Digital sobriety: From home to performance
Many everyday actions – such as video conferencing with colleagues, posting a video on Facebook, making an appointment or watching performances online – are examples of the use of digital technology. These uses are constantly increasing and their environmental impact is growing in significance. This article sheds light on the environmental impact of digital technology and offers several tips on how you can reduce it, through practices ranging from electronic equipment management to the online dissemination of performances.
The global impact of digital technology
It may be difficult, at first glance, to perceive the environmental impacts of digital technology. We tend to think of it as something abstract, that we cannot touch, that takes place in the cloud. The reality is quite different. Digital technology cannot exist without the use of equipment such as computers, cell phones, tablets, televisions, game consoles and other related objects. These devices require the use of other equipment needed for data storage and internet connection such as routers, modems, 4G and 5G towers and the entire network of cables crisscrossing the globe. To get an idea of the extent of the underwater cable network, you can have a look at this map.
Producing all this equipment has significant environmental impacts since it requires:
- the extraction of rare metals that are difficult to recycle;
- the use and pollution of large quantities of water;
- the consumption of primary energy.
The impact in numbers
According to a study by GreenIT’s Frédéric Bordage (2019), our increasing consumption of digital devices and data is having several significant impacts:
It is responsible for the depletion of abiotic resources, that is, non-renewable natural resources such as minerals: it is estimated that 22 million tons are required annually for the production of electronic equipment.
The freshwater consumption required for the manufacture of these devices is about 7.8 million m3, or 0.2% of annual global consumption.
The amount of primary energy consumed by the digital sector is 6,800 TWh, which represents 4.2% of global primary energy consumption.
In 2019, digital technology was responsible for 3.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to The Shift Project (2021). That’s as much as all international civil aviation combined and this could double by 2025, reaching 7%!
Thus, every new computer, cell phone or smartwatch purchased creates a huge environmental footprint, long before it is even used.
In addition, the ever-increasing amount of digital equipment being used and the growing number of users globally are resulting in an explosive volume of data usage. This rapid growth has an impact on the environment. The situation can be described as a vicious circle:
- The increase in digital use leads to the renewal of infrastructure (appearance of 5G, new towers, new data storage equipment, etc.).
- These improvements lead to the creation of new products (cell phones with new features, better quality videos, etc.).
- These new products then, again, lead to increased usage (increase in the amount of data used, purchase of new equipment).
- And so on.
It is therefore necessary to consider the problem from a different perspective, one of digital sobriety, in order to reduce usage.
WiFi or cellular data?
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), watching a video on a 4G-connected cell phone in Canada emits three times as much greenhouse gas as watching it over a WiFi network.
Digital sobriety as an alternative to overconsumption
Fortunately, digital sobriety represents a solution to digital overconsumption and its harmful impacts. This relatively new concept is based on three observations:
- Digital technology is physical and its impact on the environment is concrete;
- The energy demands of industry are constantly increasing;
- Current trends lead to the overconsumption of digital equipment and data. This overconsumption is not sustainable.
Good individual practices
As individuals and professionals in the performing arts – cultural workers, performers, choreographers, teachers, designers, musicians – our use of digital technology is common and necessary. Digital sobriety is not about eliminating digital technology from our daily lives. Rather, the aim is to use it sensibly with full awareness of its impacts. Thus, five actions can be taken to move toward digital sobriety:
- Extend the life of equipment: The better equipment is maintained, the longer it lasts and the longer the time span over which its environmental impacts are spread. Always try to have your devices repaired rather than replaced.
- Share or reuse equipment: Another way to reduce the overconsumption of equipment is to share devices that are not needed every day, such as cameras, microphones, tablets, etc. It is also possible to use the same devices at home as at work to avoid doubling the number of devices needed. When there is a real need for new equipment, try to rent it or buy used or refurbished devices.
- Limit use of the cloud: If you don’t need files (photos, videos, documents) to be accessible at all times, store them locally, for example on a computer, a USB drive or an external hard drive. This limits the amount of data stored in data centres.
- Reduce video viewing, especially on cellular networks: Video streams account for 80% of Internet traffic. As much as possible, reduce the number of videos you watch online. To help with this, you can change social network settings to prevent videos from playing automatically when you browse your newsfeed. Also, you can avoid listening to music on YouTube and opt for audio files instead. When you do watch videos, watch while connected to a WiFi network rather than a cellular network and lower the image resolution as much as possible.
- Use email judiciously: Every email is stored in data centres so that it can be accessed on all our devices, at any time. The more numerous and the larger the emails, the greater their impact. It is therefore wise to reduce the size of emails by avoiding attachments and instead including a link to a web page that already contains the document. It is also possible to compress attachments before sending them. Finally, limit the number of recipients when possible and delete your emails regularly to avoid unnecessary accumulation (also remember to empty the trash, junk and sent folders!).
Good practices for recording and disseminating performances
Keeping in mind the principles of digital sobriety, it is also possible to adopt good practices when recording or disseminating a performance online. The idea is to analyze and understand the benefits of such dissemination while using digital resources sensibly. Thus, it is recommended to:
- Shoot in HD rather than 4K so that the video requires less storage space.
- Compress videos before transmitting them to colleagues or clients.
- Decrease the video’s resolution before it is disseminated (use HD rather than 4K for example), to reduce the amount of data an audience uses when viewing it. A very high resolution is often unnecessary when viewing a video on a computer or cell phone.
- Make the video available for a limited time only and then remove it from websites after that time. The video can then be stored locally for future use.
Digital sobriety and wellbeing
Multiple gestures help reduce the environmental footprint of digital technology to the benefit of our planet’s wellbeing. Digital sobriety is all the more interesting as it also contributes to individual wellbeing by reducing the negative effects of hyperconnectivity. The public health department (2019) has linked several disorders to hyperconnectivity, including chronic fatigue, impaired concentration and sleep, and decreased self-esteem. Thus, adopting actions that support the sensible use of digital technology also helps improve overall mental and physical health.
In conclusion, the digital sector is currently experiencing rapid growth. Unfortunately, this is unsustainable in terms of its energy and raw material requirements. This growth generates environmental impacts that can only be managed if individuals, professionals and organizations use digital resources more soberly and consciously. Having realized the magnitude of the problem, we must try to do our part to limit the environmental impacts of digital technology by committing to changing certain habits and to encouraging digital sobriety at home and at work. You now have a few ways to help you get there!
By Le Regroupement québécois de la danse
IEA. (2020). The carbon footprint of streaming video: fact-checking the headlines. Online: https://www.iea.org/commentaries/the-carbon-footprint-of-streaming-video-fact-checking-the-headlines
Shift Project. (2021). Impact environnemental du numérique: tendances à 5 ans et gouvernance de la 5G: https://theshiftproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Note-danalyse_Numerique-et-5G_30-mars-2021.pdf
GreenIT. (2019). Empreinte environnementale du numérique mondial: https://www.greenit.fr/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/2019-10-GREENIT-etude_EENM-rapport-accessible.VF_.pdf
Direction régionale de santé publique du CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal. (2019). Les écrans et la santé de la population à Montréal: https://santemontreal.qc.ca/fileadmin/user_upload/Uploads/tx_asssmpublications/pdf/publications/Les_ecrans_et_la_sante_de_la_population_a_Montreal.pdf