July 18, 2009 By Bill Schrier
No, "Gray" technology doesn't refer to the color of my hair (what little remains of it) nor does it refer to the aging of the workforce. "Gray" technology refers to the decidedly mixed blessings of technology, and specifically the impacts of the ubiquitous and ever-expanding use of technology on the environment. I don't believe there's very much green (good for the earth) tech, nor ugly (bad for the earth) tech, but there is a lot of "gray" tech.
I recently spoke to the GFOA - Government Financial Officers Association conference in Seattle about "Technology - Savior or Curse for the Environment?". The bean counters (I say this with affection, you GOFAites, since you also control and manage my budget!), are surprisingly interested in not just technology, but green technology, as long as it has a decent return on investment (ROI). Increasingly, finance officers are willing to count environmental benefits, not just hard dollar savings, as part of that ROI.
Many people see technology as a savior of the environment. A couple examples: Paper. The "paperless office" has been a stalwart of technology magazines (there's an oxymoron) for years.
The thought is simple: with e-mail and electronic storage of documents we could eventually eliminate use of paper, saving trees and therefore forests. But forest acreage hasn't changed much in the last 100 years, and has actually increased by 14 million acres since 1977.
Furthermore, the process of recycling paper products is highly refined, albeit water and energy intensive. Nevertheless, reducing paper use is a noble goal, and the City of Seattle certainly has embraced it through a "Papercuts" campaign, and through a proposed 20 cent tax on plastic AND paper grocery bags.
Travel. People travel a lot, via planes, trains and automobiles. Travel uses a lot of energy and burns a lot of fossil fuel.
You'd think the advent of telephone conference calling, the Internet, electronic mail and now webinars and similar tech should lead to electronic meetings and telecommuting (which is not prevalent in government, but that's a blog for another time). Therefore we could hope for reduced trips via car or bus or airplane.
Reduced travel has many positive effects - smaller carbon tireprints, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, lowered traffic congestion on highways, less pollution of the upper atmosphere, reduced use of scarce oil, less dependence on foreign oil, a wiser foreign policy, eventually world peace (ok, maybe that's a stretch).
Nice vision, very hard to realize.
People like to work in groups. They like to see each other face-to-face. They like to watch each other squirm and sweat under pressure. They like to watch facial expressions and have sidebar conversations.
Perhaps a future generation of workers who grew up tech savvy can easily and productively have meetings via webinar and telephone conference call. More likely, we'll eventually (despite the recent atrocious criteria issued by NTIA for the Broadband stimulus projects) get really high speed fiber networks, two-way HDTV, and true telework and video telepresence.
In the meantime, we'll continue to jump in our cars (airplanes, buses) and travel to face-to-face meetings spewing fumes all the way.
So is technology really the "savior of the environment?
Technology is noxious. At every stage of its lifecycle, from birth to death, technology has awful side effects.
Technology contains scarce minerals mined from the earth. It uses a lot of plastic (plastic comes from oil, right?). It takes a lot of water and toxic chemicals to make electronic components. An integrated circuit or chip factory uses as much water and power as a small, not-very-green, city.
Using technology is injurious, both to the environment and to people. Data centers consume great amounts of electricity (using coal and oil and producing greenhouse gas again), as do all our little electronic gadgets like the laptop computer I'm writing this on or the BlackBerry I carry close to my heart (in my back pocket).
Human beings were not designed to type on keyboards, sit and stare at screens for long periods, or even to sit at all (think carpal tunnel syndrome, junk food, obesity, lack of exercise).
And then there is the disposal of technology. When is the last time you've had a cell phone fixed? Or, when Microsoft finally obsoletes that operating system (Windows 95, 2000, XP etc.), how many people actually do an upgrade? Most just buy a new computer, because the old one is too slow for the new operating system anyway.
Where does this old tech go? Generally, we ship it overseas where it is ripped apart (by low-paid workers in unsanitary conditions) for the small pieces that are valuable, and the rest goes into a landfill in a third world country. We're getting better about this recycling of course, but we've got a long ways to go.
Green technology. Yeah, right. Such a thing won't exist until we have organic computing and chips grown on trees (pun intended).
But I'm a "chief technology officer" and of course I'm a tireless advocate to apply technology to make government more efficient and effective, and to improve services to constituents.
But let's not blithely call it "green". And let's also recognize that not every business problem benefits from application of more "gray" technology.
This Digital Communities white paper highlights discussions with IT officials in four counties that have adopted shared services models. Our aim was to learn about the obstacles these governments have faced when it comes to shared services and what it takes to overcome those roadblocks. We also spoke with several members of the IT industry who have thought long and hard about these issues. The paper offers some best practices for shared government-to-government services, but also points out challenges that government and industry still must overcome before this model gains widespread adoption.