Rebound effects of progress in information technology


Information technology (IT) is continuously making astounding progress in technical efficiency. The time, space, material and energy needed to provide a unit of IT service have decreased by three orders of magnitude since the first personal computer (PC) was sold. However, it seems difficult for society to translate IT’s efficiency progress into progress in terms of individual, organizational or socio-economic goals. In particular it seems to be difficult for individuals to work more efficiently, for organizations to be more productive and for the socio-economic system to be more sustainable by using increasingly efficient IT. This article provides empirical evidence and potential explanations for this problem. Many counterproductive effects of IT can be explained economically by rebound effects. Beyond that, we conclude that the technological determinism adopted by decision-makers is the main obstacle in translating IT’s progress into non-technical goals.


Die Informationstechnologie macht laufend erstaunliche Fortschritte hinsichtlich technischer Effizienz. Zeit-, Raum-, Material- und Energieaufwand pro Einheit von IT-Dienstleistungen haben sich seit dem Verkauf des ersten PC um drei Größenordnungen verringert. Es scheint jedoch schwierig zu sein, die Entwicklung der IT-Effizienz in Fortschritte hinsichtlich individueller, organisatorischer oder sozioökonomischer Ziele umzumünzen. Insbesondere scheint es dem Einzelnen schwer zu fallen, die zunehmend effiziente IT zu nutzen, um selbst effizienter zu arbeiten; Organisationen scheinen durch effizientere IT nicht produktiver zu werden und sozioökonomische Systeme dem Ziel der Nachhaltigkeit nicht näher zu kommen. Dieser Artikel stellt empirische Ergebnisse und mögliche Erklärungen für dieses Problem zusammen. Viele kontraproduktive Effekte der IT können durch Rebound-Effekte ökonomisch erklärt werden. Darüber hinaus kommen wir zu der Schlussfolgerung, dass es hauptsächlich der technologische Determinismus von Entscheidungsträgern ist, der bisher die Nutzung des informationstechnischen Fortschritts für nicht-technische Ziele behindert.

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    It is an undisputed fact that IT contributed to productivity improvements through the automation of manufacturing and other physical production processes.


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The empirical study reported in the first section of this paper was funded by an internal research grant of Empa and carried out in cooperation with the Royal Technical University, Stockholm in 2002–2003. The data on e-waste is based on a project funded by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) in 2003–2005. The estimates on second- and third-order effects of ICT are based on a simulation study funded by the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) of the European Commission in 2003–2004. Some parts of the work were co-funded under the umbrella of the “Sustainability in the Information Society” research program of Empa, funded by the ETH board 2001–2005. The funding institutions do not necessarily share the views and opinions expressed in this article.

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Correspondence to L.M. Hilty.

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Hilty, L., Köhler, A., Von Schéele, F. et al. Rebound effects of progress in information technology. Poiesis Prax 4, 19–38 (2006).

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  • Rebound effect
  • IT productivity paradox
  • Human–computer interaction
  • Organizational impacts of IT
  • Environmental impacts of IT
  • Information society
  • Sustainable development