First Monday

Introduction to the special issue on sustainability and digital transformation by Glenn Muschert and Massimo Ragnedda



Abstract
This piece introduces the special issue of First Monday focused on the topic of Sustainability and Digital Transformation. This collection is a forum for that conversation to develop as a venue in which social scientists, STS scholars, and other digital scholars explore the concept of digital sustainability. This special issue emerges in the context of two notable social trends. First, there is a push for global sustainable development, and second, all sectors of human endeavor are migrating into the digital sphere. These two trends combine into a single, nascent theme of digital sustainability, which is the topic of this collection of articles in First Monday. The focus is upon the role(s) of digital technologies in establishing a sustainable world. The collection includes seven papers, which make a modest contribution to the growing discourse about the sociological aspects of all things digital in sustainability practices. The aim is to establish a research agenda focusing on digital technologies’ current and potential role (but also limitations). The articles pay special attention to the intricate interplay of technology, social dynamics of media, sustainability practices, and information change. The contributors have provided individual works that contribute to the digital sustainability scholarship, some conceptual and others analytical. The collection invites the reader to consider sustainability and the ever-expanding integration of digital technologies in various aspects of social life.

 


 

This special issue emerges in the context of two notable social trends. First, there is a push for global sustainable development, and second, all sectors of human endeavor are migrating into the digital sphere. While both discourses trace their origins back to the mid-twentieth century, environmental awareness and the ubiquity of digital technologies have significantly developed and expanded in recent decades. These two trends combine into a single, nascent theme of digital sustainability, which is the topic of this collection of articles in First Monday.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, sustainability has become a growing concern. In 2000, the United Nations General Assembly issued its Millennium Declaration (United Nations, 2000), which identified and set goals to achieve eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. The MDGs primarily focused on eradicating extreme and absolute poverty for the poorest populations in low-income countries, including eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, enhancing maternal health, addressing disease, protecting the environment, and building global partnerships for development. (For details about the eight goals, please see https://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/.) The United Nations has detailed the final assessment of the MDG initiative (United Nations, 2015a).

In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly renewed and expanded its resolve by issuing a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved worldwide by 2030 (United Nations, 2015b). The SDGs are more ambitious than the earlier MDGs, which addressed concerns for people, the planet, prosperity, peace, and global partnerships. Thus, the SDGs encompass nearly all aspects of human societies, conditions for non-human life, and concerns for the natural environment, including air, land, and water. (For details about the17 SDGs and their sub-goals, please consult https://sdgs.un.org/goals.) Indeed, the establishment of the SDGs has provided a pathway forward to a sustainable life, society, and environment.

A digital transformation has occurred within the same temporal context as the MDGs and SDGs, that is, since 2000. The digital transformation, often a keyword in business and economic discourse, involves the migration of existing social practices into digital spheres via their integration with ICTs. Given the ubiquity of smartphones and affordable access to service plans, integrating ICTs into all aspects of life can only expand. The current reliance on ICTs suggests that all aspects of human life are affected by digital practices. This effect extends to human interactions with and management of non-human life and broader natural environments. The trend for the integration of ICTs in recent activities suggests that each SDG relates to digital processes and trends.

While digital divides remain salient in some of the least developed areas of the globe, the problem of access, in general, is waning as hundreds of people worldwide gain connectivity. In Q1 of 2021, of the 7.88 billion global population, nearly two-thirds (65.6 percent) or 5.17 billion are Internet users, a figure that reflects an increase of 1,331.9 percent since 2000 (Internet World Stats, 2021). Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has also affected nearly all aspects of life worldwide.

Notably, pandemic life has dramatically accelerated the digital transformation, pushing many more millions into online life for education, economic activities, telehealth, and other essential aspects of life. Indeed, the World Economic Forum (WEF), a premier venue driving global discourse and affairs, hosted its June 2020 meeting on the theme of “The Great Reset” (World Economic Forum, 2020), a strategy to rebuild the global economy in the post-pandemic world, though in a sustainable way. This strategy integrates all aspects of ICT use into a broader array of economic and social relations. The thought leaders of the WEF predict the incorporation of network-enabled technologies such as the Internet of Things. Indeed, digital technologies are here to stay, and the world immerses itself increasingly in ICTs and data flows. Looking forward, this will characterize the future for life on the planet, and one hopes sustainably.

Therefore, it is imperative to consider the role of digital technologies in the establishment of a sustainable world. With this leitmotif, the guest editors have assembled a collection of seven papers, which make a modest contribution to the growing discourse about the sociological aspects of all things digital in sustainability practices. In the current collection, the issue of digital sustainability diverges from earlier discussions about such topics as the preservation of digital materials and artifacts (e.g., Bradley, 2007; Stürmer, 2014), the issue of e-waste (e.g., Forti, et al., 2020; Islam, et al., 2020), or other environmental impacts of ICT use (e.g., Okrasinski and Benowitz, 2020). The specific focus of the articles collected here involves exploring the intersections among sustainability concerns and the sociological aspects of the centrality of ICTs in a broad array of human activities. This conversation is not entirely new (see Ragnedda and Muschert, 2021), but the issue of digital sustainability is rather multifaceted. Thus, so many aspects of the topic remain under-explored.

The current digital shift is a driver of sweeping social, cultural, and economic changes. In June 2020, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres published the “Roadmap for Digital Cooperation” (United Nations, 2020), which addresses a range of challenges and recommended actions related to digital technologies for achieving SDGs. According to the UN report, the goal is to create an inclusive, sustainable, prosperous, and resilient future for people and the planet. This special issue brings together scholars from a variety of social science disciplines to discuss how digital transformation impacts sustainability and how digital sustainability in different fields can enhance sustainable development efforts. The seven articles in the special issue collectively reflect upon the roles digital technologies and digital social life play in the pursuit and maintenance of a sustainable future. The aim is to establish a research agenda focusing on digital technologies’ current and potential role (but also limitations). Indeed, the contributors pay special attention to the intricate interplay of technology, social dynamics of media, sustainability practices, and information change.

The first article, “Conceptualizing the techno-environmental habitus” by Maria Laura Ruiu, Gabriele Ruiu, and Massimo Ragnedda, applies the lens of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to the techno-environment. In other words, the authors examine the relationship between attitudes toward climate change and environmentalism on the one hand and respondents’ use of technology on the other. This empirical piece analyzes a representative sample from the U.K. population, demonstrating four orientations among the study population: advocacy, fatalism, indecision, and skepticism. These attitudes provide the context and meaning of environmental thought and action in the population. Advocacy and skepticism dominate, as they are clear orientations with relation to environmental concerns. Advocates accept the environmental challenge of climate change and are willing to act to convince others of the veracity of environmental claims. At the same time, skeptics doubt the truth of claims about climate change and might act to undermine the claim to the truth of environmental concerns. One exciting finding describes the fatalistic techno-environmental habitus, which shares skepticism and advocacy approaches, yet tends to discourage acting. In all, the policy relevance of the article lies in understanding the nuances of how technologies influence environmental attitudes and can encourage or suppress action.

The second article, “The technological informavore: Information behavior and digital sustainability in the global platform ecosystem” by Cristian BerrĂ­o Zapata and Marise Teles Condurú, offers a novel approach by adopting an ecological perspective to how consumers of information using digital platforms in their information behaviors. Relatedly, the authors also track the evolution of the digital sustainability concept and provide some clarity and innovative dimensions which should spark conversation and debate. Ultimately, the authors link information behaviors and some conceptual advances needed to enhance the concept and understanding of digital sustainability. In the end, the authors provide a model of what they call “informavore-information behavior” as a foundation for implementing some actions to drive digital sustainability.

The third article, “Investigating digital sustainability: A retrospective bibliometric analysis of literature leading to future research directions” by Gagan Deep Sharma, Dimitrios Reppas, Glenn Muschert, and Vijay Pereira, provides a bibliometric analysis of the scholarly literature about digital sustainability appearing as several related fields, including economics, management/business, information systems/IT, and sociology/communications. The article’s contribution is to map the academic literature on digital sustainability over time while identifying clusters reflecting scholarly conversations and the overlap among such clusters. The authors track the field’s development over time and specifically identify key publications and clusters of authors. The authors find that scholarship in digital sustainability is more developed in management and business circles. More work is necessary in economics, sociology, and communications (such as is the case in this special issue).

The fourth article, “Canaries in the climate coal mine: Climate change and COVID-19 as meta-crisis” by Laura Robinson, examines the convergence of environmental disasters and the coronavirus pandemic, drawing on examples from Brazil and the United States. The author notes these existential threats and that they were particularly acute in the third quarter of 2020. The article examines a media conversation among Brazilians and Americans, hosted by three agenda-setting newspapers O Estado de São Paolo, Folha de São Paulo, and the New York Times. The conversation centered on the environmental and pandemic crises, which the author describes as a sort of meta-crisis. Ultimately, in the media fora, discussants pin the severity of the situation on the breakdown of the social institutions of mass media and science. The article connects meta-crisis experience in both nations to theories of cultural trauma and emergent research into the convergence of climate change and pandemics in a transnational framework.

The authors offer an overview of the scholarly literature on decentralized governance. The fifth article, “A fork in the road: Perspectives on sustainability and decentralised governance in digital institutions” by Matthew Lovett and Lee Thomas, examines the computational processes and rules that govern human participation in digitally-enabled social relations. The focus is that decentralized forms of network relations (e.g., via blockchain) provide potentialities or impediments to achieving digital sustainability. The analysis applies a multidimensional context for understanding the rules of digital institutions into three modes, namely the direct, integrated, and fork-based styles. Ultimately, the analysis demonstrates that decentralized governance, coupled with the fork-based style, is the modality most likely to enhance digital sustainability.

The sixth article, “Digital sustainability and the human: A posthumanist approach,” by Jeong Hyun Lee, explores how most analyses of the digital transformation use a binary concept that pits humans against technology and vice versa. The author asserts that forcing either humans or technology cannot be a conceptual path conducive to future sustainability. As an alternative to the false dichotomy, the paper explores a new theoretical potential in a posthumanist concept, which conceives human subjects in their social context, often embedded in technological structures. The author argues that a posthumanist concept allows the integration of humans and technology. In doing so, this new concept creates conceptual pathways for sustainable living as humans and emerging technologies develop in interrelated and overlapping ways.

In the seventh and final paper, “Digitization, social capital, and subjective well-being across the globe”, authors Tatiana Karabchuk and Aizhan Shomotova explore the influence of social capital and the use of communication technologies on life satisfaction. In short, the authors interrogate whether the increased use and integration of digital technologies seem to enhance human well-being. In an analysis of the recent Wave 7 of the World Values Survey, the authors deploy a multilevel analytical model. Key to this sociological analysis is the notion that the digital transformation of social life moderates the individual’s experience of subjective well-being and level of social capital. In short, the results demonstrate an essential role for new technologies in driving life satisfaction and happiness on the personal level. A case in point is the capacity of increased density of social media inclusion on the national level to improve social connections and opportunities for individuals.

The purpose of this special issue of First Monday is to provide a forum for researchers in social science fields to explore new dimensions of the intersection between digital transformation and sustainability issues. The contributors have provided individual works which contribute to the scholarship of digital sustainability. Some contributions are conceptual or theoretical, and others more empirical or analytical. However, taken together, this collection of articles makes an even more robust and coherent attempt to break new ground in academic discourse about sustainability in an age of digital transformation. Therefore, the special editors invite the reader to consider sustainability and the ever-expanding integration of digital technologies in various aspects of social life.

In closing, the guest editors express gratitude to First Monday’s editor-in-chief Edward J. Valauskas and the journal’s editorial and technical team for providing this academic forum for our conversation. We thank our colleagues who contributed articles for undertaking multiple revisions in pursuit of achieving high scholarly impact. Outstanding debt of gratitude goes to our anonymous peer reviewers, whose patience we tried via the process of requesting multiple reviews. Finally, we thank graphic artist Julia Muschert for graciously creating the cover image for this special issue. This project has been a collective effort, undertaken via electronic means, which we hope will contribute to new discourses in the pursuit of a digitally sustainable world. End of article

 

About the authors

Glenn Muschert is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences at Khalifa University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
E-mail: glenn [dot] muschert [at] ku [dot] ac [dot] ae

Massimo Ragnedda is Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University in Newcastle, U.K.
E-mail: massimo [dot] ragnedda [at] northumbria [dot] ac [dot] uk

 

References

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2007.0044, accessed 8 October 2021.

Vanessa Forti, Cornelis P. Balde, Ruediger Kuehr, and Garam Bel, 2020. The global e-waste monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential. Bonn, Geneva, and Rotterdam: United Nations University/United Nations Institute for Training and Research, International Telecommunication Union, and International Solid Waste Association, and at https://collections.unu.edu/view/UNU:7737, accessed 8 October 2021.

Internet World Stats, 2021. “Internet users distribution in the world,” at https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm, accessed 14 September 2021.

Aminul Islam, Tofayal Ahmed, Md. Rabiul Awual, Aminur Rahman, Monira Sultana, Azrina Abd Aziz, Minhaj Uddin Monir, Siow Hwa Teo, and Mehedi Hasan, 2020. “Advances in sustainable approaches to recover metals from e-waste: A review,” Journal of Cleaner Production, volume 244, 118815.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.118815, accessed 8 October 2021.

Thomas A. Okrasinski and Marc S. Benowitz, 2020. “Quantifying environmental life cycle impacts for ICT products — A simpler approach,” Proceedings of the SMTA Pan Pacific Microelectronics Symposium.
doi: https://doi.org/10.23919/PanPacific48324.2020.9059483, accessed 8 October 2021.

Massimo Ragnedda and Glenn Muschert, 2021. “Guest editorial,” Digital Policy, Regulation and Governance, volume 23, number 3, pp. 213–215.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1108/DPRG-05-2021-180, accessed 8 October 2021.

Matthias Stürmer, 2014. “Characteristics of digital sustainability,” ICEGOV ’14: Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance, pp. 494–495.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1145/2691195.2691269, accessed 8 October 2021.

United Nations. 2020. “Road map for digital cooperation: Implementation of the recommendations of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation,” at https://www.un.org/en/content/digital-cooperation-roadmap/, accessed 14 September 2021.

United Nations. 2015a. “The Millennium Development Goals Report,” at https://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/2015_MDG_Report/pdf/MDG%202015%20PR%20Global.pdf, accessed 14 September 2021.

United Nations. 2015b. “Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” at https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E, accessed 14 September 2021.

United Nations. 2000. “United Nations millennium declaration,” at https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/55/2, accessed 14 September 2021.

World Economic Forum, 2020. “The great reset,” at https://www.weforum.org/great-reset, accessed 14 September 2021.

 


Editorial history

Received 10 September 2021; accepted 8 October 2021.


Creative Commons License
“Introduction to the special issue on sustainability and digital transformation” by Glenn Muschert and Massimo Ragnedda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Introduction to the special issue on sustainability and digital transformation
by Glenn Muschert and Massimo Ragnedda.
First Monday, Volume 26, Number 11 - 1 November 2021
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/download/12351/10514
doi: https://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v26i11.12351