Essay of the Day: the Limits to Technology

“Limits to Technology is a research project on the role of resource depletion and the ecological limits to human society within our future use of “technological systems” – a broad term covering both our use of computers and mobile technologies, but also the electronics, metals and chemical components of everyday goods and products, and the latest “green technologies”.*

* Article: The “Limits to Technology”: Ecological Boundaries of the Information Age.

The following excerpt is based on workshop notes; developed by Paul Mobbs and the Free Range Network’s’Salvage Server’ Project

Paul Mobbs:

““Limits to Technology” examines the role of resource depletion and the ecological limits to human society’s future use of “technological systems” – a broad term covering not only our use of computers and mobile technologies, but also the electronics, metals and chemical components of everyday goods and products, and the latest “green technologies”. Like the human system in general, our use of technology is subject to certain resource specific limits; by understanding these limits, and how they affect us all, we can address our minds to devising new ways to live our lives in an inevitably more resource-constrained future.

Modern technology is just “there” – whether you use it or choose not to, and irrespective of whether you object to it or not; in affluent societies technological systems surrounds us and guide our lives. For this reason they are seldom questioned. Given the concepts of economic growth and technological progress that dominate the media and political agenda, we don’t have time to reflect on what the future of technology may be – often because many people have so many difficulties handling the implications of the technologies that they must master today.

In practical terms technological systems are dependent upon the electricity grid (much of it stops working in a power cut!) and on the system of retailers and service operatives who maintain it. We seldom consider the ecological limits of technology; the dependence of human technologies upon the systems, and upon the natural resources, that enable it to function. Even with the recent concern about carbon emissions, whilst we might focus on the amount of electricity all our gadgets use we seldom give a thought to the impacts of creating all these systems, and how changing trends in energy and resource production might adversely affect our continued “enjoyment” of modern technology. “Limits to Technology” has been developed by Paul Mobbs and the Free Range Network’s ‘Salvage Server’ Project in order to highlight, and to allow a discussion to take place on, the “ecological boundaries” of modern technology.

Technology is just a tool – on its own it is neither good not bad. Whether technological systems create a future for the better, or the worse, depends upon our ability to make them sustainable in the longer-term. Otherwise our unseen dependency on these systems has the potential to create a human crisis in the future if we cannot sustain their operation. This, given the available information on the ecological dependencies of technology, is the question that we should all be posing to those who guide our Technological Society today.”

The thermodynamics of digital technologies

The processes of ecoefficiency – making devices more efficient to reduce their impacts – does not easily apply to digital/nano-scale systems. They are an inherently low entropy system, and therefore requires more energy to make; there is no such thing as “Green ICT”, and so patterns of use must change to accommodate for resource scarcity.

Look at this image of a computer motherboard – it’s a modern treasure-trove of rare and exotic substances: Most visibly you see the relatively plentiful aluminium in the cooling fins/heat sinks on the microprocessors; the circuit board itself if clad in a thick layer of copper (Cu); the various connectors on the board are most likely made of iron, copper and tin alloys that are more conductive, often with a gold layer of electroplating to enhance the conductivity of the mechanical connection; the small round black/ green and silvery components are capacitors, manufactured using titanium (Ti), barium (Ba) and sometimes other rarer metals; some of the minute devices on the board are also capacitors, but their small size means they contain much higher quality, and thus rarer materials such as niobium (No) or tantalum (Ta); the coils are inductors manufactured from enamelled copper wire; the board itself and most of the connectors are made from laminated materials or thermoplastic resins that depend upon the availability of cheap oil; the semiconductor chips are made of silicon doped with rare elements, and which have circuits “imprinted” onto the surface through etching and the formation of microscopic conductive layers by the condensation of vapours of rarer metals; the large black circle in the middle is the button battery that powers the memory containing the BIOS settings when the computer is turned off – made from various materials such as manganese, lithium, silver, zinc or copper; most of these components are fixed to the board with solder80 made from an alloy containing mixtures of tin, copper, silver, bismuth, indium, zinc, antimony and some other metals.

Finally, these devices are manufactured in large fabrication plants, mostly in east Asia, often using electricity from predominantly coal-fired plants, and then shipped around the globe using oil-fired ships and freight distribution systems.

By their nature devices that rely on extremely pure materials, engineered at microscopic levels of detail, require far more energy to create than “old fashioned” devices. There is no “techno-fix” to this problem – it’s a fundamental physical principle. They might be more efficient or require less energy during their operational lives but because these devices require far more energy to be expended in their production they are often no more efficient overall when we look at their life-cycle of operation (e.g., the comparison between flat screen and vacuum tube monitors on desktop computers – it’s debatable whether flat screens have a lower impact than older ‘tube’ monitors as life-cycle studies indicate that there is no significant difference between the impacts of either technology). Consumers may obsess about the red lights on standby devices and their array of warm power supplies, but in reality around fourfifths of the life cycle energy use of a computer is expended in production – less than a fifth is consumed in its operation. We have to think beyond the power cord in order to tackle to impacts of ICT.

The construction of these systems is no accident.

It represents a progression in human technology that, in order to become more complex, must utilise more specialised materials, larger systems, and thus greater energy and resource consumption. Perhaps more importantly these systems have a symbiotic relationship to economic growth; information systems have been the means by which economic globalisation has been able to reinforce and develop the growth economy83 beyond the national or regional economic systems that existed in the years following the Second World War.

To understand the significance of our dependence upon low entropy materials, and the use of scarce resources in their production, we need to understand a little more about the technological systems that are at the heart of modern electronics and information systems.”

1 Comment Essay of the Day: the Limits to Technology

  1. Mark Janssen

    The purpose of technology, in my view, and despite being a Computer Scientist, is to form a bridge to get us to the point where we don’t need it anymore. It is not really something in harmony with the Earth, but a by-product of man’s history that got us to this point of being able to see that “we all in it together”. It took technology to get us to that/this point.

    Now we can use its products to fix our democracy, make a true economic system, and build the world that our hearts want. It’s within reach, but there’s a lot of ignorance and relationships to mend. For very good writing much like this excerpt, try read Curtis White of Sun (or Orion?) magazine — some of the most eloquent writing on the use of technological language in relationship to human society.

    Mark Janssen
    Tacoma, Washington

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