ENVR 480: Computers, Society and Nature

Innovations in technology have fundamentally transformed the scope and characteristics of environmental problems. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is a part of that transformation. Adoption of ICT contributes to significant changes in products, lifestyles, business practices and economic growth, all shifts that affect the environment. ICT also impacts the methods to analyse environmental processes and problems. Whether the overall effects are positive or negative (or both), they are not well understood. One might expect increased efficiencies in environmental decision making and greater understanding of problems due to application of ICT. Conversely, ICT could induce additional consumption through stimulation of economic growth and lowering of consumer prices. Additionally, it could cause us to view nature in a mechanistic, reductionist, and remotely-sensed fashion. Whatever the answer, understanding the relationship among ICT and the environment has become key to moving towards a sustainable society.

Course Goals

In this course, you will learn to how to think of computers as more than merely a useful tool or a piece of hardware/software but a process impacted at all stages of its development and use by politics, economics and society. That is, you will be able to peel back the obvious physical impacts of computers on land and water and look at the “virtual,” whether that is virtual landscapes or the space of economic flows. This revealing will be achieved by navigating the social theories of technological innovation (social construction, diffusion of innovation, information theory, and political economy) to explore the relationship among ICT, society and the environment. This dynamic and complex relationship will raise questions that we will pose throughout the semester. Upon completion of the course you will be able to:

  1. Identify the environmental impacts at each stage of the computer lifecycle.
  2. Define basic concepts (e.g., economic restructuring, globalization, social construction) and explain their relationship to computers.
  3. Deduce the virtual (social, political, economic) processes underlying the physical processes (e.g., social construction of technology design, globalization enabling computer waste disposal in China).
  4. Recognize the interaction among virtual processes (e.g., how social construction reflects power; how power determines assumptions used in computer models of climate change).
  5. Appreciate the complexity of changing ICT, economic activities, social practices, or political institutions to ameliorate the physical impacts of ICTs (e.g., eliminating the exportation of computer waste; changing consumer behaviour).
  6. Apply concepts (e.g., economic restructuring, globalization, social construction) to a technology not covered in the course.
  7. Argue for or against the introduction of a new form of ICT on the basis of its likely environmental, soci-political and economic impacts.