Debate: Metavers, flying taxis and other weapons of mass destruction on the planet

5G, 8K, flying taxis and metavers fascinate as much as they raise questions, but rarely, if ever, from an ecological point of view.

In a recent article in the newspaper Le Monde – published on October 18, 2021 and entitled “Facebook will recruit 10,000 people in Europe to create the metaverse” – this is how employment is mentioned, the location of the place of production of innovation. ” use cases ”of this application and the experiences it will allow; the risks underlined refer only to addiction or the rights of the individual in the metaverse.

We find this same narrative framework about flying taxis: promises on the one hand and the relationship between individuals, when they will be at the controls of the machine.

In Toulouse, Airbus presents its flying taxi planned for 2023 (AFP, 2021).

However, the link between these initiatives and their possible impacts on the biosphere is never established. To find such a link, you need to go to the “Planet” or “Books” pages of the world: here, the consumer is blamed for the excessive use of videos or emails.

This way of “compartmentalizing” debates and issues is not new, and flipping through the old issues of Le Monde will lead to the same observations.

Hype Technologies vs. Punitive Ecology

Regulations proceed in the same way. On the one hand, laws and directives that organize the expansion of digital technology and its applications; on the other, those interested in the ecological implications of these technologies, managed by other agencies, such as Ademe (Agency for the ecological transition) in France.

A first consequence of this score is to make the ecology appear “punitive”. On the one hand, technical innovations and their “hype”, their share of promises of new experiences, joy, happiness, fantastic achievements. On the other, the ecological question, which talks about waste, energy efficiency, destruction of the planet and other “depressing” and “boring” issues.

This also applies to research: researchers with good tech news stand at the head of the gondola, the others stay at the bottom of the cellar. Thus, the France Info mediator explained that the transfer of footballer Messi “was worth” more transmission time than the IPCC report, the first topic within the soap opera, while the IPCC report constitutes a specific event.

Sobriety erased

Another consequence: ecological regulations remain globally confined to the field of “ecological efficiency”; This technical term designates the amount of material and energy required to manufacture a good or provide a service.

This efficiency masks other approaches, essential in the ecological transition: those related to sobriety. This raises the question of whether we really need this good or this service. Whether for 8K or 5G, the Shift Project association questions its interest, in view of its predictable effects on the planet.

Third consequence of this partition between digital expansion and environmental impact, ecology always lags behind. We are witnessing this in practice: despite regulations, the ecological impact of the digital sector continues to grow. Applications are developed by millions, even billions. Only then does the environmental question arise. Then it is too late!

Massive dependencies … and predictable

However, in a good number of cases, the effects of these projects are predictable: one can say well in advance what the disastrous, or at least highly problematic ideas are.

Carrying out this upstream reflection would make it possible to avoid situations of technological confinement, such as massive dependence on lifestyles on cars or smartphones. Situations that are difficult to get out of, because they involve coordinating a change in infrastructure and habits, such as the introduction of cycling in the city, “against” the car.

These easily foreseeable consequences can be found with 5G, 8K, flying taxis, and metaverse.

Designed to promote a sharp increase in data traffic, 5G, for example, has a huge energy cost, even if equally huge gains have been made in terms of efficiency in this area since the 1950s. As the Shift Project points out in its report, however, these efficiency gains are stable at the technical system level; therefore, they will not be able to compensate for data multiplication …

The reasoning holds true for 8K and Metaverse, which could conceptually be described as an enhanced variant of Second Life, a persistent digital universe that was launched in 2003. At the time, tech expert Nicholas Carr noted that an avatar on this network consumed more energy than an average Brazilian.

Works of fiction such as Virtual Revolution (2016) depict a world in which the metaverse absorbs most of our social interactions, just as social networks are today an important vehicle for everyday conversations.

The amount of information that will need to be produced and processed is easy to anticipate compared to what already exists. IT company Cisco cautions that these universes could easily become the number one source of traffic on the Internet.

As for flying taxis, they try to find the “lost” place on the ground in the air; in short, to overload one of the last remaining spaces, knowing that going up and down generally consumes more energy than moving horizontally, due to gravity.

Our relationship with nature

As we can see, the links between technological innovation and the ecological situation are not difficult to establish; there is no conceptual difficulty here. And ecology is not doomed to be late.

Marx was already explaining to us that the question of the human being’s relationship with nature is technical, technical choices, and not the blissful admiration of supposedly virgin spaces that we would contemplate during weekend walks …

Read more: “Nature”, an idea that evolves throughout civilizations

Ecologists have long said it loud and clear: certain technical choices pose a problem of compatibility with the conditions for a good life on Earth. But these problems are formulated in the public space in a compartmentalized way, which avoids any serious problematization.

Why is it stuck?

Environmentalism is not condemned to remain “punitive”. Bicycles, short circuits, renewable energies, insulation, self-construction… ecological initiatives are numerous and can have an impact, provided that the different possible routes are adequately informed, in the public debate.

What is the problem, then? Why does the hype benefit so much from projects that can easily be shown to cause big problems once they reach a certain scale? There are many explanations.

The “technology” projects are the best funded, benefiting from a large strike force in terms of persuasive power. Marketing, surveys… storytelling is carefully measured and closely targeted to reach the most receptive audiences, before gradually spreading to new swaths of the population, until saturation.

These partial histories are also part of the larger history of developed societies and their race for more capital-intensive technologies, as Marx demonstrated as early as 1867, emphasizing the effects of the expanded reproduction of capital. Furthermore, socialisms have placed great hope in this “expansion of the productive forces.”

Breaking with this linear history, since the same objective is always pursued, is like “going back” and it is preferred in some way to maintain this narrative than life on Earth. A narrative where science and science fiction mix, like Elon Musk evoking an upcoming installation on Mars. The cognitive bias, called the “Othello effect,” is in full swing here.

Another explanation refers to capitalization itself, which is a measure of the power of organizations. The larger the capitalization, the more extensive the networks controlled by the organization and the greater the persuasive power. Elon Musk, again, aims to control the entire fleet of private vehicles, with his robotaxis and autonomous cars. And what is true of companies is also true of States, as François Fourquet emphasizes in the book The Accounts of Power.

If the dominant conceptions of socialism in the twentieth century have always been fascinated by the collective power that capitalism engendered and that they sought to put at the service of the greatest number, environmentalism for its part supports decentralized initiative and small curls.

This current, therefore, frequently breaks with “power politics”, which explains in particular its strong opposition to conservatism. Is it “realistic” in a world where states seek to dominate each other? But on the contrary, can the race for greatness last indefinitely if it undermines living conditions on Earth?

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