Energetic Implications of a Post-industrial Information Economy

The decoupling of energy and resources from economic growth is the Holy Grail of sustainable development. The observation that there seems to be a concentration of wealth in Australian localities associated with Information and Communication Technology (ICT) services, and a growing role for artificial intelligence services, would seem to strengthen the decoupling hypothesis. At face value, we seem to be less dependent on the high-energy intensity primary and secondary sectors — agriculture, mining, manufacturing and transport.

But what is the evidence for decoupling? In a new paper in BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality I explore some of the linkages between ICT and energy consumption.

fig_1
Australia primary energy consumption by fuels, and real GDP 1900-2014. Sources ABS, Butlin, Dyster & Meredith, Office of the Chief Economist, Vamplew. The fall in coal post 2010 is due to a doubling of retail electricity prices.

Here’s a section from the paper discussing dematerialisation –

An early version of dematerialization was Buckminster Fuller’s concept of ‘Ephemeralization’ — doing more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing. In a contemporary ICT-based version, Kurzweil hypothesised that computing power will eventually cross a critical boundary (the so-called singularity), after which dematerialised economic growth will accelerate sharply. Kurzweil argued that there is a rapidly increasing knowledge and information content in products and services, and that these are not constrained by material resources.

Using Fuller as a backdrop, Lee uses the concrete example of the introduction of Google Maps onto smartphones to argue that information technology is a ‘magic wand’ that ‘in one stroke, transformed millions of Android phones into sophisticated navigation devices’. In Lee’s conception, the smartphone is assumed to be a low energy footprint device that substitutes for a host of real-world products—at zero marginal cost, Google Maps is said to be substituting for paper maps and dedicated navigation devices.

But the reverse is true—Nokia, Google and Apple all have multi-billion dollar ‘real world’ investments in mapping hardware, software development and data. Furthermore, GPS piggy backs onto the large sunk investment of the Navstar GPS satellite system. Google has bundled ‘free’ maps to improve the perceived value of Android, from which it reportedly made $31 billion in revenue and $22 billion in profit during the past seven years. Furthermore, GPS devices are penetrating cameras and fitness devices, far exceeding the material and energy footprint of paper-based maps and atlases. Hence far from dematerialising, the ‘magic’ of GPS-enabled devices carries a far reaching energy and material footprint.

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