5 Questions about Digital Sustainability to… Ad Verbrugge, De Nieuwe Wereld
Besides being an associate professor at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, philosopher Adrian Verbrugge is founder of De Nieuwe Wereld TV (The New World televison), which regularly broadcasts online talk shows addressing the major developments resulting from rapid technological advancements and globalisation. Here, he discusses the topic of digital sustainability in a broader cultural and social perspective, and urges governments and businesses to make even more of an effort to ask the right questions of themselves and others.
“We need to pay attention to what is necessary to stop digitalisation driving the humanity and meaning out of life”
How would you define the term ‘digital sustainability’, and why is it so important to you?
For me, ‘digital sustainability’ – or, as I tend to call it, ‘sustainable digitisation’ – is about avoiding harmful long-term effects of digitalisation for humanity as a whole. How can digital technology be used to improve the quality of life in the long term as well as the short term? This requires us to take a critical view of technological advancements and their potential consequences from the broader societal perspective, but this is not easy to do. History has shown us that we tend to focus on the short-term benefits of new technologies. leading to quick – and sometimes almost blind – acceptance. For example, we were quick to accept and adopt the motor car, because it offered lots of benefits in terms of mobility and convenience. But since then we’ve also discovered numerous new problems that we need to deal with, such as clogged infrastructure leading to air pollution and poor road safety resulting in injuries and fatalities. This implied new measures and regulations to counteract these negative side-effects. Given the current enviromental problems we are dealing with we are still in the process of doing so. Therefore, you could ask to what extent the technology has actually delivered on its promise of improving the quality of life. We are now seeing a similar situation with digitalisation. Digital solutions can definitely be a power for good and offer lots of potential ways to making processes more efficient and more ecofriendly in order to help reduce food waste, improve the energy-efficiency of our mobility infrastructure, and so on. But so far, we have been too narrowly focused on ‘digital functionality’, and we’ve failed to pay attention to the possible loss of quality and significance of our own actions as a result of implementing functional systems in our daily lives. Much bigger and broader issues are emerging now, such as privacy and freedom of speech, our own digital identity, the risk of manipulation and addiction, not to mention the concentration of so much power among a handful of key players. This is disrupting normal market dynamics and posing a threat to basic Western values. So for me, the concept of ‘digital sustainability’ covers what is necessary to stop digitalisation driving the humanity and meaning out of life.
What is the current state of awareness about digital sustainability among people in general, and how is this changing?
In recent years, I’ve sensed rising concern about the potential downsides of our digital universe, fuelled by mainstream media reports. For example, news of various malpractices such as Cambridge Analytics and societal upheavals related to Facebook have made many people more aware of what can happen when algorithms identify you as a particular ‘target group’ and feed you with carefully filtered information. Rather than social media enabling people to gain new perspectives by communicating with a broad cross-section of society, as initially anticipated, we’re seeing the opposite emerging: extremely enclosed bubbles of like-minded people who reinforce one another’s views. So digitalisation is actually resulting in less social dialogue than before and stirring up passionate emotions that have the potential to escalate more quickly and dramatically than they would in real life. Nevertheless, I believe most people still don’t fully realise how drastically the digital era is changing us and our relationships with ourselves and others. China is often referred to as an extreme example of the surveillance state, but was the introduction of the European corona passport during the pandemic really so much different? As more data becomes available, citizens in the Western world are increasingly being monitored, steered, rewarded or punished based on their behaviour – often without them realising it. And even something seemingly innocent like online dating apps may have ‘surprises’ in store for the future of humanity. Initially they seem to simply be a convenient way of helping people to meet and interact with others, with the benefit of combating loneliness. But the mere act of ‘swiping’ unwanted matches implies that even people are disposable items in today’s throwaway society, so why bother investing time in getting to know someone and building up a relationship? Besides actually amplifying the feelings of isolation, this could have serious longer-term consequences, such as reducing the likelihood that future generations will grow up in a stable family unit. So I would say that people aren’t yet fully aware of the shadow side of technological developments, but I see the growing sense of unease as a positive sign.
What should governments and policymakers be doing to support digital sustainability?
Digitalisation is such an all-encompassing development that the future can no longer be allowed to simply run its course; it’s time for concrete action and governments need to take the lead in this. In my view, governments should be not only facilitating discussions about the far-reaching impacts of digitalisation, but actively starting them. It is time to ask fundamental questions, starting with what is the essence of being human? Topics such as life, death, physicality, love, emotions, friendship and cultural traditions are all forcing themselves upon us. For example, if we will one day be able to ‘download’ the contents of our brains and store our consciousness on a server for ever more, will that equate to eternal life? What is our role as people? Are we happy to be replaced by machines, and if so, what will we do instead and how will we all earn a living? Which values do we hold dear? How will the technological developments affect those values? And how can we protect and cultivate those values? And then we need to find the answers together. This should be done based on analysis of the various scenarios, with the government then helping society to agree on behavioural rules or ‘a social code’ to manage the long-term consequences. This includes choosing a standpoint and making difficult decisions for the common good if necessary. People often need help in changing their behaviour, in which case governments should put frameworks in place to protect them against the risks. We’ve seen this work in the past in the interest of public health, such as banning smoking in public places or making it compulsory to wear a seatbelt. Similarly, if digital technology can have a harmful effect on people, they could consider introducing a ban. One current topic of debate in the Netherlands and elsewhere is whether mobile phones should be allowed in schools. I believe it’s especially important to think about and protect children from the possible harmful effects of technology – or at least introduce them to it gradually and help them to learn how to use it sensibly, rather than just rushing in. That’s why I can’t understand why the education sector made the switch so quickly and completely to digital blackboards, iPads and online learning environments. What’s wrong with small-scale pilots first, to create time to observe and evaluate the longer-term effects? Additionally, it’s important to have these discussions in time – preferably in advance – before people have formed new habits based around the new technology. Once they have, as the philosopher Marshall McLuhan stated, people are no longer able to see what they actually risk losing. And it’s precisely because today’s digital technology is so good at offering instant gratification that it poses such a threat to human emotions and relationships in the longer term. For instance, if children have never experienced the rich pleasure that can be derived from reading a book, they will never appreciate what they’re missing out on by only watching films and series online. It is great that new legislation being introduced at the European level is aimed at protecting fundamental rights such as privacy and data security, and there is even some mention of European values. However, what I miss in all of this is consideration of the cultural aspects, and how can we prevent the formation of potentially bad habits in the digital era.
How can companies play a role in this, and what is your advice for them?
It’s easy to become so absorbed in everyday business life that you lose sight of the bigger issues… until they become so urgent that they can no longer be ignored. And we have clearly reached that point. There is growing social resistance to a blatant focus on profit alone; it’s no longer a durable model. The topic of corporate social responsibility is becoming increasingly important, and I believe this is just the start. companies are expected to take responsibility. But there are two approaches to CSR: are you doing it just for the sake of appearances, such as supporting a couple of local charities and planting a few trees, or do you really want to make a difference for the future of humanity? The latter requires you to think at a fundamental level about how you shape your business. Do your activities actually improve the quality of life from the broader perspective, or do they contribute to forming bad habits? This is the chance for companies to make their relevance and the role they play in today’s and tomorrow’s society the starting point for everything they do. To get an idea of the bigger picture, I highly recommend watching documentaries, films and series about tech-related developments; many of them are very good. I often use episodes of Black Mirror as a way of sparking discussion during my training sessions for senior managers and board members. Sometimes they are really shocked by what they see. Perhaps it should be compulsory viewing for everyone!
Can you share any good examples of how digital sustainability is being put into practice?
One of the things that I like about INNOPAY, and the reason that we’ve been working together for so many years, is the company’s commitment to contributing to a feasible alternative to the current data-sharing situation. It is easy to criticise BigTech dominance, but it is much more difficult to come up with an alternative approach. By putting people back in control of their own data, I believe that data sharing schemes and data spaces can help to turn the bad habits that society is currently forming into good ones for the future, so that for me is one good example of sustainable digitisation. Another example is a sign that one company at least is swimming against the tide of digital functionality. The widespread installation of fibre-optic broadband networks drove a huge boom in online shopping, which is unquestionably convenient, but little thought was initially paid to the longer-term downsides, such as the impact on traditional retailers. Brick-and-mortar stores are about more than just shopping; they also play a key role in social cohesion in our villages, towns and cities. Therefore, I was pleased to see a recent advert by a Dutch bank emphasising that it is keeping its local branches open, bucking the trend of branch closures due to the shift towards online communication made possible by digitalisation. It’s reassuring that there are still companies out there which recognise the importance of personal contact and communities for us as humans. We still have a long way to go, but thanks to these and other similar examples, I sense a growing awareness of the importance of digitalising society in a sustainable manner.