Invitation to contribute on "Digital (Un)Sustainabilities. Promises, contradictions and pitfalls of digital societies"

Hi all, I’d like to invite you to contribute to a prospective book on “Digital (Un)Sustainabilities. Promises, contradictions and pitfalls of digital societies” (see the call below). Please do not hesitate to get in contact in case you want to discuss your ideas!


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:

Theme 1

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).

Theme 2

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.

Agyeman, J., R. Bullard, and B. Evans (eds) (2003) Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World. Cambridge MA: MIT Press
Caprotti, F. (2015, March 24) Building the smart city: Moving beyond the critiques. UGEC Viewpoints
Casal. C. R., Van Wunnik, C., Sancho L. D., Burgelman, J. C., & Desruelle, P. (eds.). (2004). The future impact of ICTs on environmental sustainability. Technical Report EUR (21384 EN). European Commission: Joint Research Centre
Certomà C. (2021) Digital Social Innovation. Spatial Imaginaries and Technological Resistances in Urban Governance, Palgrave Macmillan, New York
Crawford, K., and Joler, V. (2018). Anatomy of an AI System: The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources. AI Now Institute and Share Lab
Dryzek, J. (2012). The Politics of the Earth (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press
EC (2021a, March 19). EU countries commit to leading the green digital transformation
EC (2021b, March 19). Companies take action to support the green and digital transformation of the EU. Companies take action to support the green and digital transformation of the EU | Shaping Europe’s digital future
Wagner, B., Ferro, C., Gsenger, R. (2022) Democracy and digitalisation : handbook, EC, Directorate-General for International Partnerships, https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2841/356478
Edwards, D. (2020) Digital Rhetoric on a Damaged Planet: Storying Digital Damage as Inventive Response to the Anthropocene, Rhetoric Review, 39:1, 59-72, DOI: 10.1080/07350198.2019.1690372
Greenpeace International. (2017, January 10). Clicking Clean. https://www.greenpeace.org/international/publication/6826/clicking-clean-2017/Griffiths, S. (2020, 6. March). Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think. BBC
Kamiya, G. (2020, February 25). Factcheck: What is the carbon footprint of streaming video on Netflix? Carbon Brief. https://www.carbonbrief.org/factcheck-what-is-the-carbon-footprint-of-streaming-video-on-netflix
Krumay, B., & Brandtweiner, R. (2016). Measuring the environmental impact of ICT hardware. International Journal of Sustainable Development and Planning, 11(6), 1064 -1076
Kuntsman, A., & Rattle, I. (2019). Towards a paradigmatic shift in sustainability studies: A systematic review of peer reviewed literature and future agenda setting to consider environmental (Un) sustainability of digital communication. Environmental Communication, 13(5), 567-581
Gabrys, J. (2013). Digital rubbish: a natural history of electronics. University of Michigan
Graham, M. (2014) Inequitable Distributions in Internet Geographies: The Global South Is Gaining Access, but Lags in Local Content. Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization 9 (3-4): 3-19
Martellozzo, F. et al. (2014). Urban agriculture: a global analysis of the space constraint to meet urban vegetable demand. Environ. Res. Lett. 9 064025. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/9/6/064025
Mondejar, M.E., et al. (2021). Digitalization to achieve sustainable development goals: Steps towards a Smart Green Planet,
Science of The Total Environment, Volume 794, 148539, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.148539
McLean, J. (2019) For a greener future, we must accept there’s nothing inherently sustainable about going digital, The conversation, For a greener future, we must accept there's nothing inherently sustainable about going digital)
McLean, J. (2020) Changing digital geographies: technologies, environments and people. Palgrave MacMillan
Pickren, G. (2014). Geographies of E‐waste: Towards a Political Ecology Approach to E‐waste and Digital Technologies. Geography Compass, 8(2), 111-124. doi: 10.1111/GEC3.12115
Massari, S., & Ruberti, M. (2013) Rare earth elements as critical raw materials: Focus on international markets and future strategies. Resources Policy, 38(1), 36-43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2012.07.001
Mohan, G. (2001). Beyond Participation: Strategies for Deeper Empowerment. In Cooke, B. & Nielsen, J. (2006, October 8). The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Communities. Nielsen Norman Group. Available at Participation Inequality: The 90-9-1 Rule for Social Features
Nost E, Goldstein JE. A political ecology of data. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space. 2022;5(1):3-17
Kothari, U (eds.), Participation: The New Tyranny? (pp. 153-167). Zed Books
Platteau, J. (2008). Pitfalls of Participatory Development. Chapter prepared for the United Nations
Schmidt, S. (2010, April 30). A Growing Digital Waste Cloud. Our World A Growing Digital Waste Cloud - Our World
Sawhney, N. (2022). Contestations in Urban Mobility: Rights, Risks & Responsibilities for Urban AI. AI and Society
Smith, T., Sonnenfeld, D., & Pellow, D. N. (eds.). (2006). Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry. Temple University Press
Richardson, L. (2020). ‘Coordinating the city: platforms as flexible spatial arrangements. Urban Geography, 41, 458-461
Van Dijck, P., & De Waal, M. (2018). The platform society: Public values in a connective world. Oxford University Press
von Essen E, Turnbull J, Searle A, Jørgensen FA, Hofmeester TR, van der Wal R. Wildlife in the Digital Anthropocene: Examining human-animal relations through surveillance technologies. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space. December 2022

Instructions for prospective authors:
Please submit your abstracts (250 words) by 4 July 2022 to chiara.certoma@unito.it, federico.martellozzo@unifi.it and fabio.iapaolo@unito.it including author name(s), the selected theme for your submission, affiliation and email address. For questions about potentially relevant chapters please do not hesitate to get in contact.

This is kind of interesting, but I don’t think we have anything of value to contribute at the moment. A year ago we could have sat down with the #ioh project and see if we could squeeze anything out of that. Or, Chiara, do you have any specific idea in mind? Am I missing something?

Hi Alberto, I had nothing particular in mind, this is an open call hopefully of interest to some of our mates in Edgeryders!

For what concerns you, this call for chapters expands the succinct description of the future EU Regional Week University session I invited you to take part in (titled titled "Digital Sustainability? Potentialities and pitfalls of digitally-supported ecological transition in Europe”). When discussing about your potential contribution, I mentioned an intriguing post of yours (Sociopathic innovation: how we are investing most in the most evil technologies (LONG) - #3 by alberto) that might offer a case for thinking through social unsustainabilities of (some) digitech or specific applications even for a book chapter. No pressure, it’s just an opportunity.

Yes count me in. I’d love to do a piece on the pro’s and con’s of using digital devices in support of learning and education. I’ve been in this field since 1972 and have definite personal biases but also enough professionalism to give a balanced account. I would like to address “learning” in the broad sense. While this includes early childhood through tertiary formal education, it is not limited to these forms of schooling. I would weave the narrative around the issues of education, equity, and, access.

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@Lizaloop thanks for your input Liza, the dark sides of digitalisation in the learning system could be an interesting addition to our collection. I suggest you to expand the analysis so to include different stages of education, including adult education if possible. We look forward to receiving your abstract! (deadline the 4th of July).
Please do send it to me and my colleagues: chiara.certoma@unito.it; fabio.iapaolo@unito.it; federico.martellozzo@unifi.it

That’s kind of an op-ed. Meant to stimulate discussion (glad it did with you and your colleagues!), but does not meet the rigour and novelty standard of proper research. And for now I have not much else to contribute, except an intense dislike for innovation hype :slight_smile:

I see. Never mind. It was an invitation not …an obligation. :wink:
Just mentioned your “op-en” as an example of a promising line of thought.

By the way, I hope your intense dislike for innovation will spare my research team and me from the darkness of your disapproval…

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