Study day: “Low-tech, maintenance, limits:
how to rethink digital technology
and its environmental impact”
Wednesday Septembre 20, 2023
at Mines Paris – PSL, 60 boulevard Saint-Michel, Paris
room V 106 B
Free registration, subject to availability. Please register here.
Event organized as part of the ALDIWO (Anti-Limits in the Digital World) project (project summary below). This project has received financial support from the CNRS through MIT’s interdisciplinary programs.
In French, no videoconference
Description of the event
The digital sciences and technological development are dominated by a set of watchwords that are incompatible with the sobriety challenges we face: the race for computing power and the speed of exchanges, accelerating hardware and software obsolescence, and the invisibilization of the materiality of the technical device (see summary of the ALDIWO project below). Our aim for the event is to provide a forum for interdisciplinary exchange, with a view to exploring other avenues of research towards a more sustainable – and possibly more denumerated – technical system.
To this end, the event is structured in two parts: a first part devoted to presentations in sociology, science & technology studies and computer science on alternative or devalued ways of relating to technological development – which are by no means ready-made solutions! A second part of the program will take the form of workshops aimed at outlining the prospects for interdisciplinary research to explore desirable and sustainable socio-technical-ecological futures, by examining what ‘the digital’ would become if limits were reintroduced.
Morning – Presentations (9:30am-12:15pm)
- 9.15am – 9.30am: Welcome
- 9.30am – 9.40am: Introduction – Clément Marquet (CSI, Mines Paris – PSL, i3)
- 9.45am – 10.30am: Morgan Meyer (CSI, CNRS, i3) Low-techs and frontier objects
- 10.30am – 11.15am: Jérôme Denis (CSI, Mines Paris – PSL, i3) et David Pontille (CSI, CNRS, i3) Maintenance and attention to fragility
- 11.30am – 12.15am: Florence Maraninchi (Verimag, Grenoble INP – UGA) *Constraints, limits, optimization: a few examples from the inside of IT*.
Afternoon – Workshops (2pm-5pm)
Objective: raise multidisciplinary research questions
Workshop format will be announced soon
ALDIWO (Anti-Limits in the Digital World) project rationale
The environmental impacts of digital technology are studied in research from two main angles: (1) so-called “Green IT” approaches focus on optimizing the power consumption of digital equipment in the usage phase; (2) so-called “Green-by-IT” approaches aim to reduce the environmental impacts of sectors other than digital technology, thanks to digital technology.
These current approaches do not cover all the possible futures for the role of digital technology in current and future environmental upheavals: (1) there is no example in the history of digital technology where optimizations have not been accompanied by massive rebound effects that cancel out the gains of these optimizations; (2) the theoretical gains hoped for by offering a new generation of digital equipment are not always achieved in practice, partly because one generation does not replace the previous one but is added to it, at least for a while; (3) it is very difficult to assess the potential reduction in the environmental impact of the other sectors that are sought to be optimized thanks to digital technology. It’s a risky gamble to bet everything on the fact that these reductions will be significant enough to allow digital technology not to reduce its own impacts.
If digital technology is to play its part in the necessary reduction of global environmental impact, it is essential to look beyond green-IT and green-by-IT. There is a whole area of potential research in computer science that falls under the category *Undone Science* . These topics could be studied from within the discipline of computer science, through a systematic re-examination of the design choices made for old and new systems alike, a search for as yet unexplored points of potential optimization, an assessment of the fragility of digital infrastructures in the face of drastic constraints imposed from outside, and so on.
In our view, however, there are two main flaws in thinking that is confined to digital research fields: (a) it is intrinsically limited to the practical and technological aspects of the question, with no clear idea, for example, of how to take into account the uses, rebound effects and acceleration effects of all the other sectors, and so on; (b) it suffers, albeit sometimes unconsciously, from a framework of thought that sees digital technologies as one (if not the only) means of opening up possible futures, and any idea of limitation as part of an unrealistic pessimism or a reprehensible lack of confidence. Yet in his article “Predictions Without Futures” , S. Hong provides a perfect description of how the imaginary of the technological world, far from opening up futures, actually closes them up completely.
In this project, we propose to explore the notion of “limit” within a multi-disciplinary framework, in order to sketch out avenues for a research program that takes the project of digital sobriety seriously.
 S. Frickel, S. Gibbon, J. Howard, J. Kempner, G. Ottinger, and D. J. Hess, “Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 444–473, Jul. 2010, doi: 10.1177/0162243909345836.
 S. Hong, “Predictions Without Futures,” History and Theory, vol. 61, no. 3, pp. 371–390, 2022, doi: 10.1111/hith.12269.