Sustainability, the dream of every institution, every major firm, every international committee, and above all the goal of the UN. There are various parts of sustainability that could be discussed: finding sustainable sources of water, food, clean energy, etc. But as digital humanists, we have our eyes focused on “digital sustainability”.
The idea of sustainability in digital projects could be discussed from various viewpoints:
We could discuss the sustainability of natural resources when it comes to digital projects. This raises the question: could we consider any of what we do in the age of digitalization sustainable? Could we say that anything that we as humans do is sustainable? Due to the nature of how we live, we consume resources that lead to our planet’s destruction.
The story doesn’t differ all that much when it comes to digitalization. All of the digital products and services that we use on a daily basis are located in data centers, which in turn use large sums of power.Unfortunately, humans have not yet built enough sustainable power plants to account for the growing demand for energy, which is bound to grow and never stop.
Yet, one other argument is that digitalization could help make a more sustainable environment. Think about something like power grid consumption, or streetlights and traffic jams, those are two things that could be done better. But humans would take ages to study such a thing, and with all the different variables at play, no rigid system could fix such issues. But when AI, for example, is used to analyze data, say for traffic jams, and find away to turn on and off streetlights to ease the congestion, that could save tons of energy. In a case of a factory, some machinery is kept on because no one cares. Air conditioning could be controlled via AI to reduce using energy while no one is in a specific room or could keep an area under controlled temperature adjusting according to the outside temperature, reducing overall electricity consumption.
Sustaining Digital Projects
Another take on the topic is building a sustainable project in itself (which one way or another ties in with sustaining our planet’s resources). Yet for this argument, the aim is to focus on the project itself and neglect other affecting factors.
When it comes to digital projects, much of the data is kind of volatile. Data on hard disk drives (HHD) and solid-state drives (SSD) are subject to “bit rot” which is a phenomenon where data degrades over time when the magnetism of a specific storage device is lost. While modern HDDs and SSDs are much less subject to bit rot, they tend to fail over time, nonetheless. Sustaining a digital project requires taking good care of the storage medium,making redundant copies, and building off-site (and even off-country) backups to avoid natural disasters. The media needs to be changed every now and then due to the degradation, resulting in electronic waste.
True sustainability, in my own humble opinion, is a dream.But as they say: “reach for the stars and you might touch the moon”. It is very important to try and perfect our systems as much as we could. And although we haven’t been a truly sustainable society up till this point, we have gone miles ahead from what the case was in the industrial revolution and later in the beginning of the telecommunication revolution.
Brown,Susan, Patricia Clements, Isobel Grundy, Stan Ruecker, Jeffery Antoniuk, andSharon Balazs. 2009. “Published Yet Never Done: The Tension Between Projectionand Completion in Digital Humanities Research.” Digital Humanities Quarterly003 (2).
“How Dirty Is Your Data?” n.d. Greenpeace International. Accessed May 25, 2022.https://www.greenpeace.org/international/publication/7196/how-dirty-is-your-data.
“Smart Green World? Making Digitalization Work forSustainability | Tilmann Santarius | TEDxTUBerlin - YouTube.” n.d. Accessed May25, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNkaGLMIm_Q.
“Sustainability In The Digital Age | Dirk Messner |TEDxBonn - YouTube.” n.d. Accessed May 25, 2022.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpFgNZSwm-A.