worked with the Climate Council and Destroy the Joint to help establish what motivates people to get involved in digital activism, and how their work can be sustainable. For the water cultures research, I have worked with Indigenous collaborators in Mudgee (central west NSW), looking at the various ways that power intersects with cultural practices in water management. My research involves critical geographic and environmental humanities approaches and I aim to ‘give back’ to research partners across my projects.

Your current work looks at how we build our digital lives, could you elaborate on this?

First, I’d say that digital geographies include physical and material aspects – technologies that contribute to digital geographies have tangible and intangible aspects that can be tricky to pin down. The digital ecosystem that supports our digital devices includes storage systems and networks that are not in our homes or workplaces (like ‘the cloud’) but they contribute to our digital geographies. Often we take these for granted and tend to forget about the energy used to support our digital geographies and the lifecycles of our digital technologies. My research is trying to highlight the ways in which our digital geographies can be forgotten in our efforts to be sustainable – as problematic as that term itself is!

So my research is contributing to feminist geographic scholarship that tries to break down binaries around humans/nature, nature/nurture, real/not real, to enable us to better critically evaluate how we use digital technologies.

I’m asking students, staff and affiliates of the University of Sydney to answer a short survey on digital sustainability to help build a conversation around this often neglected aspect of our everyday lives. The University is in a strong position to increase its sustainability as it has control over its buildings and energy suppliers – making digital work sustainable could easily be a part of this.

What are the key issues surrounding our growing use of technology, particularly in terms of the environmental impacts?

So many! For a start, there isn’t a lot of information available on how much energy our digital lives use, and what more sustainable options are out there for digital technologies. Some companies like Apple claim to use 100% renewable energy, but if you dig a little deeper into that statement, they’re relying on carbon offsets to assert that, and we know that this is not the best way to reduce carbon emissions.

Also, reporting on the greening of IT has fallen away over the last five years and the dominant discourses in digital technology tend to be around artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity. From my research for a book coming out in a couple of months called Changing Digital Geographies: Environments, Technologies, Peoples, I’ve found that AI can have significant environmental costs, as well as social and political costs. For instance, Strubell et al (2019) found that training a large AI model emits 315 times more carbon than a round the world flight.

There is so little discussion out there about how much carbon is used, even in just sharing and storing data online, and many of us have no idea what the real cost is. Do you think that this lack of transparency around the real environmental impacts of technology is a conscious act of corporate greenwashing?

Transparency is an important issue in making digital technology more sustainable. We simply aren’t able to assess claims of energy efficiency – if they are made – as self-reporting tends to dominate the industry, and we are forced in to buying new products due to built in obsolescence by tech companies.

But we can ask for more on this front, from governments and corporations. Ultimately, the responsibility for producing sustainable digital technologies does not lie with individuals but with corporations and governments who produce, regulate and dispose of digital tools and infrastructure. For this research, I will also be talking with sustainability leaders in university, government and corporate settings to gauge current efforts to increase digital sustainability.

Has this research impacted your own views and behaviours when it comes to using or buying technology? And for all of us as individuals, what responsibilities do we have that we should be more aware of? How can we hold corporations accountable too?

I’ve never been an early adopter and really don’t like to invest in things that don’t last so it hasn’t changed my behaviours too much. I’m alarmed at the lack of information out there, though, and worried that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest or enthusiasm for making the digital more sustainable.

Perhaps as individuals we could put down the digital device more often, think twice about whether we really need the latest/greatest tool, and ask corporations and governments to step up their sustainability game in this area. It’s really difficult to make sustainable decisions if the information just isn’t out there and the products that are more sustainable are hard to access, or don’t work with much of the digital infrastructure around us. I think it’s really up to those institutions responsible for making digital ecosystems to work harder on this front and prioritise sustainability so individuals can make informed and sensible decisions.

Do you think about the sustainability of your digital technologies? Do you try to reduce the environmental impact of your digital life? As part of her research, Jess is looking to hear from University of Sydney students, staff and affiliates about the sustainability of their digital technologies in their everyday lives. The survey, which takes only a few moments to complete, can be accessed here

Jessica McLean is a research affiliate with the Sydney Environment Institute. She is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University and completed her PhD at the University of Sydney in the School of Geosciences. She has a book called Changing Digital Geographies: Technologies, environments and people coming out in December with Palgrave Macmillan.