Exemplarity, sacrifice and googleshaming

Figuring out what to do

It has been a year and a half since I started taking action on what I could do to improve the environmental footprint of my research activities, and encouraging those around me to move in the same direction. The initial event for me was the participation to the online conference organized by Labos1point5 in November 2020. The work already achieved by the group of researchers was presented together with envisioned perspectives for future work. They had the ambition to transform higher education and research in order to align them better with environmental needs, and they were among others looking for people to prepare communication material on the impact of the digital, and to work on guidelines for the publication output of their common work. I got involved in these two work groups and discovered “the basics”: the three pillar of footprint calculations (buildings and heating/cooling; software and hardware; travels); the difficulty to actually calculating any of them; the growing amount of research institutions engaged in assessing their carbon footprint (and not really knowing how to take action on the results); the systemic institutional barriers to impulsing changes (in terms of prolonging hardware usage for instance, or of funding schemes for cost-intensive train instead of low-cost air companies)…

Working on a series of posters conceived to raise awareness on the impact of conference travels, I got into discussions about the delicate question of the choice of digital tools especially for videoconference, seen in that working group as a way to avoid some of the actual conference travels. Again, we lack clear information that would take into account all aspects: carbon footprint depending on type of streaming (video/audio, displaying device), what the developing company does with all the data, and how inclusive the tool is. Especially considering how the pandemic has pushed the development of videoconference services, the lack of accurate information is really problematic – in theory, because in practice, most of us depend on decisions taken at university level. Whether zoom, bbb, teams or webex, what does it matter the impact they have since we have no choice but to use what our institution has set up for us. The only thing we can really do is complain about how user-friendly they are or not.

In the late Summer of 2021, I joined the ecoinfo group: a higher ed and research-based network working specifically on the environmental footprint of IT. They audit datacenters, try to figure out ways to measure digital activities of all kind (for instance videoconference), evaluate hardware recycling schemes, make recommendations for national deals of hardware supply for French universities. But most of all, at least for me at this point, they share resources and ideas, trying to reconcile convictions and realities.

 

Through the Digital Humanities lense

Talking with scholars from Computer Sciences, Environmental Sciences, Astrophysics, certainly put my worries in perspective in terms of the impact of the computation-based part of my research activities.  But still: is that a reason for doing nothing, for not trying to change anything, just because others are much worse off than I am? For months I kept coming back to the discussion whether it’s the many small steps we should fight for, or the not so many big ones (knowing very well that influencing either of them is quite a challenge considering how systemic they are).

In labos1point5 as well as in ecoinfo, I have only met a handful of Humanities scholars. Many Humanities scholars don’t actually feel so concerned by the environmental footprint of research, or they consider they can’t contribute to any substantial change, I suppose. Either way, there is an obvious issue of awareness for the problems and for the type of solutions that can be elaborated collectively.

The Manifesto Digital Humanities and the Climate Crisis, which was published in a first version at the end of the summer of 2021 and enriched by open peer review-based comments in a second version published in the fall tries to give a sense of urgency, but also to engage in action and to push forward concrete aspects that are likely to impact the current evolution of our discipline. Most of the Europe-based authors of the manifesto found themselves back together in the Digital Humanities Climate Coalition that emerged in the winter. I joined the greening toolkit group, still thinking what we are missing most to raise awareness are clear information and project management recommendation: what should I take into consideration when starting a project, when purchasing hardware, software, when settling on tools, when conceiving a work plan…

Because the German-speaking DH community seemed to be open to these questions, I then co-created a “Greening DH” task force together with Torsten Roeder, as a working group of the Digital Humanities im deutschsprachigen Raum association. We are starting with the organization of an online discussion with experts, and will contribute to a now Europe-wide Greening DH toolkit.

 

It all takes shape

And it does. But for each of these work groups I am now included in to work, two things are key: the communication tools (especially the videoconference tools), and the document sharing tools. And these two every day, simple things are exactly what has shown me how thin the line is between moving on and getting lost. Over the last couple of days, I have had twice, within these groups, controversial discussions about the meaning of this choice of basic tools for collective work, and I realized how much more ambiguous I am in that regard, and certainly not half as self-righteous as I imagined I was.

Moving to open-source, less carbon-intensive (and incidentally, more respectful of data privacy) tools has always been to idealistic me the first step to changing things. But it is not easy: etherpad does not have as many functionalities as a googledoc; jitsi is less stable than zoom. And as I mentioned before, there are some areas in which we have no choice but to use the tools our university has decided upon. It is a long way before you gain back control of all of your digital environment in such a way that you can be sure the carbon footprint is reduced to its minimum. I know that perfectly well. Still, I said: at least, we should try to be exemplary. And Jo said (thanks, Jo!): be careful there, this can be a counterproductive approach. I didn’t understand why, but then the next day, in another meeting, I witnessed google bashing –  not as the one person who says “let’s try to avoid google and be exemplary”, but as a spectator. And then I realized how brutal it is, how reproachful it inevitably sounds when you hear someone tell you “And you used googledocs, we have other solutions”, when you know that already. I realized that exemplarity is not a modality of action, just as little as self-sacrifice is: it’s a mindset, but an open one if you want to achieve something collectively in the end.

I still think it matters a lot that we should try our best to see if there are ways, in our digital habits, to become more aware of what we do. I really want information to be more easily accessible so that people can make informed decisions (and actually make them, not put up with them): on videoconference tools, on document sharing, e-mail services, devices… the list is long, so long that it can be discouraging. But still. We have to start this list, and work through every item.


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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