How has the impact of digital technology evolved over time?

10 Mar


Written by

Louise McNutt




How has the impact of digital technology evolved over time?
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In a single minute across the world, 70,000 hours of box sets and movies are watched on Netflix, 5 million videos are viewed on YouTube, and more than 600,000 photos are posted on Snapchat, not to mention the 4 billion searches on Google, 500,000 tweets and more than 100 million spam messages! (Towards Digital sobriety, Frédéric Bordage, 2019). But how did we get here? And what is the impact of digital technology?

Digital technology is a sector that has become indispensable in our daily lives both professionally and privately. Since the arrival of the Internet in the 1980s, we can communicate by email with anyone on the planet, stream videos, program our heating thermostats, book our holidays online and much more. All this anytime, and almost anywhere.

The Internet is a vast global computer network, which makes it possible to transfer information almost instantly from one place to another between individuals anywhere on the planet and browse the web, not to mention a host of other uses. All of this is made possible by a huge digital universe, consisting of servers, user terminals and communication networks, which is rapidly expanding.

To understand the environmental impact of digital technology, let’s start by looking at its dramatic explosion and the challenges currently facing our rapidly evolving and now ultra-connected world.

Note: as the impact of digital technology is such a vast field of study, we’re only going to look at two major trends: equipment, which has the greatest impact and digital habits.

The evolution of digital equipment and the impact of digital technology

The growth of connected devices

While it’s difficult to estimate how many devices make up the Internet, as existing data is not always available due to a lack of traceability and activity or end-of-life, the wide range of manufacturers or trade secrets (among other things), there are studies producing estimates that give us some idea.

According to Cisco, one of the big names in enterprise networking, in 2018 there were:

● 3.9 billion people connected to the Internet,
● 19.4 billion devices connected to the Internet, 33% of which were Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Cisco predicts that connected objects will grow by 10% annually to reach nearly 30 billion in 2023:

Cisco graph
Growth in the number of connected devices in billions, © Cisco Annual Internet Report, 2018-2023

Note that this data only takes into account terminals and does not include data centers or network equipment making up the Internet.

With this growth comes an ever-increasing impact on the environment. Digital equipment consists of all the materials that have to be extracted, transported, transformed, assembled and distributed to keep us logged in.

The lion’s share of this impact comes from manufacturing, which consumes the most resources and emits the most greenhouse gases: for example, in France, 80% of the digital footprint is due to device manufacturing.

The ubiquity of smartphones

Smartphones are the digital devices that we look at most on a daily basis. We can’t live without them. According to the latest figures published in the Digital 2022 Report by We Are Social and Hootsuite, there are 5.48 billion cellphone users worldwide and 80% of them have smartphones.

Every year, manufacturers release new smartphone models. More efficient and more sophisticated, with more features, these devices also require more raw materials and energy, with bigger screens and parts that are no longer repairable. This encourages users to change smartphones regularly. But three quarters of the environmental impact of smartphones comes from their manufacture!

ADEME smartphones
Extract from the infographic “Smartphones, a complicated relationship” by ADEME

The impact these trends can have on the environment, due to their manufacture, especially the extraction of metals, is understandable. In the 1990s, cellphones contained about 30 metals, but today they contain more than 50 different metals, including precious metals such as gold and silver and rare special metals such as tantalum. The problem is that only 20 models can currently be recycled (source: ADEME).

The development of networks – 4G, and soon 5G

Rolled out in the 2010s, the 4th generation mobile network (4G) has significantly increased the bandwidth available to the end user, opening the way to a rise in the use of multimedia and roaming. We can stream a HD video, use a mobile device as an access point and use the cloud while roaming etc.

Each of the new generations of mobile networks brings with it an increase in mobile usage, with constant, more seamless and faster access to content. The environmental impact is even greater, as increasingly powerful terminals have to be renewed, and the services offered are more byte-intensive for an equivalent terminal (source: The Shift Project).

According to Frédéric Bordage, an expert in Green IT and digital sobriety, the 4G network generates an environmental impact approximately 20 times greater than that of a wired network (ADSL) or fiber broadband. The energy consumption of mobile networks is rising sharply compared to fixed networks and, despite successive generations of networks becoming more energy efficient, the total energy consumption of digital habits has been steadily increasing for several decades (source: The Shift Project).

When it comes to 5G rollout, which is the subject of heated debate, bandwidth would be significantly increased. But this technological advance would not be carbon neutral: the High Council on Climate says in a report that 5G could lead to a rise of between 18% and 45% in the carbon impact of digital technology in 10 years and reach between 2.7 million and 6.7 million tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030 (source French Senate). In effect, this would lead to tens of millions of devices in perfect working order becoming obsolete and being scrapped and new ones, whose manufacture and transportation are highly polluting, being acquired, changes in the way networks and data centers operate and an increase in electricity production.

The evolution of digital habits

The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT)

A very marked trend is the explosion in the number of objects connected to the Internet and embedded computing, with the arrival of new devices (portable Bluetooth speakers, fitness tracking watches and bracelets, etc.) and smart equipment in homes (household robots, televisions, surveillance systems, lighting, thermostats etc.).

Following an exponential curve, the number of digitally connected devices could double between 2020 and 2030 (source: Analytical Note, The Shift Project March 2021).

Shift Project Analytical
Global stock of network-connected devices (Source: Shift Project Analytical Note, based on data from IEA 4E EDNA, 2019)

This massive rise in everyday connected devices is mainly occurring in developed countries. While every global region is experiencing an increase in the amount of equipment, this is expected to rise more sharply in developed countries, which already have device overload, than in developing countries.

Shift Project
Digital equipment in a four-person household in an OECD country  (Source: Shift Project Analytical Note, based on GSMA data, 2015).

The data traffic explosion

Data first entered our daily lives in the 1990s with the appearance of the World Wide Web. Before the advent of social media, the online messaging apps, forums and websites that made up the Web were resource light.

In 20 years, the growth in data traffic has been explosive and the numbers are staggering. In 1992 it only represented 100GB per day. Ten years later, it has grown to the point of reaching 100GB per second! And it continues to accelerate, as evidenced by the growth of the datasphere (based on data from the Cisco Visual Networking Index Forecast):

  • 1992: 100GB/day, i.e., less than the hard drive capacity of today’s computers
  • 1997: 2,400GB/day
  • 2002: 8.6 million GB/day
  • 2007: 172 million GB/day, i.e., an almost tenfold increase in 5 years
  • 2017: 4 billion GB/day. Smartphones, social media, the cloud and video streaming have led to a data explosion
  • 2022: 13.02 billion GB/day. If we can store 11 million HD movies on a 1 exabyte disk (one EB = one billion GB), this is equivalent to the storage required for 143,220,000 HD movies (source: IONOS).

You can see this remarkable evolution as a 3D data visualization model entitled  The data era: internet traffic per day by Sophie Stenger on Sketchfab.

The video streaming boom

One of the main reasons for this data consumption? Video streaming. Since 2010, video has reigned supreme: it can be watched almost anywhere, anytime thanks to smartphones. Video streaming has transformed the datasphere and caused an explosion in the volume of data shared around the world. According to Cisco forecasts, video represented 240 exabytes (EB)/month in 2022. However, it could be dethroned in the next few years by cloud gaming or game streaming.

Streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube are responsible for this overrepresentation of audiovisual content, alongside which new players have emerged (Amazon Video, Disney, Universal and TV channels), a diversification that began in North America.

Between 2013 and 2019, the most popular streaming services in North America, ranked, in relation to each other, by their share of internet traffic:

Streaming services

In terms of impact, the global energy consumption of video streaming emits 300 million tons of CO₂ worldwide each year, equivalent to the digital pollution of a country like Spain.

Reducing our impact by opting for digital sobriety

Digital energy consumption increased by about 9% per year from 2015 to 2020 (the Shift Project), a trend that continues to grow with the evolution of our digital habits.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to understand that the concept of digital sobriety, which has emerged in recent years, is vital to reduce the environmental impact of digital technology. The fundamental principle: use it less and change your habits to avoid creating and consuming data unnecessarily.

As a provider of Digital Asset Management (DAM) solutions, Wedia offers marketing and creative teams that produce and distribute digital content a tool to make them more efficient and make their marketing more sustainable.

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