Climate activist Greta Thunberg recently declared that her generation’s future had been ‘stolen‘ so that ‘a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money.’ Rather than acting on the impending reality of climate catastrophe, policy makers and captains of industry have failed to take meaningful action. They prefer to mock the children who are demanding better from them.
In my book, Future Histories, I argue that the same can be said about the development of digital technology. We could be living in a world of less work, with clean and efficient industry and optimised systems of democracy and public participation. But instead, the orientation of digital technology towards turning a profit has created the gig-economy, excessive consumption and intellectual property rights that work against collaborative problem solving. ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,’ famously declared data scientist and former Facebooker Jeffrey Hammerbacher. ‘That sucks.’
Climate change is not a simply a technology problem. It is a political one, that has arisen from the concentration of power in the hands of people who use that power to make money. But the topics of technology and climate are interconnected – the politics that drive our approaches to both have implications for each. If we allow technology capitalists to continue to squander the potential of the digital revolution we put our survival at risk. Solving the myriad problems that collectively we understand as climate change will require that we make full use of the potential offered by digital technology – a political challenge that is more urgent than ever.
Peter Frase talks about this in Four Futures, which he frames around the twin anxieties of ecological disaster and the automation of work. These two issues, he argues, are “fundamentally about inequality”:
They are about the distribution of scarcity and abundance, about who will pay the costs of ecological damage and who will enjoy the benefits of a highly productive, automated economy. There are ways to reckon with the human impact on the Earth’s climate, and there are ways to ensure that automation brings material prosperity for all rather than impoverishment and desperation for most. But those possible futures will require a very different kind of economic system than the one that became globally dominant by the late twentieth century.
In Future Histories, I argue that the way we discuss and make decisions about the digital society has urgent relevance for our ecological future. We can no longer postpone the task of reorganising how we manage our resources – environmental, intellectual and industrial.
Thunberg encouraged us to engage in ‘cathedral thinking’ to lay the foundation even though we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling. That’s going to require the best minds, the biggest bandwidth, and the most sophisticated tools available to facilitate problem solving using credible data. These are all within the grasp of the technology industry. Digital technology has the potential to maximize our use of limited material resources in all sorts of ways, including in relation to food supply, energy production and resource management. We need the resources that are currently devoted to making profits for tech companies to be redirected towards addressing the climate crisis.
Imagine if the resources devoted to spying on us, from drone cameras hovering in the heavens to locational tracking, were actually devoted to measuring and planning for the impacts of the changing ecosystem? Imagine if the logistical data sets generated by food delivery and transportation apps were used not to clog our roads with exploited gig workers, but to develop more efficient programs of food production and transport under collective ownership? Imagine if social networks were socialised and devoted to organising grass roots activities, like tool libraries and share sheds, child care centres and community gardening? Imagine if the significant resources of Bezos and Musk were expended not on vanity-projects-slash-exit-plans for their personal colonies on Mars, but rather expropriated for the purposes of making the planet habitable for the other 7 billion people on Earth?