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Tilman Santarius: "It's nonsense to digitize everything"

Tilman Santarius: "It's nonsense to digitize everything"
Photo: © Felix Noak

Tilman Santarius is Professor of Digitization and Socio-Ecological Transformation at the Technical University of Berlin (TU). He has been researching digitization and sustainability for years. We wanted to know from him how ecological, social and digital sustainability are interrelated and what role creative professionals play in this process.


CCB Magazine: Mr. Santarius, we have a new federal government. Sustainability and digitization are at the top of the agenda. In which area do you place more hope, in digitization or in sustainability?   

Tilman Santarius: We'll see what the new coalition does with this. In general, I'm hoping for more in the area of sustainability. We can't go on living the way we have been, as all the scientific reports and now even common sense are telling us. Digitization, on the other hand, is not a must. It's something we can afford as a society because it makes a lot of things easier. But whether we will be able to survive on this planet in the future does not depend on digitization. That is for us to decide as people, through our lifestyle.

CCB Magazine: It is striking that all parties agree that digitization and sustainability are linked to a belief in growth. Isn't there a contradiction there?

Tilman Santarius: Absolutely. Hardly any party, not even the Greens, is saying that we need to slow down and can't just keep growing. But if we want to achieve the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Climate Agreement, we need a different economic model. And digitization is pretty much fueling the misconception that we can keep on growing. But the focus must not be on increasing efficiency. We need a smarter and reduced use of resources.

CCB Magazine: And that means?

Tilman Santarius: Stefan Lange and I talk in our book ‘Smarte grüne Welt?’ about "soft digitization," and what that means is that it's nonsense to digitize everything. Artificial intelligence is not needed everywhere. We need to slow down in many areas, with soft, smart, selective digitization in those areas where it makes sense and where it benefits society. Ten percent of global electricity consumption is already attributable to the Internet. And it won't stop at the power problem. For example, the ten billion smartphones produced worldwide since the introduction of the first iPhone in 2007 consume around 260,000 tons of aluminium. The good thing is that the Internet and digitization are enabling greater networking and thus more efficient work processes and cooperation. In the future, the production of goods could be located much closer to consumers, thus eliminating transport routes and reducing emissions of climate-damaging gases. But that won’t happen automatically. The goal must now be to use active political measures to make digitization useful for the climate.

Digitization is not a must, sustainability is. Whether we will be able to survive on this planet in the future does not depend on digitization. We decide that - through our lifestyle

CCB Magazine: Now let's get specific. How can we do that?

Tilman Santarius: At the national level, we first need a home office law to enable more flexible working and a reduction in traffic. The Berlin Institute for Future Studies and Technology Assessment, for example, has calculated that just one home office day in Germany can save 1.6 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. Secondly, we need EU design guidelines for information and communications technology products, i.e. for smartphones, laptops, cell phones, etc., but also for data centers. These must stipulate that certain energy standards must be met - here, attention must be paid to generating as little data as possible. Third, the devices must be manufactured sustainably. They must be repairable, more durable and fairly manufactured. So it's also about hardware sufficiency. This also includes longer warranty obligations for products, take-back obligations and a "right to repair" from suppliers to reduce excess consumption, but also - very importantly - an additional software sufficiency. Companies must regularly provide free updates to extend the service life of their products and the services they offer to the maximum. And fourth, policymakers should flank all of this with general framework conditions, such as raising eco-taxes or, for example, reforming monopoly law, so that tomorrow's digital solutions do not come from Google, Facebook and Amazon.

CCB Magazine: Many of the sustainable solutions come from the cultural and creative industries. How do digitization and sustainability interact here? Are the two mutually dependent or ultimately mutually exclusive?

Tilman Santarius:You have to look at the individual industries to find out. Let's take the events sector. As far as the sustainability impact is concerned, the journey to and from the event is the most important factor. There's little you can do about that at first, unless you cancel all the concerts, which no one can want to do. But you can ask how many events need to have live attendance, given the abundance of events. The corona crisis has showed vividly how cutting down road traffic by holding meetings on Zoom benefits the climate. At the peak of the corona crisis, emissions in Germany were down by 26 percent, largely due to a 50 to 80 percent drop in traffic. True, there was also a 120 percent increase in videoconferencing. But on balance, that causes far fewer emissions than airplanes or other forms of mobility: Just zooming once instead of taking the train from Munich to Hamburg makes a 90 percent saving in greenhouse gases. Another example is the book trade, where many believe that switching from paper to digital is inherently more sustainable. This is a misconception. Building and operating Kindles or iPads consumes so much energy and raw materials that it only pays off after around 50 books have been downloaded. On top of reading online come book sales, which have barely declined for years - so it's not as if digital publications are simply replacing print products. And the main problem remains streaming. Again, people think that by eliminating physical products - such as the CD, sales of which plummeted 80 percent between 2001 and 2020 - something is gained ecologically. But we are streaming more and more. Streaming movies is one of the most energy-intensive digital services of all. It now already accounts for 60 to 70 percent of global data streams.

Cultural actors are and will remain the impulse generators. They just have to make sure that they don't lose out in the end. And we can only achieve ecological and social transformation if everyone pulls together

CCB Magazine:What solutions do you see here?

Tilman Santarius: We need to give an edge to small, sustainable providers and make them more discoverable on the web. For example, we are currently working on a new Green Assumption Assistant, which is created on the Ecosia platform and suggests alternative, sustainable products.

CCB Magazine:But you can't compete with the big corporations and platforms. Platforms like Google, Amazon or Facebook work so well because everything is so efficient, convenient and simple. In the end, isn't the problem one of social sustainability? Isn't it a question of justice?

Tilman Santarius: It's about both, an ecological problem and a social one. The big platforms not only disregard ecological standards. They are also unsustainable in social terms. It's well known that artists earn hardly anything on Spotify. They would only get more money if click-through rates increased a thousandfold - which in turn is highly unecological. Data capitalism today is based on the multiplication of data, which is not exhaustible, in contrast to the old industrial capitalism, which was based on the wearing out of physical products - oil, coal, steel.

CCB Magazine: In their book ‘Das Digital’, authors Thomas Ramge and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger call for a new "progressive data-sharing obligation." What they mean by this is that data giants like Google should share their data with competitors when they reach a certain market share, for example ten percent. Is that the solution?

Tilman Santarius: In social terms, yes. Data sharing can be a way to break the market power of the few. I also welcome the fact that the Digital Markets Act is currently being negotiated at EU level to curb the power of large digital corporations. On the other hand, not every form of data decentralization is sustainable from an environmental perspective. Take the example of blockchain and Bitcoin. It is a completely insane idea of some hardcore blockchain fans that we could create a sustainable economy with the broad application of blockchain technology. Bitcoin provides an extreme example of this. A single calculation of a Bitcoin block is about 10,000 times as energy intensive as a credit card transaction. It would be the ruin of the planet if the entire economy were based on Bitcoin-like blockchain applications. Another example is the application of Artificial Intelligence. AI-based systems can help better coordinate distributed energy system components - power generators, consumers, storage - in smart grids and optimize grid utilization through pattern recognition on plant control data. But the best AI-based optimization of the energy system is of little use if we don’t at the same time make rapid advances in the expansion of renewable energies. Combining the ecological with the social remains a Herculean task.

CCB Magazine: Mr. Santarius, if we were to conduct this interview ten years from now, will the German government have achieved the 1.5-degree target set by the Paris Agreement? And what contribution can cultural players make to a sustainable and digital society?

Tilman Santarius: Achieving the 1.5-degree target will require a courageous policy in the long term and so depends not only on the new German government - which, it has to be said, urgently needs to set a different course if it is to succeed at all. Cultural actors are and will remain the driving force. They sometimes have groundbreaking ideas. They just have to make sure that they don't ultimately fall by the wayside. And we can only achieve ecological and social transformation if everyone pulls together. Policymakers set the guidelines. And users need to be careful with data-intensive applications, especially video streaming. Streaming video on the streetcar uses so much energy that there’s no benefit anymore to not taking your car. But who knows, maybe in ten years we'll have car-free city centers.That would be the good news.

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