As we talk more and more about digital sobriety, it’s important to come-back to this notion. Especially it’s a part of greenspector activity.
Digital sobriety is a global approach of digital, respectful of the earth and people.
Since few years, this topic takes more and more extent. We see this notion almost everywhere but often limited in consideration of environmental impact. For many Eco-design has been the gateway into the digital sobriety.
- Eco-design and digital environment impact consideration
- Digital accessibility and inclusion
- Attention economy
- Respect for personal data and privacy protection
- Low tech and fight against technological solutionism
Various aspects of digital sobriety
Environmental impact consideration plays a crucial role in digital services. Beyond resources consumption related to their use (for example, energy needful to charge the battery), these services affect the user’s equipment: battery and components wear, memory and system surcharge… Those impacts motivate early change of latest and newer equipment.
However, today, the manufacturing of those equipments represents the phase of digital services with the greatest impact on the environment. It suits to create websites, mobile applications, and other digital services with as low impact as possible.
Add to this the law REEN as well as tools for evaluating the impact of digital services
Finally, we observe that the subject is gaining momentum and structuration. We can only delight even though there is a long way to go.
The benefits for users and companies are considerable. Overall, this approach improves the user experience (and in particular performance) as well as reduces development, maintenance and hosting costs. Similarly, the adoption of eco-design leads to the development of expertise, an improvement in brand image and constitutes a factor of attractiveness for customers but also for future employees
As a result, an eco-designed digital service will often have a smaller scope, which will facilitate its security, its compliance for accessibility and will tend to restrict the personal data collected.
Eco-design also tends to ignore mechanisms aimed at capturing attention (infinite scroll, autoplay of videos, excessive notifications, etc.). This also constitutes an ethical advance: the user is no longer just a consumer who must be retained by all possible means. We gain their trust and support by first providing them with quality service, tailored to their expectations.
Finally, by placing the user at the center of considerations, digital sobriety tends to avoid technological solutionism. This will avoid (among other things) going to digital services when it does not seem necessary. Sometimes a good old SMS can replace a website or a mobile application: a low-tech solution can meet user needs just as well (sometimes even better).
At a time when more and more services (including public ones) are becoming digital, the accessibility of digital services is a central subject, in a process of inclusion and access to services for all. Unfortunately, this important subject does not yet receive all the attention it needs, although many tools exist and are being developed. The standard (RGAA) is now in its fourth version and the legislative framework extends to public structures as well as companies whose turnover exceeds 250 million euros. It offers a concrete approach to WCAG: a complete panel of W3C recommendations for accessible web content. Verification tools are numerous, even if they are not sufficient to verify all the criteria.
Yet, even today, 97.4% of the most used websites have at least one accessibility error. The compliance with administrative procedures is also far from what one might expect. Accessibility nevertheless remains an essential subject for digital sobriety technology and contributes to ensuring the usability of digital services as well as their sustainability.
Beyond the penalties incurred by companies in the event of non-compliance with obligations, the benefits of this approach are numerous :
- Ensure that everyone can access the services and information offered under good conditions.
- Reach as wide an audience as possible, in particular via the curb cut effect.
- Develop internal expertise (retention of employees and attractiveness for recruitment).
The attention economy is a field relatively little known as such, although it is already deeply rooted in our daily lives. These are all the mechanisms (design, design, functional, and others) that make us addicted to our smartphones and certain apps. We are talking here about captological mechanisms (or deceptive patterns): infinite scroll, notifications, modals, autoplay, etc. Through these design choices, the time spent on our mobiles increases, and our attention span decreases. The stake around our attention is above all financial. All this is detailed in the book The Goldfish Civilization and structures such as Designers Ethiques have already taken up the subject.
This problem is all the more fundamental since we find ourselves faced with tools designed to spend as much time as possible on them, even though their use has a non-negligible environmental impact (via the wear and tear of the terminals, their energy consumption but also by ultimately pushing consumerist behavior, in particular through massive exposure to advertisements). It should be noted that in addition to these harmful impacts on the environment and the individual, there are ethical considerations since this system often results in greater collection of personal data.
Regarding personal data, the question is not new, but the implementation of the GDPR was an important turning point. The aim here is to regulate the capture and storage of personal data of European citizens but also by European companies. This complex subject is particularly linked to micro-targeting (targeted advertising based on data collected on the Internet user) and is all the more dizzying in that it involves companies buying and reselling personal data (data brokers, all against a background of surveillance and political issues as in the case of Cambridge Analytica). More recently, the subject of personal data has returned to discussions following the questioning of the use of Google Analytics and Google Fonts, particularly in France. Not to mention the leaks of personal data that occur very regularly.
Cybersecurity is present everywhere, through security breaches and other incidents that we hear about regularly. Today, it would seem aberrant or even irresponsible to offer a digital service that is not secure. However, this area requires many skills as well as constant monitoring. Again, digital sobriety can reduce the attack surface of a digital service. In return, care must be taken to ensure that the protection of the user does not force him to update his applications and software too often, under penalty of tending towards software obsolescence. Likewise, open source makes it possible, via total transparency, to prevent the presence of vulnerabilities.
Ethics is a complex but necessary subject in the digital field. It is often at the heart of discussions, especially on the vast subject of algorithms and machine learning, for example in the case of self-driving cars. In order to design a digital respectful of individuals, the question of ethics is inseparable.
Finally, technological solutionism, largely theorized by Evgeny Morozov, warns that digital is not always an appropriate solution. This awareness is all the more essential when we seek to reduce the environmental impact of digital technology.
Digital sobriety as part of the Greenspector’s work.
At Greenspector, digital sobriety is at the heart of our business. Even if our primary concern remains the reduction of the environmental impacts of digital services, all this is accompanied by considerations related to digital sobriety technology. The inextricable links between the different aspects of this subject mean that it is essential to guarantee a global approach so as not to miss an area for improvement, or even to avoid providing a recommendation that would harm the users in one way or another (deterioration of accessibility, security risk, etc.). If the impact is not always directly measurable or the seemingly minimal gain from the point of view of sobriety, other axes such as accessibility, the absence of captological mechanisms, and respect for privacy will contribute to making a more resilient product. This is why (and this is just one example among many), we encourage our customers not to directly integrate content from third-party services such as Youtube, Twitter, and others.
For this, Greenspector supports its customers in the eco-design of products throughout the life cycle of the project, but also in the measurement of consumption and the monitoring of impacts over time, in addition (for example) to an improvement process. These are the principles that we also apply to our own products.
In order to work for a digital system that respects people and the planet, it seems essential to apply these values right down to the proposed working framework: allow everyone the possibility of teleworking as much as necessary, insist on the right to disconnect and give everyone the opportunity to adapt their schedules to their own needs. There is also the desire to free up time for everyone to carry out digital monitoring, to create spaces to share the results of this monitoring and to support the development of skills.
Resources to go further
The resources to become aware of digital sobriety are multiplying, but here are already two good starting points :
After working for more than 15 years in web development, Laurent Devernay became a technical consultant in responsible digital technology at Greenspector. When he is not coaching organizations on the eco-design of their digital services, he teaches courses on digital sobriety technologies.