For fifteen years, Vincent Courboulay is interested in the impacts of digital technology. First passed through the Green IT club, this engineer and lecturer in computer science at the University of La Rochelle founded in 2018 Responsible Digital Institute, of which he is today the scientific director. He is the author of the book Towards responsible digital. Let’s rethink our dependence on digital technologies (Actes Sud), published in January. From the open dumpsites of our electronic waste in Ghana, to the bill on reducing the digital environmental footprint, he invites us to reflect on the future of digital technology that is good for the planet.
What exactly do we mean by “responsible digital”?
Vincent Courboulay : This idea emerged in the debate around 2015. At the beginning, it was a question of reducing the environmental impact of digital, which is the source of nearly 4% of our greenhouse gas emissions globally – the double by 2025, according to the latest estimates from Ademe [Agence de l’environnement et de la maîtrise de l’énergie]. This is called Green IT. Over time, the notion of responsible has been enriched by another aspect: IT for Good, that is to say the use of digital tools to respond to the climate and social emergency. It is the Internet of Things that will make it possible to immediately detect a water leak on a network, for example, and thus reduce waste. Responsible digital now also includes ethical issues and digital sovereignty.
What is the dark side of digital?
Digital is a god with two faces. The luminous face puts knowledge within everyone’s reach, detects diseases, connects people, supports civic revolutions. In its dark side, this sector has a negative impact at all stages of its production and consumption. Today, it is the extraction of raw materials and the manufacture of our terminals (smartphones, computers, screens, etc.) that generate the most impacts in terms of energy balance, greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse, water consumption and contribution to the depletion of abiotic resources.
Data centers only contribute around 15%, where user equipment accounts for between 59% and 84% of the impacts depending on their duration of use (smartphones have a shorter duration of use than computers). The management of our waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is also a big black point. Companies have an obligation to ensure that their waste is recycled. In fact, the World Bank estimates that around 80% of WEEE is trafficked illegally and ends up in open dumps in Africa, such as in Tema, Ghana. A health scandal that doubles as an environmental scandal.
A bill aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of digital technology has just been adopted by members of the National Assembly. What does the text say and is it up to the stakes?
It seems important to me to underline that this is the first time that a law has made the link in its title between digital technology and its impact on the environment. It already has the merit of putting the subject on the table. The text provides for the creation of a research observatory of the environmental impacts of digital technology, it strengthens the fight against software obsolescence and supports the development of virtuous digital uses. The deputies have chosen to remove all forms of constraints from the text.
Obviously, this law is not sufficient, but I am one of those who believe that this first step was surely the most difficult and that we are at the beginning of a long history. It is an extension of the circular economy law of 2020, which gives pride of place to digital technology with the recognition of software obsolescence, the obligation to offer spare parts from the circular economy as is this is the case today for auto parts, or even the encouragement of public bodies to equip themselves with electronic products resulting from reuse. The refurbished market will necessarily unfold in the coming years. The key is the local, social and solidarity economy.
The deployment of 5G has started in major cities. To access it, we will have to change our cell phones. Should we fear an explosion of digital waste in the coming years?
The questions raised by 5G are legitimate, but the speed of deployment of the program is overestimated. Barely 1% of the speed is today on 5G and there are still areas in France that are not covered by 3G. It will first be a problem for the rich, because the equipment is expensive and we are emerging from a health crisis. In purchasing behavior, even adolescents, who are more prone to fad effects, are turning to repackaged products. In my opinion, we will have to wait for 6G, which is already announced for the end of the decade, for the Internet of Things to fully develop.
We will have to wait for 6G for the Internet of Things to fully develop
But instead of an all-out deployment on the territory, we will have to ask ourselves the question of the relevance of developing telecom standards at this high point when we are a country which will have optical fiber absolutely everywhere. In areas with very high industrial densities or in hospitals, 5G then 6G will surely be useful. I am for a reasoned deployment. Between the Amish and the Shadoks – who would deploy 5G across the country – we will have to find the right balance.
You are the founder and scientific director of the Responsible Digital Institute. What is his mission ?
The institute is an offshoot of the Green IT club. At the time of its creation in 2018, we wanted to give tools to public organizations, companies and individuals to train and objectify their approach, with a MOOC, the implementation of training in the new profession of responsible digital ambassador, a charter, a label, etc. I am very attentive to the coherence of the project.
Organizations that join our network are sometimes accused of practicing greenwashing. Perhaps. But the label NR (“Responsible digital”, which is chargeable) is an engaging process. The information systems department of Pôle emploi, Société Générale and the Brittany Regional Council are certified and have NR master plans. Concretely, this involves internal training plans, an extension of the lifespan of the computer and telephone fleets, a modification of the purchasing policy. The leitmotif in 2021 is measurement, objectification with tools and standards. And in ten years, when we no longer talk about responsible digital, we will have won.
Is the digital future everyone’s business?
Digital is a risk, responsible digital is an opportunity. For years, the Gafams (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) have imposed a certain digital story on us that we have all believed in. For example: digital technology saves us time, dematerialization saves trees, tablets allow children to learn better and are less burdensome on their backs than books, etc. With scientific studies, NGOs dealing with these subjects and the first legal texts which tend to regulate digital technology, we realize that this biased discourse is dangerous for our republics and our democracies. The main challenge for the next few years will be to build a collective, responsible and benevolent digital story. We cannot entrust the future of digital technology to technicians alone, it is also the business of human and social sciences.