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Sustainability 2016, 8(8), 726; doi:10.3390/su8080726

Sustainable Digital Environments: What Major Challenges Is Humankind Facing?

1
Faculty of Economics and Globalization, Department of Knowledge Management and Communication, Danube University, 3500 Krems, Austria
2
Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, 8050 Zurich, Switzerland
3
Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland
Academic Editor: Giuseppe Ioppolo
Received: 30 June 2016 / Revised: 15 July 2016 / Accepted: 19 July 2016 / Published: 29 July 2016
(This article belongs to the Section Economic, Business and Management Aspects of Sustainability)
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Abstract

This paper identifies and discusses the benefits, threats, and vulnerabilities related to the digital revolution. It aims to motivate research and its funding regarding digital threats and vulnerabilities related, in particular, to anticipating unintended, undesirable rebound effects, tipping points, critically fast evolutionary change rates, trade-offs, etc. A brief analysis of the history of the mind and technology reveals slow technological development over tens of thousands of years (including the invention of a place-value digital number system). Then, a small series of groundbreaking ideas (e.g., binary logic, Shannon’s symbolic analysis of relay and switching circuits, architectures of computing) enabled the industry-driven invention of programmable computing machines. Ultimately, the mastery of electron and semiconductor physics allowed for economical and seemingly unlimited storage capacity that made digital tools available to all domains of society. Based on the historical analysis, a coupled human-environment systems perspective (that includes a hierarchy assumption ranging from the human cell to the human species) enables the identification of several potential challenges to society and science. First, digital nano-engineering promotes genetic modifications (i.e., directed evolution), and synthetic biology enables a new level of the appropriation of nature. The understanding of cell-based biocomputers may call for new forms of logic. These and other challenges require thorough sustainability research in order to anticipate major changes on all levels of human systems. Second, the human individual is exposed to new forms of vulnerability. In particular, the potential epigenetic effects resulting from the excessive use of digital information of historically unknown speed, density, and contents and the loss of (the Western common-law right to) privacy resulting from big data (whose ownership is often unknown) should become subjects of research. Third, digital technologies are responsible for rapid changes in all social and economic structures. The paper suggests that thorough, discipline-based interdisciplinary research is needed in order to develop basic knowledge for creating and managing resilient relationships between human systems and their digital environments. View Full-Text
Keywords: digital revolution; digital threats; rebound effects; genetically modified organisms (GMO); cell-based computers; cell-based computing; environmental epigenetics; loss of privacy; appropriation of nature digital revolution; digital threats; rebound effects; genetically modified organisms (GMO); cell-based computers; cell-based computing; environmental epigenetics; loss of privacy; appropriation of nature
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This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. (CC BY 4.0).

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MDPI and ACS Style

Scholz, R.W. Sustainable Digital Environments: What Major Challenges Is Humankind Facing? Sustainability 2016, 8, 726.

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