Is the Personal Computer sustainable in the long term?

This post is an opinion piece intended for publication outside of ning, but I wanted your views first


With the benefit of hindsight with the automotive industry, many argue that we should have found ways of limiting the number of cars manufactured, or that more resource should have been spent on communal transport. There is a slowly increasing awareness of our carbon footprint, and it is currently recognised that the rise of the computer industry is having a detrimental impact on the environment. It is estimated that in 2008 the computer industry will surpass the aviation industry in terms of its carbon footprint. It is irrelevant whether it is this year, next year or in five years time, the computer industry is contributing to the unfolding global environmental pressures, and increasing energy use.

However we must take personal responsibility for this situation. We can act to make a difference, and industry and governments around the work can help. What we must consider is not how industry must change, but how we must change. The Personal Computer is now ubiquitous in many households across the developing world. In fact there are often a number of PCs in these households. Can we sustain this in the long term? Can we really allow ourselves this luxury of multiple PCs in every home, indeed for every person? Is this really sustainable in the next twenty years, or fifty years?

The automotive industry is responding to the dwindling supplies of oil by looking to find alternative sources of fuel. Is the computer industry following suit? It is not. It is taking the approach that it has new markets in the developing world to follow and will pursue these as well as continuing to saturate the developed world. Processors are becoming more power efficient, but it is not simply a question of more power effective processors. The recycling and reuse of computer equipment is woefully low. There are a number of organisations who do this, but it has often been driven by the voluntary sector, since government and industry do not seem to find this a priority. There is a drive to close the ‘digital divide’, the gap between those people who are benefitting from computers and technology and those people who do not. I am not arguing that we must try to turn the clock back and prevent people from benefitting from computer technology, it has far to many empowering benefits for that. I am arguing for a strategic development of community technology facilities across the world to directly counter the environmental and energy impact that the current focus on the personal will ultimately have.

Let us consider two alternate visions of the future.

The first is where we continue as we are in 2008 with an estimated one billion PCs worldwide, to the point where there are in twenty years, say, three billion PCs across the globe. Community technology centres funding continues to be ad hoc, uncoordinated and unsustained. Energy consumption may outstrip supply, or make it prohibitively expensive, and there will be no adequate alternative community network to help people get over those times, perhaps on a daily basis in the developed world, when the power goes off. Let’s wind it on to fifty years from hence, and the power crisis is at breaking point. Power is routinely rationed to individual cities and there is no effective alternative communal infrastructure to help citizens without power.

The second is where governments and industry have responded to environmental imperatives focused on energy preservation, there has been a sustained strategic investment in community technology centres, and there has been personal action by individuals to limit our use of energy consuming technology products. In twenty years there is at least a network of centres where our digital empowerment can continue when the power goes off, let’s hope maybe only once a week. These actions may not lead on their own to a likely power crisis being turned around, but maybe it can be delayed, and this delay may make a big difference in the long term. In fifty years the network could have become the mainstay of inter-community communication and empowerment, and is the community lifeline for many people in times of energy failure.

I am absolutely convinced that this is not achievable without the full involvement of governments across the world, industry, and some unpopular personal decisions ahead. But can we really accept the alternative? With a fuel shortages a likely feature of the future, would we, given the chance again, have not tried to limit the automotive industry from the proliferation of vehicles across the planet, and have developed more public transportation systems. With this hindsight, can we really allow ourselves multiple computers, televisions and other energy consumers, without an adequate community network in place to support communities through the likely energy shortages that will result?

The developing world is saying loudly that they want part of the consumer electronic lifestyle that those in the developed world have become accustomed to. They are not at fault to aspire to this, but the developed world needs to make a decision about which vision for the future it wants to create. It cannot change the past, but it does have the power to change the future. It has the ability to act now in crisis prevention rather than later in crisis management.

I’m sure that this essay will be criticized and challenged by those in industry who have computers and consumer electronics to sell. They may argue that I have my facts and predictions wrong, that I am predicting a crisis where there isn’t one, and it won’t happen like this. Can we take the chance I might be right? It will impact on their bottom line. It could cause job losses if processes aren’t re-engineered, and some technology companies will be lost. However I want to try to avert a power crisis that will render the internet, personal computers and other electronic products for the home completely useless. I want to prevent the wholesale cannibalization of the industry that has to date empowered so many, but if allowed to be unrestricted will be an agent of its own demise.

I work in the field of community technology centres in the UK and Europe. It is not that I am simply trying to ensure funding for these centres, I am trying to ensure that the future of these centres will have the most impact. Their present role is about widening the benefits of the internet and communications technology and in so doing addressing the ‘digital divide’. Its future role could be about empowering communities in an age when it no longer the ‘digital divide’ that we face, but more simply the ‘energy divide’, those who benefit from power and those who don’t.

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Comment by Pawel Makowiecki on May 27, 2008 at 14:21
Really nice essay... I love the metaphor that compare 'telecentres' to 'public transport' in context of energy crisis.

I also have and use many PC's in my home(s) and I am really confuse about it. New advance 'smart phone'/'mobile device' and access to PC in some public space (like community centers, libraries, etc.) can create sustainable model for that issue...

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