Many people suppose that computers are environmentally benign. Silicon valley may be badly polluted, but the product itself seems not to disrupt nature on anything like the scale of, for example, automotive technology. Computers may even have certain environmental advantages. They are at least alleged to save paper. And, by keeping us glued for long periods of our lives to video display terminals, they might even keep us out of mischief, since nature is usually the loser when we manage to tear ourselves away from our electronic lives for some real-time interaction.
The saving of paper is possible in theory; but in practice
computers have increased paper use. After a hard disk crash and a virus
or two, most of us justifiably mistrust electronic storage methods. It
is always safer to make a hard copy—just in case. And the ease of printing
constantly tempts us to put out a flashy and colorful memo or letter or
report or handout or flyer. We know, of course, if we ever stop to think
about it, that nine tenths of what we print will never be read—who has
the time to read it?—but to see all those neatly-formatted sheets successively
emerging from the printer makes us feel so … productive.
Computers also have diffuse social and environmental effects that are easily overlooked. As hard as we are on the natural world when we meet it face to face, we may be harder still if we entirely insulate ourselves from it, as we do when we spend the day tethered to a video display terminal. We can’t care about what we don’t know, and we will not preserve what we can’t care about.
Moreover, very the act of sitting at a computer is, contrary to first appearances, not environmentally benign. For, while we sit, our lives are being maintained by a myriad of environmentally destructive processes: the air-conditioning, the heating, the power for the lights and electronics, the disposal systems that carry away our wastes, the convoys of eighteen-wheelers barreling down the interstate to supply our food, and so on. We would not be able to use computers were these other things not provided for us, and their provision is (at least under current arrangements) palpably destructive to the environment. Thus, even if we were to drastically increase the amount of time spent sitting in front of computers, it is unlikely that any environmental improvement would result. On the contrary, the efforts required to sustain our lives for our virtual enterprises would guarantee continued environmental degradation.
Perhaps the most disturbing environmental impact of computers, however, is the way they displace reality. Instead of the infinitely complex and genuine world of animals, plants and human beings, we are presented with a rarified and simplified virtual world that, however fascinating, is illusory. Our fascination with this virtual world springs chiefly from the fact that, unlike the real world, it is thoroughly—down to each last bit and byte—under human control. If we know the right languages and can issue the right commands, we have over it the grand dominion of which mankind has always dreamed—utter and absolute control. We can become as gods.
But there is a price. We pay for absolute control over the virtual world with alienation from the real world. The hours and days spent on the computer are hours and days subtracted from our real lives—from real love and real adventure, and also from real heartache and real sorrow. Not only are they unreal; our computer lives are not the ones we dreamed. When we think of the lives we really want to live, when we picture our heros, we don't imagine them spending their days sitting at computer. Nor when we come to die will many of us look back and regret that we didn't spend more of our time staring at a video screen.
Nero fiddled while Rome burned. We fiddle with our computers.