Fred Diego – Sustainable Computing: Document Management Intern
The past four decades have seen exponential growth in electronic technology; summarized in Moore’s law, the amount of processors that can be placed on a circuit board double every two years. Over four decades computers have become literally a million times more powerful. These leaps in technology development have made technology ubiquitous and accessible like never before in any period of its history.
The ubiquity of technology and its increased power have resulted in its application in every area of everyday life. We are nowhere near SkyNet, the doomsday AI of Terminator fame powerful enough to make machines sentient and rebellious, but we are also nowhere near the revolutions in education such technological wealth makes possible. Nearly every student owns a computer, or at the very least has easy access to one, and many are purchasing tablets and smartphones; machines with formidable computing power with many potential pedagogic applications. Yet, the classroom of tomorrow is not here yet.
Part of the reasons for this is the place technology has in my generation and the ones who follow. In common parlance, we have witnessed the birth of the Facebook generation; a generation of ever-connected individuals who are alone, together, connected, yet separated by the data-mining, marketer feeding, technological revolution known as social media. There now exists a generation that was born into the digital age and knows nothing before it.
This creates a gap between educators and learners. The educators may be slow or unwilling to adapt for a host of reasons and the learners are light years ahead; more than early adapters, innovators in and of themselves as a result of their immersion in digital media. This gap is incredibly evident in higher education. An average student can carry up to three devices, all with Wi-Fi connectivity, and handle them with the dexterity of a pianist, thumbs dancing across screens. At the same time, you may have a professor who refuses to read anything longer than an email on a screen and requires that all assignments be submitter “in 12 pt. Times New Romans (or 11pt. Calibri), double lines spaced, single page printing.”
It is my job this summer to think about this issue here at IU. Namely, what are the barriers to further technology integration? At a glance, this is a great initiative since reducing paper consumption 1) reduces expenditures on paper and printing, 2) reduces waste, 3) reduces paper consumption and ameliorates IU’s contribution to the environmental evils of deforestation and pollution. Deeper examination produces further questions; questions that future interns will approach such as the cost-benefit analysis of paper reduction v. increased electricity consumption. But these are not the issues that rack my brain.
It is a beautiful idea; simple and elegant. Read on a screen instead of on a tree slice, save trees, save the planet. The idea springs effortlessly as if by divine inspiration; then my impious penchant for analysis and its sidekick curiosity come around only to make my faith waver. What if technology itself is not sustainable? As it turns out, it is not simple and not elegant.
How eco-friendly is technology? Considering the amount of electricity any Apple product consumes, how sustainable is it to run a tablet for three hours to read an e-text as opposed to reading a paper text. Are there any implications for your vision? How do e-book hours v. paper book hours compare when overall sustainability is factored? One step back and I explore the laptop/tablet/smartphone itself. Where do its parts come from? Tin, gold, tantalum, tungsten, copper. How environmentally sound is their extraction, sustainable sourcing or conflict minerals? How far do these minerals travel, how are they processed? Are these costs to the environment made up for by reduced paper consumption? Duke University did a great job at exposing the ethical conflicts in technology production and many have taken up environmental issues against mines and processing plants. Maybe tech is not as sustainable as I initially liked to think.
But there is more. There is a reason why it matters that IU’s e-waste days are a considerable success. There is so much of it. Many products, technology in particular, are engineered with planned obsolescence, a predetermined lifetime marked by the introduction of the next in the series, or the next generation with its negligible changes. This engineering creates artificial demand with the sole purpose of promoting consumption. In 1932, Bernard London proposed the concept in order to stimulate the economy during a depression by encouraging consumption. Now, companies use the concept to promote consumption.
So if technology costs the planet considerable amounts of energy and resources to produce and obsolescence is engineered into its very fabric to promote consumption, how is technology a sustainable alternative? Are we destined to choose the lesser of two evils or should we struggle to lift the veil, brush the smoke aside, and look past what Althusser calls “Ideologies of the Repressive State Apparatuses.’
A third notion that struck me during my preliminary research is the use of metadata for marketing purposes. Amazon is a king in this realm tagging your clicks and purchases then providing you with incredibly agreeable suggestions. I open Amazon in a tab and I get running shoes and book suggestions. Not just any books, Society of the Spectacle, Simulacra and Simulation, and Barthe’s Mythologies. Amazon tracks interests in order to help its users consume in a more well-directed fashion, instead of showing you a million things it shows a handful of highly specialized interests. Google advertises in a similar fashion. Facebook is a master of exploiting the clickability of likes. How many products don’t have a Facebook page? Twitter allows users to express ideas and tag them with metadata using the hashtag. All of this information is used to create a topographic representation of the internet and the individuals who use it. E-books are the scariest of examples; they read you while you read them and report reading rate, pages read, sections highlighted, what books you buy and when in order to figure out why. All of these innovations exist with the primary intent of helping the consumer be a better consumer.
Better machines, better data analysis, better consumers; made possible by technological integration. But couldn’t the same technology be used to design better lectures, weave relevant topics into a presentation, suggests literature, and revolutionize education and the distribution of knowledge in general? Perhaps the pedagogic revolution will come about through the same means that consumer specific marketing has. Through data analysis, interest, and preferences the user will be able to define coursework and perhaps a career based on strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. It is nice to dream, but in the meantime sustainable sourcing and barrier identification will remain the primary objectives of my attention.