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ICT Usage and Its Environmental Impacts

The final session on this second day of COST298 starts with Inge Røpke and Toke Haunstrup Christensen, whose interest is in the environmental impact of ICT use. What new environmental threats are likely to emerge from current trends? This research was conducted through in-depth interviews with Danish users, and found pervasive, creative, and diversified ICT uses.

ICTs can be used for a wide range of activities, and are now integrated in almost any form of everyday life - this is different for example from the Hungarian example which we heard about earlier today, where being online is still an activity in its own right, rather than a condition for participating in a range of more specific activities. Inge now runs through a number of examples demonstrating the pervasiveness of ICTs - Webcams to monitor rooms, computers to monitor exercise activities, community email newsletters and Websites, and so on.

This also draws on an increasing amount of publicly available information, such as genealogy data from official birth registers, and is starting to mash up physical and virtual spaces (one user can turn off the lights at home using a Second Life representation of it, for example). In fact, uses are diversifying and becoming more creative - there is a wide variety of means for staying in touch with friends and family, for example, from the conventional (phone, mobile phone) to the more advanced (Second Life and other online spaces).

What is obvious here is that at this relatively early stage, user habits and routines are not very difficult to change - at least, not if change takes places towards an environmentally problematic direction. For example, ICT tools and technologies for networking are multiplying, and so is the associated energy consumption; rolling back this change or reducing consumption by turning off computers, however, is seen as impractical (as there is always a chance that we may need access the next minute, or that someone may wish to contact us). Some ICTs are also used for energy saving (where they themselves are used to monitor consumption, for example), but this remains a minority use by far.

ICTs can be seen as the next round in the electrification of households (following lighting, power and heating, broadcasting, data processing, and network infrastructure); statistics show that TV, music, and computer use account for an ever increasing slice of households' energy consumption, for example. Additionally, of course, there is also a range of indirect energy needs - for example for running network infrastructure, or for producing and disposing of equipment (which now often has a very short lifecycle).

All of this may be able to be compared to changes which occured in the establishment of car culture - or may have even more radical long-term implications. Governmental agendas to prevent climate change and to promote the broadband society may well be on a collision course, therefore.

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