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The 'Invisible' Materiality of Information Technology

cloud computing and related hardware, illustration

Credit: Getty Images

There are significant material impacts from extracting, processing, maintaining, and ultimately disposing of the materials used to support information technology, as well as from producing the energy used both by the devices in operation, as well as in their production and disposal. Yet these material impacts are largely invisible and receive substantially less attention than discussions about the technical aspects and benefits of information technology. We use the term materiality to encompass all of these aspects and more—a comprehensive accounting of the ways in which information technology impinges on the physical world.

Consider as an example the Internet of Things (IoT). The number of IoT devices is growing rapidly, with projections by some analysts of 20 billion to 30 billion devices by year's end.11 This sharp increase in the number of IoT devices, along with supporting infrastructure, will result in significant consumption of materials and energy and production of waste. Despite this, a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report on IoT36 has only a brief mention (two paragraphs in a 70-page report) of the issue of electronic waste resulting from the increasing use of IoT technology, and nothing on the consumption of raw materials and energy. The top 10 results of an Internet search for "Internet of Things" shows a similar pattern: only two out of 10 of the results discussed any potential downsides with respect to materials, energy, and waste, and even within those two, there were five to 10 times more mentions of potential positives than negatives. And IoT is but one example among many.


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