A sustainable reality?

Published: 28 February 2023

The Bailiwick’s Data Protection Commissioner, Emma Martins, highlights the environmental and human cost of our data-hungry world. 

Wherever you are reading this from, look around for a second. How many of the items in your daily life do you have any meaningful connection with?

Do you know where your coffee came from or where the piece of fruit you had for breakfast was grown? What about the energy you use to heat your home, or charge your car? Or the car itself, how much do you know about where it was built, by whom and how?

Whether it’s the food we eat, energy we consume, goods we buy or technology we use, modern life has tended to put us on a trajectory of detachment. We rarely know much, if anything, about the lifecycle of these things.

This detachment can lead to apathy, disinterest, disempowerment and a sense that we have neither the ability, nor the responsibility, to question or to act.

Have a look at your smart phone, which is probably very close to hand. We are starting to better understand how smart devices collect, create and use data about us.

Like many advanced democracies, we have put legal protections in place around how our personal data can be collected and used. But how much do you know about how that device is made, what it is made from, who is involved in making it?

I am sure I am not alone in saying ‘not very much’. Recently I came across a news article that included a number of very powerful images. These images were photographs of a cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Without those images I would probably not have carried on to read the article, but they completely stopped me in my tracks. They showed hundreds if not thousands of people, including very young children, mining for cobalt mostly with their bare hands.

The haunting images were like something out of a history book. But this is not something that happened in our past, this is happening today.

DRC produces significant amount of the world’s supply of cobalt – an element used to produce lithium-ion batteries which are used in our smart phones, laptops and electric vehicles. Do you know anyone that hasn’t got at least one of those?

But how much do we know about the mining activities that feed this huge demand, of how it has, for years, been mired in allegations of corruption, child exploitation and human rights abuses? I am ashamed to say that, despite working in the field of data, I had no idea of the sheer scale and horror of the reality.

One of the most striking things about how we perceive and engage with the digital economy is the way in which we rarely see it as something physical. It has an ephemeral quality to it. Even the language we use, such as ‘cloud’, encourages us to airily avoid the reality.

But of course, data is neither ephemeral nor airy, it is a very physical thing. If it is a physical thing then, by definition, it is an environmental thing.

In amongst the increasing number of voices discussing environmental issues, how many times do we hear talk of the staggering volumes of data now sitting in vast servers, consuming ever increasing amounts of energy?

How often are we required to confront the human and environmental cost of creating the devices that themselves create the data which in turn devour all that energy? Not too often I would suggest.
Take a moment to do 2 quick (image) searches online.

Type in the words ‘cobalt mining Congo’

Type in the words ‘Amazon cloud server’.

Take a proper look at the images that come back from that search.

I am not sure who said “Technology without humanity is insanity” but they were right. We have seen how education, awareness and a sense of moral duty has shifted the dial on climate change. It is surely time to educate ourselves on the realities of the environmental and human impact of technology and exponential data collection.

When we consider data protection, we cannot afford to do so in a silo. There is a context to it all which extends beyond the piece of technology in our possession, or the law on our statute books.

Facing those realities must be the first step to aiming for a more sustainable and less exploitative future – a future where technology is rooted in humanity The trajectory is not set, and it can be changed, but only if we choose to change it.