Over the last months, many people have experienced a brutal digitalization of many aspects of their lives. As the Economist said, data has become the new oil. From bitcoin mining to extracting value from digital users at the cost of their mental health – it looks like the digital economy has replaced oil products by humans-as-a-product for the world’s largest tech companies. Yet, we hear great redemption promises stating that digitalization will help us improve health and tackle the climate emergency.

Increasingly, we are hit with an ever-increasing number of natural disasters, poor harvests and dying natural life. While China establishes a totalitarian digital scoring system for citizens, US companies influence elections and filter the information we read. In Europe, the European Commission therefore discusses rules to „ for excellence and trust in Artificial Intelligence“ and announces almost redemption-like promises stating that AI will boost public health and help our environment. Looking at the facts, only a minority of AI companies deliver on sustainability while driving consumption and growing energy needs.

A study of the German Federal Authority for the Environment has shown that among 12 000 global AI start-ups, only 155, or around 1%, among them are related to sustainability. And while you can today read more about how AI will one day help us save energy, it is actually very energy-intensive and driving up energy needs across the world. For instance, just the act of training a neural network, according to a study by the University of Massachusetts, creates a carbon dioxide footprint of 284 tonnes – five times the lifetime emissions of an average car. To that, we can add that most AI systems are designed in a way to ensure people will buy more products faster – Amazon, Facebook, Google or Apple just being the most famous examples.

Besides accelerating the climate emergency, AI systems today are also a threat to social cohesion and democracy due to implicit biases due to training data and mostly white and masculine data scientists developing them. More importantly however, the digital and AI fields seem to be driven by a techno-deterministic understanding of reality, as we have explained earlier. Furthermore, as Bruno Latour stressed, the digital economy is a virtual copy of the world, making us believe that the economy is the actual reality. It is doubtful that tools like digital ones can help to solve problems that are inherently ecological, social or health-related. If Europe is to follow a different approach than the ones in China and the USA, it would be well-advised to look into decentralized, transparent and needs-based technological development approaches. Also, AI design itself could be linked to energy saving, sustainable products or others. This will however not be enough.

Among the most interesting approaches in this respect, we can cite the works of the Peer-to-Peer foundation, which aims at creating shared infrastructure that can benefit businesses, society and other stakeholders. The commons economy they advocate for could indeed be a better perspective for Europe’s mostly SME-reliant economy. This approach invites us to rethink what value is about. Instead of accelerating further wealth inequalities and benefiting the bosses of the world’s biggest tech companies, we have to design technological systems in a way that responds to social needs and planetary boundaries. It is applying design thinking to today’s greatest challenges and using technology as a tool to solve it and not as an end in itself. Also in the fintech and blockchain area, there are different ways of using technology as a way to heal our planet. The regenerative cryptocurrency SEEDS is a great example in this respect.