Technology Sustainability – Mitigating The Unintended Consequences

What is technology sustainability?

When people think about the word ‘sustainability’ in 2019, there is a tendency to isolate the concept to the environment. Sustainability, by definition, is the ability to maintain a given rate or level without the depletion of resources over a long period of time. So, why limit our thinking to one area? Being sustainable can extend to every aspect of our lives, from our relationships to our eating habits, our consumptions levels, and even our technology usage.

Taking a sustainable approach to technology means considering the broader impact of technology on people, as well as the planet. It’s not just about ‘green tech’. But, what does that really mean? In simple terms, sustainable technology use means considering the long-term ramifications of the decisions we make relating to the technology we use.

Technology can create unintended consequences, referred to as second order effects, which can have a harmful impact long term if we leave them unmanaged. For our relationship with technology to progress, there must be a net positive effect with the benefits outweighing those unintended negative consequences.

Not just black and white; there’s usually a hue of grey.

Most people would praise the mass electrification of society. And, they would be correct to do so. Many of our societies can now function without being dictated by the movements of Earth relative our nearest star. One benefit that immediately springs to mind is people are generally safer walking at night because of streetlights (which don’t need to be relit every few hours). Lightbulbs in the home allow children to complete their homework without racing against a setting sun before it becomes too dark to see their pages.

A later benefit of mass electrification is the eventual creation (and evolution) of computers. Our smart-phones allow us to be constantly connected and contactable. I can log into my litany of social media accounts to check in on how my closest (and most distant) friends are getting on every day.

The thing is, though, we are only now beginning to understand just how detrimental the electrification of society has been on our sleeping patterns. A lack in the quality, as well as the quantity, of sleep we get (which is the result of excessive light consumption) is now known to negatively impact our physical and mental health. A poor sleeping habit causes irritability, reduces cognition, and long term, can spawn serious physical conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and immunity problems.

When we specifically consider our computers and smart-phones, it is the detrimental effects of excessive exposure to blue-light which is most problematic. Without diving too deeply into the physics behind it, blue-light very easily penetrates our eyes. It’s what helps regulate our bodies natural sleep cycle (in simple terms – when the sky is blue, your body knows to be awake). This excessive exposure to blue-light causes strain on our eyes, and overtime, can result in retinal damage.

Considering our digital wellbeing.

In our professional lives, we are creating what’s known as the “Human+ workforce”. People are being empowered by their skill set and knowledge, along with a constantly growing set of capabilities made possible by advances in technology. I can be sitting in a café in San Francisco on my mobile talking to my colleague in Hong Kong, or remotely connect to the office from the comfort of my living-room.

However, what happens when this constant connectivity begins to blur the lines between our work-life and our home-life? While remote working has improved the welfare of many employees by making it easier to balance their home-life commitments, by being ‘always connected’ to work (thanks to your smart-phone), we are eroding the boundaries between our work and home lives.

This excessive connectivity can have a massively detrimental effect on our welfare and well-being. We have become hyper-conscious about creating good, healthy habits relating to exercise, mobility, and nutrition; all the aspects that make up our physical well-being. So, why are we so slow to consider our digital well-being?

Automation is the new synonym for self-actualisation.

That said, this new Human+ workforce isn’t exlusively negative. There are many benefits to these technological advances; increased automation, the creation of previously unimaginable jobs, and improved job-satisfaction, to name only a few.

While often the word ‘automation’ can conjure up questions and fears relating to jobs, these questions don’t necessarily have to be negative. Mass automation has helped eliminate time-consuming, mundane, repetitive tasks. It has freed up a countless number of hours for employees all over the globe to spend their time delivering more meaningful, value-add, and self-actualising work. Of course – automation changes the nature of roles all the time. That isn’t going to change. However, it also does not mean suddenly the rate of employment is going to plummet.

In a microcosm, digitising a company’s operational figures in a database did not eradicate the need for accountants. It has, however, reduced the amount of time spent collating data from a multitude of shops, compiling accounting logs, and summing year-end results. Now when we want to determine sales figures, it’s a simple query to a database. People who would have manually compiled receipts and sifted through ledgers, no longer have to as compiling those figures is automated. Typing pools, tellers in banks, and call routing roles have all been displaced with those people adding value in different positions. History continues to show us that automation leads to job change, not job loss.

The reality is the only constant in our lives is that everything eventually changes. From a corporate perspective, employee fears relating to job security dissipate when the benefits of automating a process (and how the nature of related roles will evolve as a result) are communicated properly. Automation is about supplementation – not simply substitution. By subsequently reinvesting that time, cost, and effort into your reskilling strategy, you can create a sustained growth mindset.

Robots aren’t biased. People are.

Even the best intended algorithms can be fallible to the unconscious biases of the programmer. By their design, machine learning algorithms are only as good as their programmer, the training dataset, how they’re deployed, and how they’re evaluated. At any of these stages, an algorithm is potentially exposed to inadvertent biases that may result in a poor output, and consequentially, an equally poor decision.

‘Explainability’ refers to the ability of programmers to understand and explain how and why an algorithm has produced its output. It’s important to note the difference to ‘Interpretability’ which relates to our ability to hypothesise, test, and prove the outputs by altering the inputs. Understanding the working components of our machine learning will maintain a high level of algorithmic credibility and reliability.

While we are still a bit away from algorithms making life-altering decisions without any human oversight or intervention, it’s imperative we program bias discovery measures into our algorithms. Ensuring our algorithms are auditable will mean we can identify areas for improvement, highlight potential problem areas, and most importantly, ensure we don’t erode the trust between humans and machines. Allowing machine learning algorithms to exist as complete enigmas will simply eradicate decision-making accountability, and create an unsustainable relationship between people and the technology we use.

Not understanding the consequences won’t stop them from being detrimental.

All our actions result in a series of both known and unknown consequences, and there will always be unknown consequences. For example, in the 1940’s, New York introduced a rent cap post-war to avoid seeing veterans returning home and being priced out of the rental market. What resulted was landlords began charging rent at the maximum threshold of the cap, while not maintaining the quality of accommodation, because there was no incentive to them. Good intentions were met with a not-so-good outcome.

It’s the same principle when it comes to technology sustainability. Short term, having your employees being constantly connected to work, irrespective of where they are or what they’re doing, may squeeze out a few more labour hours per week. But, long term, it results in high rates of staff burnout, and difficulty retaining some of your best people.

Technology sustainability makes sense. It’s rational. When we consider long-term ramifications of our actions, we can mitigate for known potential negative consequences. This can also help to lessen any negative impact from unknown results that may follow.

When thinking about the sustainable use of technology, it’s about doing our best to ensure that the spectrum of needs is met for everyone. Creating awareness around effective digital wellbeing management tools, promoting trust in algorithms, and communicating how automation will be a benefit can help create a long-term sustainable relationship with technology.

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