Is the ICT Infrastructure Future Proof ?

Norberto Patrignani and Iordanis Kavathatzopoulos


The ICT infrastructure and its technological core are now becoming the critical infrastructures of our society. Our activities and processes are now relying on these platforms, they are now our social and business platforms. But are they sustainable? What are the (physical) limits to take into account when looking into the ICT future? Do the planet have enough resources to sustain the making, powering and wasting of all the electronic devices needed to support our social and business platforms in the future?

This paper addresses the issue of evaluating the environmental impact of ICT. Starting from the analysis of the sustainability of one of its most celebrated “laws”, the Moore’s law, we analyse its entire life-cycle, from “silicon-factories”, to their use in data centres, to the final destination of ICT products: recycling and reuse (trash ware) in the best case or, uncontrolled waste traffic towards poor countries with health hazards and environmental pollution, in the worst case.

We introduce a new dimension in the social and ethical analysis related to ICT: the future. What are the implications of this future ethics in ICT?

The Physical limits of ICT Infrastructure

ICT, the “cleanest” and the most “de-materialized” economy’s sector, is under scrutiny by environmental advocacy organizations [Greenpeace, 2010]. ICT contribution (production, power supply) to greenhouse gas production (CO2, etc.) is becoming significant and reaching the same level of airlines (close to 3% of total CO2) [Gartner, 2007].

Our computers are based on silicon chips but their production process has one of he highest impact in the industry: for producing a DRAM (of 2g of weight) we need about 1,7 Kg of fossil fuels and chemicals, a “material intensity” of 850:1, probably the highest in all industries (cars manufacturing has a material intensity of 2:1) [SVTC, 2007].

About workers in these chip factories: the first warning was the results of the first study about the health conditions of “semiconductor workers”. They had an illness rate 200% higher than other workers and the women’s miscarriage rate was 40% higher. This was the first sign that the high-tech revolution carries a high price for health, the environment and sustainable economic development. Chip manufacturing requires vast resources and is based on several toxic hazards during its lifecycle, from design and production (then to disposal) [SJMN, 1985].

Probably the Moore’s law [Moore, 1965] is one of the best examples of the so called “magnificent and progressive” goals of technology trends, described by the doubling of the number of transistors on an integrated circuit every eighteen months. From the first microprocessor Intel 4004 (based on about 103 transistors), to the last generations of chips (Intel-Itanium, with more than 109 transistors), this “law” was valid. But what about its sustainability? A recent study of Yale University showed the limits of Moore’s law due to material consumption: “Our high-tech products increasingly make use of rare metals, and mining those resources can have devastating environmental consequences… The processing capacity increase … is enabled by an expanded use of elements … computer chips made use of 11 major elements in the 1980s but now use about 60 (two-thirds of the periodic table!)” [Schmitz, Graedel, 2010]. Most of these elements are the so called rare-earths and the largest mines are now concentrated in China (see fig.1). This has important implications also at international and political level [Pumphrey, 2011].
The Moore’s law has consequences also on the speed of “gadgets” consumption: new products emerge constantly, they are faster, smaller, cheaper and smarter; but each new wave of innovation in electronics technology introduces new materials and pushes last year’s obsolete gadgets and machines into the waste-basket [WSJ, 2004]. Innovation is the hallmark of ICT industry, but we should also start very quickly to think about its sustainability. This recall the electronic sustainability commitment of “Soesterberg principle”: “Each new generation of technical improvements in electronic products (Moore’s law) should include parallel and proportional improvements (@Moore’s law) in environmental, health and safety, as well as social justice attributes” [Soesterberg, 1999].

Future Ethics

Computer scientists and professionals have difficulties in dealing with long terms consequences of their research and projects, in particular when dealing with moral imperatives defined for the welfare of future generations of humans or for the planet. When we miss the direct interactions with the consequences of our actions it is very difficult to get feedback and change our directions. One of the first researchers studying the ethical challenges introduced by technological developments was Hans Jonas in its Imperative of Responsibility: “Human survival depends on our efforts to care for our planet and its future … act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life” [Jonas, 1984].

How can we develop a new stage of ethics, an ethics that will inform our decisions when the consequences of our acts are so distant in the future? This is the central problem of the so called “future ethics”: the rational acceptance of a norm doesn’t automatically guarantee the action or behaviour according to the norm [Birnbacher, 2006].


ICT offers a number of opportunities for the achievement of global sustainability by economic benefits (value creation, employment, government revenues, etc.), for industrialized countries (eco-efficiency enhancing applications, substitution of transport and buildings by teleworking, videoconferencing, e-business, etc.), and for developing countries (economic development, implementation of poverty alleviation strategies) [WSIS, 2003], but on the other hand we must be aware that ICT products can have adverse environmental and social impact by consuming elements that are becoming scarce, lowering the working conditions in the manufacturing phase, consuming energy in the use phase and growing the e-Waste problem.

This double face of ICT rise ethical dilemmas in the field of “future ethics” where the contributions of philosophers like Jonas or Birnbacher will helps us in analysing the dilemmas introduced by ICT towards the future.

If we want a more reliable ICT social and business platform we should start also pointing our glasses towards the future ethical dilemmas.


– Birnbacher D., (2006), “What motivates us to care for the (distant) future?”, N° 04/2006 Gouvernance Mondiale

– Gartner (2007), Gartner Estimates ICT Industry Global CO2 Emissions, 2007

– Greenpeace (2010), Guide to Greener Electronics, October 2010

– Jonas H. (1984), “The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age”, University of Chicago Press, 1984

– Moore G.E. (1965), Cramming more components onto integrated circuits, Electronics Magazine, 19 April 1965

– Pumphrey D., Ladislaw S.O., Hyland L. (2011), “Energy and Environment in the Barack Obama–Hu Jintao Meeting”, Center for Strategic and International Studies,, January 2011

– Schmitz O.J., Graedel T.E. (2010), “The Consumption Conundrum: Driving the Destruction Abroad”,, April 2010

– SJMN (1985), San Jose Mercury News, “High Birth Defects Rate in Spill Area”, January 17, 1985

– Soesterberg (1999), Trans-Atlantic Network for Clean Production Meeting, Soesterberg, The Netherlands, May 1999

– SVTC (2007), Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, October 2007

– UN-WSIS (2003), Geneva Declaration of Principles, World Summit on Information Society

– WSJ (2004), “e-Waste, the world’s fastest growing and potentially most dangerous waste problem”, Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2004.

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