Inholland’s Sustainable Media Lab: imagining socially, environmentally and technically sustainable infrastructure
He has worked on human-rights technology for more than a decade, including serving as founding Director of the Center for Internet and Human Rights at European University Viadrina and as Director of the Sustainable Computing Lab at Vienna University of Economics.
“I actually see sustainability as a way of mainstreaming ideas around human rights,” Wagner explains. “Because lots of people get challenged or feel anxiety when they’re dealing with things related to human rights, it’s a shame, but it’s a reality. So finding some context that allow us to communicate things that matter, but are not so directly confrontational, means they can be better integrated in people’s everyday lives.”
Inholland has expertise in media research, but the university was keen to build sustainability into its work here, and through the ‘living lab’ idea they hoped to to engage people on these issues in different ways.
“I previously worked in a sustainable computing lab, which is all about sustainable technology, so there was an interesting overlap to explore,” he says. “And we’re now starting to create a body of literature in this area, so we have concepts that we can talk about.”
“These projects are all about building more sustainable technological infrastructures, supporting creative businesses and artists to be able to access them, and then communicating to the public why it’s better to use them.
“By sustainable infrastructure, we mean societally, environmentally and technically. All three parts of that stack. So not being patched every five minutes and constantly falling apart. Not having negative societal impacts by being large multinational conglomerates, which are so monopolistic that you can’t trust them to use your data. And also having a reasonable environmental footprint.”
In February this year, the lab heard from Kay Meseberg, from ARTE, the European public-service channel, an event that highlighted to Wagner that “there’s a conversation that needs to be had about behaviour change”.
“They were basically saying that the old Hertzian model for television is much more sustainable than the streaming world, because streaming requires all these data centers and all of these other things. We actually had all of these really efficient technologies that we stopped using, but of course, now they’re not very compatible with streaming behaviour of users today.
“And we’re actually very good at developing technologies that reduce energy consumption, but then we start using more of them. Like having more efficient engines and then driving big SUVs. If we just had the same sized cars we did 50 years ago and the engines we have now, we’d be much more efficient.
“I think part of the problem with media technologies today is that the stack is set up in such a way that each additional viewer has a significant additional cost, it’s energy intensive. I don’t think that it has to be that way. The infrastructures that we’ve built have led to a set of choices that de facto make it that way.
“So we have to acknowledge that and say ‘that’s a problem because you’re creating these trade-offs, between things like economic and environmental issues, but the trade-offs are not technically necessary’. It’s more that they’ve become necessary by virtue of a path dependency.”
Challenging consumer and corporate behaviour
Wagner suggests our current, unsustainable path is based on misunderstandings, both at a corporate, and a consumer, level.
“The idea that you would have to use always the highest, best, most-advanced, fancy setting to sell the product is just very ingrained in the providers. A lot of the time, it’s about setting defaults for people so that they have the choice, but making the choice, by default, more reasonable.
“I find it absurd when I open any streaming app on my phone, and I’ve done this on the phones of colleagues as well, and the default choice is streaming HD with maximum bandwidth. I have normal eyesight, and I can’t tell the difference on my phone between maximum HD and standard definition, because the screen is tiny. And, when you’re looking at video streaming, changing this would reduce the data involved by a factor of 10.
“Similarly, a lot of cars have an ‘eco’ setting, but it’s not selected by default, so nobody bothers to use it. If have to change into ‘sports’ mode, most people would probably just not change it. So it’s about setting things up so it’s easy to do the right thing.
“Companies are building their business models based on assumptions that I think are false about consumer behaviour. They assume that if you annoy or frustrate your customers too much, then they’re not going to be willing to use the product. I think actually a lot of the research suggests that consumers are perfectly willing to do things like this. They just expect some kind of transparent justification on the way and then they’re happy to be part of it.”
And he says these assumptions creep into media companies, too. “Many media companies believe you’re there to make the consumer happy or to entertain them, to make their lives easier. That’s how we design our products. That’s how we engineer our systems. That’s how we think about the world.
“But if we think about the world like that, we’ll never be able to change our carbon footprints. So it becomes a very real question of ‘how do you take the user with you on a journey, so that they’re willing to make these behavioural changes, after they’ve already bought your devices, after they’ve already become fans of your programme?’.
“You don’t want to completely frustrate them. You don’t want to not have a market anymore. But you also have a responsibility to find ways to make that behaviour adapt.”
He points out this challenge may be easier to tackle depending on your audience. “I’d be really interested in how Fox News is going to deal with its carbon footprint,” he suggests. “I’m not saying I have an answer to it, but it’s just that, if you go down that path, that inevitably means that you need to engage with a different idea of your consumers.
“It’s all a question about the behaviours we’ve created and whether it’s possible, with these new behaviours, to adapt the technologies to be more sustainable, or whether we’ll then just create new more ecologically costly business models to adapt again. There’s definitely a cycle going on there.”
Wagner also points to an issue with “lag time” in terms of product development. “The stuff that we’re using right now is basically based on things that were imagined 10 years ago. And 10 years ago, in the economic circles that were building these products, sustainability just wasn’t that much of a thing. And if it was, it was very much about nudging people to do the right thing, rather than building infrastructure that enables people to do the right thing by default.”
Niche companies nudging the market to do better
The Sustainable Media Lab has an upcoming project with radical Dutch smartphone manufacturer Fairphone – that says it’s working ‘for people and planet’.
“They’re one of the companies we use as a great example for the way they’re doing this,” Wagner explains. “I don’t think it’s about them outrunning the Apples of this world. When you really get down to it, they’re pretty clear that their product doesn’t have to be the dominant product to be successful.
“What they’ve done is created a niche product, which is very successful, but they’ve also pushed everybody else in the industry to look long and hard at themselves to see if they can do better. A lot of the sourcing of minerals for iPhones and in other products has gotten much, much better because of the standards Fairphone has set, they’ve shown that it’s possible.”
Asked about whether there’s a real answer to the issues of human-rights abuses in the electronics supply chain, he adds “I don’t think that there’s any easy, binary answer to any of these questions”.
“Will there always be conflicts about this? Definitely. Does this mean that it’s worthless to strive for improving the situation? No, I think it still makes a lot of sense. And that’s why I think what Fairphone is doing is really valuable, because it shows that much more is possible. And what Fairphone has done is materially improved the lives of tens of thousands of people. There’s no question about it. And not just in their own supply chain, but in supply chains across the world.”
But, he says, looking at supply chains alone is insufficient – “you need to see the phone in its whole ecosystem content – the content that’s on the phone, the technology in the phone, how the phone is used”.
“That’s what we call these ‘social-technical’ systems,” he explains. “You can’t just see the technology. It’s about the people and how they use it. And that interaction creates the interesting phenomena that I think is worth looking at.
“If you’re if you’re looking at your carbon footprint as a television station, the vast majority of your carbon footprint is people watching your product. It’s not the production cost itself, so that’s all of your viewers buying televisions and turning them on and watching your television shows.
“So if you want to change or improve your carbon footprint – you inevitably have to work on influencing your viewer behaviour. And the same goes for the phone manufacturers and everybody else – to start influencing not just the technology and the technological solutions – but also human behaviour. Otherwise, there’s no way to get any meaningful effect on carbon footprints.”
A sustainable future?
Looking to the future of the lab, Wagner explains that he thinks the next 10 years is going to bring many more Fairphone-like ventures.
“I would assume there’ll be dozens of these companies, they’ll all be super successful around these things that the big companies aren’t able to cover. And that’ll hopefully create ecosystems that are very different from what we have now. And then there’ll be opportunities that are not based on relying on these large companies.
“From what I’ve seen, the larger the industry, the less they understand. So lots of the small ones see these things as a competitive advantage, and really are interested and excited in doing these things. The big ones just have too much to lose if they go down that path, because initially it challenges too much of their models of scale and the harmful ways they do their business.
“I wouldn’t expect a lot of change among multinationals, but it’s also on us, if we’re going to allow them to be the only players in the game, right ? If they’re the only people who make the decisions, then we have a problem regardless, not just about sustainability. So that needs to change.
“I believe that it’s possible to strive towards this kind of sustainability – I don’t yet know what it’ll mean to get there.”
Ben Wagner, Professor of Media, Technology and Society at Inholland at Lab Director at the Sustainable Media Lab.