For better or worse? What is the impact of information technology on our planet, and in particular on the three pillars of sustainable development—the environment, the economy, and society? To date at least, the rise of the virtual economy is not proving as significant for the environment as was originally predicted. Doing one’s shopping on the Internet is more environmentally friendly than going to the supermarket, but there are still the energy costs of delivery and transport, etc. And the Internet itself uses up vast reserves of energy. Indeed, the data-processing centers and the servers each of us use—sometimes without even knowing it¬when we request information from a search engine or download a video are greedy consumers of energy. Globally, the IT industry is responsible for the same level of greenhouse gas emissions as the aeronautics industry. And the electrical components are often high polluters.
In economic terms, IT is a very useful tool, including in those countries where infrastructures are limited or lacking. A cellphone can serve as the starting point for a microbusiness. Out-sourcing of facilities such as call centers creates work in developing countries and encourages education—although it reduces opportunities in Western countries, where labor is more expensive. In a knowledge-based economy, however, the growing digital divide reinforces inequalities. For example, in 2008 only 5% of Africans had access to the Internet, as opposed to 73% of North Americans.
Viewed in social terms, IT permits access to information and education. The radio is a very accessible means— because of its low cost¬—of disseminating information in deprived areas. Cell phones, text messaging, and the Internet are all important tools for the political organization of individuals. But they are also a way for governments to keep an eye on people.
Information technology thus reflects both the positive and the negative aspects of our world. It is not the technology itself but the way we use it that determines its impact.