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The Real Cost of Digitisation 

At a presentation to the Digital Nomad Conference in Killarney, Co, Kerry in September 2023, I discussed the fact that digitization is not without its costs to the environment.  

There is a perception that digital is clean. Digital involves searching on mobile phones, laptops and iPads, and none of these look environmentally threatening. Our searches are conducted using artificial intelligence. The Information that we find comes from what is called ‘the cloud’, a very clever illusion that makes people think of clear blue sky and a healthy environment. 

All of this however, is at a cost to the environment. At an earlier presentation to the European Association for Distance Learning (EADL ), in Brussels in May 2023, on “Sustainability in Education”, I pointed out that ChatGPT  has become the tool of choice for university students, teachers, creatives, researchers and business people. However, Euro News pointed out in a recent article that ChatGPT ‘drinks’ a bottle of fresh water for every 20-50 questions asked. We know that, literally, millions of questions are asked of Chat GPT on an hourly basis. Calculating the cost to the environment is a sobering exercise.  

Gillaume Pitron, the French journalist, offered some interesting statistics in his investigative 2013 book “The Dark Cloud”. Here are just a few: 

  • One Google search uses as much electricity as a lightbulb left on for two minutes. 
  • Every year, streaming technology generates as much greenhouse gas as Spain – close to 1 per cent of global emissions. 
  • All of humanity produces five exabytes of data per day – enough to fill a stack of 10 million Blu-ray discs as tall as the Eiffel Tower. 

The desire for mobile connectivity and instant information comes with a major cost to the environment. We calculate air miles and buy carbon offsets. Perhaps it is time to calculate digitization in the same way? 

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