Saturday, April 23, 2016

Digital society: Are we really dematerializing?

It seems that we’re moving to a digital society in which we only read and write electronically. A paperless society in which information is being “dematerialized”. Really? Not quite.

Since the arrival of the micro-computer in the 1970s the number of printed pages increased by 3% each year. Since the introduction of e-mail, paper consumption increased by 40%. And look at all the e-mails, the e-books and all that e-content: as if it was drifting somewhere in the cloud or in the “e-air” in an immaterial and almost virtual way. True: there is no paper involved. And indeed: thousands of kilos of books can now be reduced to a series of electronic files. But this doesn’t mean that the information de-materialized. On the contrary.

The information has to stay somewhere: on servers and data centers. This equipment needs cooling systems that are running 24/7 and an increasing amount of electricity that has to be produced somewhere out of something. Every year tens of millions of servers are added to this growing and energy consuming data infrastructure.

And don’t forget that digital data has to be accessed and travel from sender to receiver. We already use 50% more energy to move bytes than we do to move planes in global aviation. Data traffic increases each year. In 2015 Google recorded 6 billion searches per day. Smartphone technology has led to a skyrocketing production of audio-visual data (pictures, videos, music). This information doesn't only travel through the air. It needs a growing number of (transoceanic) cables, satellites, antennas, terminals, etc. As a consequence the ICT sector's demand for metal tripled since the 1980s. 

This was just a quick reminder of how material the digitalization process is. We’re not dematerializing but rematerializing, heavily.


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