In search of the golden materiality coefficient…

Inside Nest Saturated

It is needless to say that we are a species obsessed with numbers. From school grades to business ROI, everything needs to measured then optimised. ”Data driven” mantras are everywhere as we are recorded every little mouse movement on any app or website. Using metrics and numbers is not inherently a bad thing but just focusing on one metric while missing the entire picture or having a bias in recording mechanics or not taking the time to actually analyse what numbers mean are the dangers to be watched out for. To be data informed not driven.

Internet of things or IoT exists in multiple forms going from absolutely ridiculous like a toothbrush with a high end live camera to the relatively successful IoT device: Nest Learning Thermostat created by the same person who created the iPod, who then sold Nest to Google for a very high amount of money. This thermostat markets itself as an energy saving device- ”Saving energy is a beautiful thing.” It can learn from how you use it and can program itself, not only that, it even encourages and shows you how to save more electricity. It also promises to reduce your electricity bill while saving the environment, sounds like a win win!

Apart from its expensive price of of around €220, we have to stop and ask about its own materiality, energy usage and cumulative carbon footprint. We have to start with the plastic casing then add up all the rare minerals needed to build the ICs to enable the smartness and on top of that it must consume some energy itself. So if we make a ratio of its own materiality to the amount of energy it can save from getting consumed, we can start have a good measure of things and can compare it with regular thermostats. But what about its life cycle and recyclability and how much will be end up as e-waste, how do we account for that? What is the impact on lives in the Global South? And as it is owned by Google, we have to talk about privacy or the lack of it, which the consumer is willing to sacrifice.

For the curious here are the numbers/stats I found about Nest Thermostat in USA[1]-

  • 99% paper and fiber-based packaging
  • PVC-free
  • Total GHG emissions over ten-year life cycle: 15 kg CO2e (74% in production, 2% in distribution, 23% customer use, 1% recycling)
  • Annual energy use estimate: 1 kWh/y
  • Materials used: 61g plastic, 15g steel, 11g battery, 11g electronics, 4g other metals (’electronics’ and ’other metals’ seems vague)
  • It says they use ”Ethical Sourcing” whatever that means [2]
  • Recycling is available but we know how that goes in reality

These numbers start giving us a better picture behind the magic energy saving marketing and start a better conversation. I understand it is hard to create metrics and coefficients which capture the full story but we need start somewhere. More research is needed here to move the IoT field in the right direction to use it for climate saving benefit and not just lazy human convenience. While on the subject, there are other numbers which need to be analysed in the equation like a possible carbon tax and ongoing carbon offsets, do they really help? If yes, how much?

References and further reads-

Title picture from- https://learn.sparkfun.com/tutorials/nest-thermostat-teardown-/all

[1] http://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/nestthermostatenorthamerica_productenvironmentreport.pdf?hl=en-US

[2] https://abc.xyz/investor/conflictminerals/

Detailed read about Nest thermostat- https://downloads.nest.com/press/documents/energy-savings-white-paper.pdf

The paradox of e-waste

As we dive further in to explore the obsolete media tech, the mass of the electronic waste is appalling. My first thoughts about the topic is questioning why we don’t have more efficient recycling methods for these items. Why haven’t we developed ways to utilize the rare minerals and valuable metals on circuit boards so that the polluting waste disposal wouldn’t have to take place? Turns out that there is plenty of advanced methods for re-using the materials. Not only is there usable methods, these methods may even be more profitable than traditional mining of these minerals – a new industry “e-waste mining” may emerge [1].

So why is the recycling of e-waste still so minimal? Even in Finland, that is among the best recyclers in Europe, only half of the waste is recycled and globally the estimations of the percentage of waste that ends up being recycled is about 20%  [2] [3]. In Finland the legal responsibility of the recycling is pinned to the manufacturers and importers of the electronics, which was somewhat surprising for me – I always thought recycling is organized by the cities or the state. Seems like this model of waste responsibility only applies to few industries – vehicles, newspapers and electronics [3]. This goes to explain why presumably the waste from Finland also ends up in places such as Ghana and India, smuggled in labelled as second hand electronics, to go around the local and EU implemented waste disposal legislations – the companies don’t have the same incentive of rectitude as public sector.

In India, one of the graveyards of e-waste, the e-waste recycling seems to be mostly in the hands if informal workers who extract the minerals by crude methods in primitive conditions [4]. The informal recycling is not supported by the state of India – the workers often operate at night to avoid police raids and recycling units often operate illegally due to the environmental impacts of informal extraction methods. Many of the workers are afraid of losing their income and participate in hiding the underground recycling industry from authorities. It seems like the whole e-waste chain operates mostly in darkness and is difficult to monitor by the state.

Initially I thought that the problem of e-waste disposal was technical – that we produced electronics that can’t be recycled. After reading more about the topic, it seems that the problem is mostly societal – the tech for recycling already exists. However it seems that for the companies responsible for the waste management it is cheaper to illegally dump electronics to third world countries and these countries are unable to control or monitor the actions of the companies. If the companies responsible of the recycling are in the industry of producing the tech product i doubt that they would have much interest in more advanced recycling methods. And as long as there are people living in extreme poverty there will always be workers willing to participate in keeping the e-dumping in secret and extract the valuable mineral in primitive methods with cheap labour costs harming both themselves and the environment, locally and globally. The topic of sustainability therefore can not be separated from discourse of human rights, poverty and global equality. 

To have some hope, I found an interesting initiative called “Sofies” that works on creating legal recycling sector in developing countries. On their site they say that by cooperating with the local authorities and introducing proper recycling tech among other methods “The environmental impact resulting from rudimentary practices has disappeared entirely.”  [5] As a joint study from Beijing’s Tsinghua University and Macquarie University, in Sydney [6] found that e-waste mining is 13 times less expensive than traditional mining, maybe the countries afflicted by e-waste can turn it into profit with the right resources. 

[1]https://www.bbc.com/news/business-44642176

[2]https://goodelectronics.org/e-waste-a-big-problem-needing-bigger-solutions/

[3] https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-9296700

[4] https://www.ymparisto.fi/fi-FI/Kulutus_ja_tuotanto/Jatteet_ja_jatehuolto/Jatehuollon_vastuut_ja_jarjestaminen

[5] http://theconversation.com/electronic-waste-is-recycled-in-appalling-conditions-in-india-110363

[6] https://sofiesgroup.com/en/projects/managing-e-waste-in-developing-countries-considered-a-global-issue-the-question-of-decent-and-responsible-recycling-of-electronic-waste-requires-filed-answers-to-integrate-an-informal-economy-in-a-f/ 

[7] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.7b04909

The evolution of tech

Gabry’s text Rethinking sustainability, she highlights observing the internet of things thought its relationships to all other existing things “Relations necessarily give rise to things… “ “..how relations and things emerge together”.  This made me think about the similarities that evolution, animals and food chains have in common with tech “ecosystem”.

Tech and technical devices are all interconnected and evolve through paths of surprising clashes of different technologies such as computer, camera and phone coming together to a smartphone, and then creating a platform for something like Instagram that wouldn’t have not come to be unless all that tech was in one device. Or in a more linear way, single purpose tech is getting better and better at doing the original job – such as cameras that have served the same purpose for centuries now, but have evolved to the modern digital cameras with superior powers compared to the original ones. This could in evolutionary terms to be a metaphor for an organism that has specialized very well to a tight ecological niche, such as a tropical bird that has a beak shaped to be compatible with a specific flower. There is also these symbiotic tech evolution relationships – for example tech of memory cards evolving alongside the tech of camera. Or film, that became “extinct” when new digital cameras overtook the ecological niche of film cameras. 

The ecosystem of organism is a complex network of beings, all dependent on one another – closely or linked through several organisms. So is tech. Tech ecosystem consists of people, needs and tech living in this constant interaction changing each participant.  For example – without smartphone’s, Instagram might not have come to be, without Instagram the selfie culture would not have arisen, without the selfie culture the algorithms for all new weird image filters would not have been invented. So the evolution of tech is kind of chaotic and takes arbitrary paths. Usually the presumption has always been that tech evolves forward  taking humanity to the next level, but have we really defined what forward or this next level is, what are the end goals of the linear tech evolution? Faster tech, more sustainable tech? Or just tech that will suit the whatever needs people currently have, that may not be relevant at all a few decades later?  

Sewall Wright and other researchers in genetics and mathematics have used a model of evolution that presents organisms as a dot in a three dimensional scenery with hills of different heights. The different hills represent different evolutionary strategies, and higher the hill the dot representing an organism is, the better it’s changes of survival is. Hills are evolutionary “attractors”, that the current conditions favours the organism to evolve towards. Generation by generation the dots of the same species adapt better to their surroundings, their change of survival increases and they move higher up a hill until they reach the top and are as fully evolved to their surroundings as they can with this evolutionary strategy. Sometimes the hill that the dots have started “climbing” is lower than the other hills – in this case the organism is stuck with it’s evolutionary progress, as it can’t de-evolve and therefore can’t go back to a more neutral evolutionary state represented by a valley. In a valley the organism could start its’ progress to another evolutionary direction that might take it to a higher hill, making it more adapted to its surroundings than a lower one. As the environment keeps constantly changing and interconnectedness of the beings creates chaotic changes in the network, this scenery of hills and valleys is actually in a constant move, where hills and valleys keep emerging and collapsing. The evolutionary strategies that worked before may become obsolete and nothing ensures that the evolutionary strategy of today still works tomorrow. Although, the constantly changing scenery also gives the organisms more flexibility to change strategies, and adapt towards an alternative evolutionary strategy hill as new changes open up to the organisms stuck in hilltops. 

I feel this non-linear progress with constantly changing goals also represent the evolution of tech better that linear model of evolution. Before we competed of the best TV antenna solutions, now the needs have shifted towards the best internet connections for Netflix use. Best film has changed to best memory cards. List goes on. The chaotic aspect of the system is very much linked to the amount of connections and relations between the parts of it – when thinking of tech the IoT definitely adds on a layer of chaos linking the parts in completely new ways. The ecosystem of devices, people and needs is not just connected from a device to a person, there is now also a lot more parallel relations from device to device. With my play of thoughts comparing tech to evolution of organisms, the evolutionary scenery would change even more chaotically, as IoT would create completely new hills to the model. Completely new, unseen needs guiding the evolution of tech may emerge – and the needs that tech sets to tech may have a way bigger role than the needs people have for tech.  

More: Deep Simplicity, Chaos Complexity and the Emergence of Life, John Grippin (published 2004)

Collapse OS and other speculative scenarios

We are now aware of the environmental materialism behind our media. From rare earth material mining to plastics, from growing e-waste to warming data centres. But what now?

Let’s use some speculative fiction to try and paint future scenarios.

Scenario 1: We take drastic collective action NOW and stop mass production and development of technology and media. That means no new models of iPhone or Mac, we make best of what we already have and try to create new devices only through a better developed recycle process which minimises polluting in the process. This will have major economic impact on businesses like Samsung, Apple, also players which create semiconductors i.e. all fabs and factories and many more. Even other big tech media companies like Facebook, Amazon etc. will be heavily impacted and be slowly scaled down. But there can be some sort of government bail out and re-use of these companies and factories for other purposes like recycling centres. And also assuming this will be backed up with more creation and reliance on renewable energy. Then again, what happens to the consumer culture? Can people make peace with this for the greater good right now? Can we start going back to slower internet and not being ”connected” all times? All the engineers, designers and researchers working on the future tech, AI, blockchain, mars rovers and such immediately stop all their work. A lot jobs will fade away and will need to find a new direction. Media artists, musicians will have to redefine the future of their work. Sounds like a bit hard to swallow, doesn’t it?

Scenario 2: We keep going as we are, and make ”great progress”. Smarter internet of things, blockchain based everything, Bitcoin adoption, AI smarter than ever, sensors, AR, VR… you get the point. Some of these solutions can even help the case of improving environmental impact. But then again, earth’s resources are only limited and going to run out eventually. So around 2030-2050 the global supply chain collapses. It is impossible to produce new electronics and our systems which are heavily dependent on tech, also collapse. A Mad Max type of scenario begins and we start creating low tech devices from scavenged electronics. A lot of inspiration for this scenario comes from this project I found called Collapse OS. It is basically an operating system written for low end electronics which can work with all sorts of different input output and storage devices. ”…the goal of this project is to be as self-contained as possible. With a copy of this project, a capable and creative person should be able to manage to build and install Collapse OS without external resources (i.e. internet) on a machine of her design, built from scavenged parts with low-tech tools.” The project also has a why section which is definitely worth reading- https://collapseos.org/why.html

Scenario 3: Technology manages to save the environment and humankind. Lol, just kidding.

There a lot of details which I did not sketch out in these scenarios. What other scenarios can you think of?

The modern form of human

How Taffel in his text Technofossils of the Anthropocene describes the effects of the plastics in human body made me think of us as recording devices of our environmental conditions. In the same way that Parikka’s essay Anthopocene describes a new perspective to earth as a recording medium of human activity, the same can be applied to us. The story of our surroundings can then be read through medical examination of our bodies. 

The recording of minerals and plastics used in synthetic processes and items doesn’t just tell us about the information of the current health state of the person, but it can possibly even tell us a lot about where the person is from. For example, in this study it was found that Taiwanese had higher more mercury and cadmium levels than western populations (1). The heavy metals can also tell us if the person lives in an urban area or not (2). As shocking it is to think how much we are just part of the environment that we live in and therefore just as full of the agents causing problems in it, it is also fascinating thought that exposure can possibly leave us with a unique mix of chemicals that can be traced back to the events of our personal history. It is kind of like a constantly changing molecular fingerprint. 

Thinking of us as being that are mixed with our surrounding in this microscopic level, it could be interesting to lead this line of thought to even further, to our identity. Many of these chemicals affect to our mood, our thought processes and to how we experience ourselves as people. For example teflon has correlation to childhood obesity (3). Body image and the reactions that obesity has from the environment has a deep impact on one’s identity, how other people see them and who they grow to be as adults. Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), Perchlorate, Bisphenol-A and phthalates contribute to the development of thyroid diseases (4), that have deep links to psychological well being and mood. Exposure to heavy metals has meen linked to autism, ADHD and ASD. All these illnesses and health problems may change vastly all aspects to imagine of one’s life – for example social life, social status, profession, education or political views. Illnesses are just the most visible and well documented cases of the effects that environmental chemicals have on us – who knows how much there might be undetected links to behaviour on us that aren’t severe enough to be classified as diseases? 

The exposure to chemicals may change our identity, how we act in the world and how we respond to the world around us. As we live in this constant interaction of the environmental effects of the use of technologies in all the industries needed for modern society, can we categorically be separated of the tech and it’s material outcomings? Or are we all, on some level “cyborgs”, as the technology used around us is in constant contact with us changing our bodies and therefore us on molecular level? 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5435846/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4599656/.
  3. https://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2015/11/study-teflon-chemical-linked-childhood-obesity
  4. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/special-reports/introduction-update-psychiatric-effects-toxic-exposures.

What does “Made in Japan” mean?

In general, the meaning of Made in Japan is thought as very high quality. But Im wondering about what defines Made in Japan”. For example, TOYOTA, it is famous in all over the world as Made in Japan”, but these materials, technologies, labors who made it and something involved are maybe not only Japanese.

Toyota became a global company after started to export to the United States In 1957. This map shows that Toyota has 51 manufacturing entities around the world in  over 170 countries in December 2017. In the case of Europe, a general management company was set up in Belgium in 2005. More than 280,000 cars are produced in Turkey and more than 230,000 are produced in France.

In addition, as shown in the graph above, recently the number of production overseas has increased more than the domestic sales. (black box… overseas production, stripe box… domestic salesInterestingly, these manufacturing entities do not make the whole car, but only produce parts at a specific factory and assemble them at the production factory. For example, in Poland, engines and transmissions and in Canada, aluminum wheels are the main production.

There are over 360,000 Toyota employees worldwide, and about half of them are said to be foreign employees. In other words, nearly half of the workers are not in Japan. Ishii(2017) also proposed the need to ask the meaning of localizing workers at overseas bases. He think that the relationship with overseas workers is also problematic due to the high retire rate of local employees and dissatisfaction with promotion.

In this way, TOYOTA has been called Made in Japan”, but considering the production process, labors and other some aspects, we should rethink what is the  definition of Made in Japan. Is it a design? brand? or location of the head office?

 

References ;

Toyota Homepage; https://global.toyota/jp/detail/4063440 (9.10.2019 accessed)

Shinichi Ishii(2017) /Evolution of Toyota’s export and overseas production/ Management Research Vol. 64, No. 1 / http://dlisv03.media.osaka-cu.ac.jp/contents/osakacu/kiyo/DBa0640105.pdf(9.10.2019 accessed)

Shinichi Ishii(2017) /Product development and human localization in overseas development—A case analysis of Toyota Motor’s US development bases—/Journal of Japan Management Association Vol.38, pp.64-75, 2017/ https://www-jstage-jst-go-jp.anywhere.lib.kyushu-u.ac.jp/article/keieijournal/38/0/38_64/_pdf/-char/ja(9.10.2019 accessed)

 

Aesthetics of Human Life

Sean Cubitt ends the chapter ’Ecologies of Fabrication’ with saying ”It is not only because both economics and politics have failed to create sustainable ways of life, or even to address them, that we need to turn to aesthetics.”

Us humans lust over money, it somehow correlates to power and happiness. Basically since birth we are brainwashed towards running after ”success”, have the best phones, cars, homes, yachts and what not. Movies, TV shows, advertisements and all mass media are a cultural brainwash to what are the best aesthetics of human life and we reward the ”celebrities” and billionaires with god status. The global north is good aesthetics while global south is bad and similarly cognition labor good aesthetics while physical labor bad. The latter in both cases strives to rise to the former while former makes sure they stay at the top. Politicians are the gatekeepers, trying to please them both through corruption and lies. And in this power battle, the strive towards sustainable media gets lost…

Are these systems of aesthetics, call it capitalism if you will, in grain to humans? Are we as a species bound to colonise the ”weaker” society? Of course throughout history there have been voices of resistance be it individual or a collective. How do we go about changing the aesthetics of human life?

Will reading on your screen save the planet?

Lately, when I’ve suggested to others that we should print posters to promote an event or for spreading information, they have replied “but should we really waste paper and ink like that? Can’t we just market this via social media channels?”  This question baffles me for several reasons. Here’s a few:

1. Information and marketing through social media is only accessed by people who use those channels. Algorithms used by e.g. Facebook or Instagram will limit the spreading even further, since the content will only be shown to people who the algorithm “believes” have an interest in that particular post.

2. If all political/artistic/activist/non-commercial content is moved to social media and the internet, commercial forces will dominate the physical visual space through advertisement. This shift has already taken place, to a large extent. Public art is, once more, questioned by politicians and twitter celebrities. An example is Swedish municipality Sölvesborg, where nationalist party Sweden Democrats, in coalition with two conservative parties, are in power. They have now made an official statement that they will “cut down on the purchases of “challenging contemporary art” in favour of timeless, classical art that “will appeal to the vast majority of citizens”, according to municipal commisioner Louise Erixon (my translation). The example they use for unwanted, challenging art is graphic artist Liv Strömqvist’s drawings of menstruating women, that were showcased as public art in the Stockholm metro system [2]. This statement has sparked a huge, nation wide debate about public art and its purpose, but the debate about advertisement in public space is still missing. If the “menstruation art” had been exchanged for a screen with commercial messages, no politician or citizen would have written lengthy texts about it, because it has been normalised.

Photo of Liv Strömqvists “menstrual art” in the metro station Slussen, Stockholm. Credit: argaclara.com

3. Is reading on a screen instead of paper really better for the environment?  Sean Cubitt urges us in Ecologies of Fabrication to use the term ecomedia, writing: ‘the study of the intermediation of everything, cannot rest on individuality but must work on the level of community, communication and communion’ (p.166). This poses an interesting challenge on evaluating the use of screens – assessments on reading on a screen vs paper on an individual level have been done and points partly in favour of the screen, but does that mean it’s sustainable for everyone to have their own personal smart device in order to look at art, find events to go to, look at maps, talk to friends, read the newspaper, etc? Ecomedia isn’t part of the tool kit when a life cycle assessment is done for a product*.

The discussion on print vs screen needs to take into account the wider scope of production and energy usage on a global scale, the use of public space and the physical vs the virtual.

* https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eiar.2009.07.001

Purity

While reading Thermocultures of Geological Media, I was attracted towards how Starosielski approached the subject of purity, using it as a reflection or metaphor for the concept of purity in human culture, and how human culture often desires that which is pure: “In the case of copper and quartz extraction, strategies of thermal manipulation are governed by a cultural imperative to achieve ‘purity.’” [1]

Starosielski continues on the subject of purity and its relation to pollution: “the definition of purity—the designation of one set of phenomena as clean (in this case, the copper or silicon communications circuit)—is integrally tied to the production of pollution.”[1]

These sections made me think about our cultural relationship with pollution. Pollution is often characterised as a concept in which humans have dirtied a clean, pure, green and natural world. Is it that the concept of pollution ties into the human cultural concept of purity? 

It seems that as the population becomes increasingly urban and separated from the natural world, we further lose cultural ties to the earth. Nostalgia for times of simplicity, agrarian tranquility, and  being at one with the nature is common. Is it that we see the earth as having human-like qualities? Do we miss our human connection with “mother earth”?  

There are many anthropomorphic representations of earth in mythology, with many earth goddesses existing throughout history suggesting a long and fruitful relationship between humans and the earth. These goddesses are commonly represented as a female, (as the suffix suggests), and as motherly figures. The fact that earth is commonly represented as female, and a mother is an interesting one, and joins with feminine tropes such as purity and innocence, and of care-giving as seen for example in the virgin mother, Mary, of christian tradition, a figure with a large influence on western culture. 

A painting of Gaia, the greek earth goddess [2]

“The passionate moral principles of the 1960s were turned in the 1970s to attack monstrous technological developments which endangered us. We became afraid of contamination of the air, water, oceans and food… …We showed that risk perception depends on shared culture, not on individual psychology. Dangers are manifold and omnipresent… …Arguments about risk are highly charged, morally and politically. Naming a risk amounts to an accusation. “[3]

The last part of that quote, about risk being an accusation, is something I think quite relevant in modern discourse on the topic of climate change and pollution and so on. The risk associated with it for our species, when raised, does often amount to an accusation, and that is an uncomfortable feeling to deal with. I wonder if the uncomfortable feeling not only comes from the feeling of risking the lives of others, but also towards the cultural vision of permanently hurting, or changing, the innocence and purity of our “mother”.

[1] Thermocultures of Geological Media – Nicole Starosielski

[2] Gaea (1875) – Anselm Feuerbach

[3] Purity and Danger –  Mary Douglas

”We imagine going to the moon and planting a flag, going to an asteroid and mining, going to Mars and setting up a colony. And I think that expansionist mentality is very self-destructive, especially given the kind of precarious relationship we now have to the ecosystem here on Earth, because it allows us to imagine that Earth is disposable.”
– Trevor Paglen

Original painting ‘Freedom from want’ by Norman Rockwell.

Data centers as heaters

(…) in large data centers, enormous cooling mechanisms are required to maintain the optimal temperature and ensure the stability of the computer’s operation.

Because data centers needs cooling, as Nicole Starosielski mentions in the text, colder Nordic countries are good places to build data centers. Google just announced recently that it will invest a lot more to its data center in Hamina. This is good news for Finland who desires new data centers. Finland is not only looking for jobs that major investments create, but also wants the heat data centers inherently produce.

Finland has decided to stop burning coal by the year 2030. That’s why cities are in a hurry to renovate their heat and power generation.

Espoo is a good example. It has a large combined heat and power plant in Suomenoja that still burns coal. Last week Espoo announced that it will close its coal burning units entirely in five years. Here is the road map they have planned to become coal neutral Espoo.

Espoo district heating transformation plan

You can see that coal units are planned to close in 2020 and 2025 and data centers to open in 2022 and 2024. Using data centers as heat sources in cities’ district heating is not a new thing, but the plan is to build and connect more in the future. This works in a way that the hot air from data centers is channeled into underground pipes of district heating to warm water that then warms the city.

In September, City Board of Espoo decided to reserve a lot in Northern Espoo for energy company Fortum that wants to build a big data center there. All the excess heat from that data center would go into Espoo’s district heating. Many homes that now is heated by coal would then be warmed by data usage. It’s interesting how media infrastructure (data center) would be strictly connected to our basic infrastructure (heating homes). Data in this scenario is almost like a piece of firewood that keeps our flats warm.

I find this plan also interesting, because data centers use a lot of energy, but are still seen as green choice. I suppose the idea behind this is that getting green heat is harder than green power, so data centers could run entirely with renowable and nuclear power and then produce clean excess heat.

The Equality of the Internet Access

It’s very clear that the environmental and human costs of manufacturing infrastructure, electronics and other tangible material needed for producing media are not fairly distributed between the countries and the people from different income levels. However the current unfair situation is ironically maintained by the limited access that the workers on the beginning of the production chains have to the very thing that they help to produce – media, especially the internet. 

Limited access to to internet doesn’t just cause inequality in developing countries, but also in the poorer areas in western countries such as US. And as so often with societal problems, the limited internet access seem to be a problem especially to minority groups and women. The issues that prevent people from getting online are caused by bad infrastructure such as unreliable or unaccessible electricity or internet connection, expensive devices and data costs (often to do with service providers being able to operate with no much competition) and inability to use the devices. There is also issues with language skills and illiteracy. 

To illustrate the problem, here are some interesting numbers about the internet access: 

  • 4.2 billion people globally don’t have full access to internet (half of these people are in India and China
  • Number of Americans who don’t ever use internet: black 20% white 13%, hispanic 17%,
  • Men are on average 33.5% more likely to have internet access than women

Limited access to online hampers people’s access to education and information. This among other obvious problems prevents people from understanding of the political and societal system they live within and affects their abilities to join the political discourse or have political influence. Inability to get online limits people’s ability to organise and create coalitions – such as worker’s unions. As the societal conversations and unofficial political influence happens largely on digital platforms the voice and viewpoint of people with no online access is not presented. 

The enterprises operating globally often change their whole manufacturing lines to a completely different country when facing demands from the workers. As the developing countries often are very dependent on the money and work the huge corporations offer the corporations have immense power over these countries and their legislation. Even hypothetically thinking it seems impossible that the act to improve the working conditions would succeed without global movement and coalition between workers across borders in developing countries. And for international communication and organisation internet is crucial.   

Access to internet also supports local business. Many traditionally “white collar” jobs can now be done completely online and people from all over the world can now compete from the corporate jobs in the fields of developing, social media marketing and design to name a few. Everyone can access the jobs in western countries with higher income levels. Local businesses in developing world also benefit from the ability to reach global markets with low costs using eCommerence. Internet enables developing countries to grow the well needed small and medium size local businesses that gives sovereignty from the demands of global corporations. Internet offers pathways to transfer wealth back to the countries whose cheap labour costs have enabled the accumulation of capita in the west. 

More:

Floating Clouds

We have gone from AFK/BRB culture to being always online. Being in privileged places, we are getting used to high quality fast streaming of video and music, uploading and viewing content on the phone as we go and getting annoyed with even a 3 seconds of delay or lag. The gaming industry is also moving towards being stream based. And all workspaces are also moving all their work databases and documents to live on the cloud. Which means our banking, health and all big sectors depend on it. Underprivileged countries are also getting rapid access to 4G and cheaper smartphones. 5G is just around the corner and ”some experts predict that 5G will offer up to 600x times faster internet speeds compared to 4G.”[1] That will have insane repercussions on how we consume digital services.

The word ’cloud’ has a light connotation to it, it puts a picture of a breeze in our heads and it seems all this data is just calmly floating around. But these floating clouds are really big data centres with giant wires and computers connected together running on extremely high amounts of electricity, which need a lot of cooling and air-conditioned to not get overheated. ”Data centres globally consume more than 400 terawatt hours of electricity each year, which equals approximately two percent of the worldwide energy consumption.”[2] Why this is really important to think about is that these numbers are only going to increase with time. Our phones and devices get more and more high definition, there are new apps which are set into youth culture like TikTok and Fortnite, Bitcoin itself is using up more electricity than some countries combined, I already mentioned 5G… seems there is no going back.

But there is some hope as well. Since 2016, there has been a positive trend in some of these data centres(for example the ones by Google and Facebook) to reduce the carbon footprint. Strategies include using 100% renewable energy to power the centre, using piped water instead of air-conditioning to prevent heating, coming up with innovative hardware and software strategies for power usage optimisations(these optimisations have already found techniques reducing emissions by 25%[3]). There is also a trend to move data centres to cold countries like Finland. And more interesting strategies in cold countries to capture this heat and use it to heat neighbourhood area houses. Yet these green data centres are still in minority, new centres are being planned in Asia which do not take these into accounts, there is room for a lot for optimisations and efficiency increase. We desperately need shared knowledge and strict regulation for these data centres worldwide and try to curb their thermaculture as much and as soon as possible!

Consumers need to start thinking and discussing about their personal data storage and usage hygiene as well.

References and further reads-

[1] https://thenextweb.com/podium/2019/09/28/5g-sounds-great-but-we-must-ensure-it-wont-ruin-internet-equality/

[2] https://www.telia.fi/business/article/data-centres-are-a-forgotten-source-of-emissions

[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06610-y

https://e360.yale.edu/features/energy-hogs-can-huge-data-centers-be-made-more-efficient

 

Heating the outdoors for a cooler indoors

In Thermocultures, Nicole Stariosielski mentions that engineer Willis Carrier invented the air conditioner in 1902 to solve a production problem at a printing plant in New York, which paved the way for dramatic changes in temperature regulation in all industries and many homes world wide.

This made me think of the times I’ve been in the USA and how insane their air conditioning culture is to me. Every home seems to have AC and it is, with almost no exception, put to a very low indoor temperature in relation to the outdoor one – the average indoor temperature in the US is (according to a few dictionaries) 20-22 degrees Celsius, which would make sense in winter and in Northern states, but demands extensive air conditioning in summer and in Southern states. The US consumes more energy each year for AC than the rest of the world combined. The total amount of electricity used by this one nation is more than the entire continent of Africa consumes for all purposes.
When I spent a few weeks on the East coast, most of the time I had to turn the indoor temperature up to prevent developing a cold or freezing during the night. The abrupt change in temperature when walking on a street and into a store felt extremely uncomfortable – especially when cold air was blown directly at you at the entrance, apparently to attract customers who want to escape the heat. I rarely found it unbearably hot outside, with temperatures in Florida ranging from 23-33 degrees C in August. To me this cold indoor climate seemed to be enforced by culture rather than necessity – I would love it if it was 25 degrees indoors and not 18 as is often the case during Nordic winters. This cultural phenomenon, born out of a need to stabilise production of printed media, is reinforced by the construction of the healthy indoor environment – clean, hygienic and cool. It corresponds well with Stariosielski’s explanation of “pure” materials and the quest to keep computer systems in a binary state through the right amount of impurification of silicon. Outdoor and indoor environments are to be kept in the same binary divisions – nothing from the outdoors is to come inside. I can hear my father’s voice when I stumbled in to the hallway during summer with feet all sandy from the beach, shouting “out and get that dirt off you”. In the same sense, people find it funny if you want to sleep outside but in an urban environment. Why would you choose that when you can have the comforts of a bed, a kitchen and a bathroom? But if one goes on a hiking trip far from the city, it’s considered completely normal, since you are in the “outdoors”.

In that sense, the AC of American homes, stores and offices symbolise this change from being in the uncomfortable, dirty, wild outdoors to the clean, comfortable indoors where temperatures are always kept at a constant. I guess that AC also provokes me since I grew up in a cold country, where heat is celebrated for the few weeks that it actually arrives, but where we use up extensive amounts of energy to heat our houses during winter season, something I would never question. Cool indoor temperature is seen as a luxury to Americans and many others, but as a norm to me, although lately I’ve noticed a change in attitude in the Nordics. Perhaps due to hotter summers in recent years, many people have bought AC for their homes lately. The extreme heat in the summer of 2018 caused a consumer’s rush for fans, resulting in fans being completely sold out in stores and second hand prices going through the roof. Ironically, the search for cooler air will have the opposite effect long term. Researchers at Arizona State University found that the excess heat from air conditioners at night time resulted in higher outside temperatures in urban locations with changes up to 1 degree Celsius (almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit for our American readers). This, in turn, would cause people to turn their AC:s to even lower temperatures, creating even more excess heat, and so on in a vicious cycle.

Read more:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/26/how-america-became-addicted-to-air-conditioning

https://asunow.asu.edu/content/excess-heat-air-conditioners-causes-higher-nighttime-temperatures

https://e360.yale.edu/features/cooling_a_warming_planet_a_global_air_conditioning_surge

gettin’ heated up here (a collection of links)

I want to first share this VICE piece on Apple’s AirPods. It not only analyses them from the Anthropocene perspective but also from design, cultural and social aspects- https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/neaz3d/airpods-are-a-tragedy

Next up is Ecograder, a service which takes any website URL and gives it a score of how the website is doing in terms of environmental  impact. I put that VICE link in there and got this-

Yeah lots of small dev tasks can help optimise the website’s footprint. But the most interesting  one to think about is Green Hosting- https://www.mightybytes.com/blog/green-web-hosting/

Then this little piece on Pitchfork, pointing out how music streaming is harmful to the environment than the old school plastic production practices for CDs and vinyls- https://pitchfork.com/news/emissions-from-music-consumption-reach-unprecedented-high-study-shows/ 

I wonder what’s the carbon footprint of one instagram story?

 

Thermocultures: The deification of man

The reason behind the design of processes and methods that use thermal conditioning may arise from the human collective and archetypes– which by themselves originate from the human aesthetic. The stories passed down by our grandmothers, churches, temples and fantasy books.

Our devices today let us do the very things that were considered miracles– speed, perfection, homogeneity are all deific properties, not necessary but “nice to have”. The human aesthetic towards achieving God-like capabilities may very well be the underpinnings of thermo-cultures.

Here is a comparison of a picture of a contemporary open mine next to Boticelli’s The Abyss of Hell painted in 1480 AD.

Fictional screams and other assaults

This post includes mentions of sexual assault.

When reading Parikka’s The Anthrobscene, I was particularly appalled by the chapter And the Earth screamed, Alive. There’s something about non-animals, or even non-humans, screaming in fiction that scares the heck out of me but also fascinates me. Humans have always had a thing for humanizing objects and animals, through fables and other stories. This chapter immediately made my think of a scene from the old YouTube phenomena Annoying orange, where a speaking apple is suddenly chopped into pieces by a human, something that’s quickly forgotten by the other fruits witnessing the slaughter.

Parikka, on the other hand, draws a daunting image of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Professor Challenger, in his short story When the World screamed*, piercing the Earth’s crust and making it scream. Parikka describes this as a rape-like scene and develops this further in the reference section, stating that:

The allusion of rape is made even more obvious when considering the long-term mythological articulation of the earth as female. The female interior is one of valuable riches.

I wanted to shape my own opinion of the matter, so I read the full short story. It can be debated whether Doyle intended this to be a rape scene or not. Professor Challenger himself refers to the drilling as a mosquito penetrating the skin of a human, or “vigorous stimulation of its sensory cortex”. This seems to reflect general assault rather than sexual assault. But then again there is certainly many references to the femaleness of the Earth, and even a sexual one, in conversation with driller Mr. Jones:


Professor Challenger, who is described on one hand as a madman and an abuser, and on the other as a genius and someone that it’s impossible not to admire, has obvious megalomania. He does not empathise with the creature he imagines Earth to be. It seems that it rather annoys or even threatens him that the Earth is so oblivious to humans and their makings. He wants her to acknowledge his existence and he can only come up with one way of doing this – by penetrating her nervous system and causing her pain.

So it’s not clear whether we should read this scene as rape, but if we do, it’s used in a manner that is depressingly common in pop culture. The female character Earth is only present in the story during the assault scene, she doesn’t have a story arc of her own and she doesn’t interact with any other characters than the rapists. She’s only mentioned in relation to the upcoming rape and there are no other female characters in the story. Surely she reacts very strongly to the assault by throwing out the perpetrators and the equipment they’ve used to penetrate her, but it’s also stated that there were no casualties from the event, which means that in the end no one suffered from her revenge act. The story ends on a high note, with Professor Challenger being applauded for his scientific “break-through” of proving that the Earth is alive. Mother Earth heals herself from within and nothing more is told about whatever mental trauma she now has to go through inside her safe womb within layers of metal and soil and beneath her outer surface of plants and water.

We have gotten so accustomed to reading and watching stories of rape this way that we can’t even imagine the alternatives**. The new Netflix series Unbelievable deals with rape in a new way and has been praised in reviews for this. Vulture uses the headline “How Unbelievable Tells a True Crime Story Without ‘Rape Porn’”*** and writes

The Netflix drama is less interested in the rapist and his horrific crimes than in another, more insidious villain: the criminal-justice system.

The series follows two female criminal detectives struggling to gain justice for several rape victims, depicting rape from the victim point of view and not putting much attention the male perpetrator or his psyche. I haven’t yet been able to watch the series myself, but I hope it will live up to its reputation. I can’t help but wonder how Doyle’s short story would have been written had it taken on the same perspective as Unbelievable – following the victim in her fight for justice after the assault, in a world completely uninterested in her version of the story. In the end it makes me question rape as an analogy for man’s destruction of the planet at all. The Earth is, contradictory to Professor Challenger’s ideas, not just one entity but many, and the environmental destruction is complex and takes different shapes in different parts of the world. Giving the planet emotional traits and a gender might make it more human to us but it’s none the less a false perception of reality, a romantic idea of “him” against “her”, with only one potential outcome – she succumbs to his wishes, or else he will take her by force. In this version there is no “us”, no life in harmony with the other, a complete lack of seeing humans as part of the ecosystem and the planet itself. It’s as problematic as the general depiction of women in pop culture, seen as “the other sex”, something exotic. In this version of women, there is a before and an after – once she’s had intercourse, whether consentual or not, she’s not pure anymore and will never be again. This image of the Earth is as damaging as the image of women: Why would we try to save something that we’ve already used and abused? If it doesn’t gain us, the perpetrator, why would we try to improve our actions and reverse some of the harm done?

* https://classic-literature.co.uk/scottish-authors/arthur-conan-doyle/when-the-world-screamed/

** The Black List website found that 2400 out of 45,000 scripts submitted to them included rape. https://blog.blcklst.com/sexual-violence-in-spec-screenplays-8f35268b689

*** https://www.vulture.com/2019/09/unbelievable-netflix-susannah-grant.html

What’s really obscene?

A metaphysical approach to understanding the state of the Anthropocene would involve questioning how (and why) must one analyze or delve into earth’s epoch saga: What is the position that one assumes specifically while approaching an understanding of this subject? Is one the pawn in the game, or an observer? In the scale of deep time, the life of a human is but a little scintillation. It is the through media cultures (however rudimentary), collective knowledge and the altruistic (survivalist?) wisdom that this landscape of scintillations has turned into the big, bright and blinding mushroom cloud that we now term the Anthropocene.

Anthroposcope

A growing interest in the vestiges of media culture and its effects on our planet is indeed encouraging, but it is counterintuitive to approach it with an Anthroposcopic vision. Is a human being– the very basis of the etymology of the term Anthropo(obs)cene, an ideal candidate to analyze this condition? What are the affordances in the perception of time and scale that affect the human standpoint?

One can imagine how it is difficult (though not impossible) for a human to objectively observe the human condition. On the chessboard, a pawn sees immediate dangers to its survival and through simple mathematical induction, is able to anticipate the effect its situation will have on itself and its fellow pawns. Interestingly though, this is a decidedly narrow view that focuses on winning and survival of the species (or the side in the chess game analogy).

Anthropos – having to do with humans. Humans– an organism that has naturally evolved on the planet and undoubtedly, a part of nature (in a Deleuzian sense). The activity through which this organism has affected the earth is also a part of nature: the destruction of the green along with the construction of the grey goes hand-in-hand with the grey mass in the human brain and its consequential intellect. Is the excess of grey metaphors the Darwinian limiter of our species?

It is interesting to ponder where it will go, but rather anthropocentric to worry about it! What’s really amusing is our dependence on media infrastructure to even discuss, analyze and educate our opinions on it– all because of how much human survival depends upon it. To call the anthropocene the Anthrobscene then becomes almost a self-elevating exercise– knowing ones’ shortcomings somehow absolves the shortcoming itself.

The massive control system that is the planet earth runs multiple processes (climate, water, soil, etc.) and is in itself a part of an even bigger control system – the Solar system. These systems vary not only in terms of physical scale but also on the scale of time. At which point in these systems do we place ourselves such that the dreadful ontology of using media culture to talk about the affectations of media culture doesn’t contribute to the obscenity of the so-called Anthrobscene?

Is this an altruistic (but ultimately anthropocentric) exercise in redeeming our species or is it rather an outcome of the collective messianic tendencies of the enlightened (educated) cream?

The Toaster Project

In Anthrobscene, Jussi Parikka mentions financial analyst Jay Goldberg, who encountered tablets worth 45 dollars in his work trip to China and was shocked how cheap they were.

I thought the screen alone would cost more than $45.
No one can make money selling hardware anymore.

This reminded me of The Toaster Project by designer Thomas Thwaites. It started in a similar way, seeing a new electronic appliance that is so cheap that you get mesmerized, how manufacturing this is even possible.

In Thwaites’ case it was a basic toaster that cost £3.99 in Argos.

Argos Catalog

Argos catalog around the time when The Toaster Project started. (http://www.45spaces.com/catalogues/r.php?r=spring-summer-2009)

Thwaites decided to make one himself from the beginning. He wondered: How the hell do some rocks became a toaster?

Thwaites started a journey, “faintly ridiculous quest” as he describes it, to dig up and manufacture the materials he needed to build a toaster: copper, iron, mica, nickel and plastic. He ended up spending 9 months and more than 1000 pounds for building a crappy and ugly toaster that barely works.

The Toaster Project

A finished toaster by Thomas Thwaites. Photo by Daniel Alexander (thomasthwaites.com)

But making a good or functional or pretty toaster, of course, was not the point of the project. He explains he wanted to explore large processes hidden behind mundane everyday objects, and to connect these with the ground they’re made from. This is why I think it is a suitable project to mention in the context of Jussi Parikka’s Anthrobscene.

I’m interested in the economies of scale in modern industry, the incremental progression of science and technology, and exploring the ever-widening gulf between general knowledge and the specialisms that make the modern world possible. – Thwaites

Rebuilding a smart phone or other contemporary media device from scratch in the spirit of Thwaites would be an interesting critical new media design project. Though, it needs a bit more digging, traveling and studying as you can see from this recent infographics showing periodic table and how many elements are included in cellphones.

Businessweek graphics

Boomberg Businessweek mazagine 2.9.2019, screencapture from e-magazine. (aalto.finna.fi/Record/nelli32.954927526764)

References:

Thwaites, Thomas. Toaster Project : Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch, Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/aalto-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3387548.

Thwaites, Thomas. Homepage. 2019.
https://www.thomasthwaites.com/the-toaster-project/

Personal glance into the Anthropocene

Coming from an engineering and tech background, I saw Moore’s law in the community as a necessary direction forward. Always increasing the “performance” and making it work faster and doubling those transistors on the ICs. Even though we hold our phones tight in our hands, feeling the physical touch, yet what we gaze into are the lights creating interfaces in our minds. Oblivious to the processes behind creating these phones and all the ”groundbreaking” features- enabled by each little transistor. By the way, I googled “how many transistors in iPhone 11 pro” and a TechCrunch article told me there are 8.5 billion. We just get obsessed when the new one comes out with ”amazing” features and forget about what’s going to happen to the existing one. And also oblivious to the emissions made by these “cloud” data storages, which enable the interfaces and services to work.

I have studied basic geology in high school but never connected it with media or see earth as a recording instrument of our ages as well and not just the prehistoric. Anthrobscene made me rethink the relation of media to earth’s geology, forcing me to see beyond the outer surface and leaving behind the industrial design/engineer nerd love and the capitalist brainwashing. And also seeing the relation of art to geology in a new light. I have been well aware of pop design culture notions of Circular Economy but reading through the perspective of Anthropocene makes the topic more understandable in deeper sense with a reality check and poetry of feeling earth’s pain. Specially given the landscape right now in 2019.

Anthropocene connects our social structures with earth’s ecologies. Colonialism naturally makes a big impact. And so do we, with our old devices stashed away in drawers till disposed at the wrong place. But what do we do then? Accept the mass exaction as imminent doom? Enjoy while it lasts? Leave behind the Plasticene? Let the deep time and nonhuman earth time do its course? Or somehow find back the “alchemy” way of doing things.

I promise my next phone will be a Fairphone… so what does that mean for the Anthropocene?

 

Media and the Environment – Autumn 2019

Curie cable touched down in Valparaíso, Chile, on April 23, 2019 / Photo Credit: Google

SUMMARY: This Masters of Arts-level course is a response to the contemporary discourse of political economy of media and related environmental implications. It tackles the Anthropocene through the lens of media theory, culture and philosophy to understand the geological underpinnings of contemporary media. What are the planetary impacts of technological media? What are the various focuses, entanglements and materialities? The course investigates the topics of extraction, thermal practices, fabrication, labor, and waste as related to cultures of media. Finally, the course examines artistic approaches and methodologies that engage with these materialities, geographies and geologies. This course is a follow-up from the Archaeology of Media Infrastructures from Spring 2019, and consists of close readings of provided literature, class discussions and critical writings.

SYLLABUS: https://blogs.aalto.fi/mediainfrastructures/syllabus-autumn-2019/

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Jussi Parikka, The Anthrobscene, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
  2. Nicole Starosielski, “Thermocultures of Geological Media,” Cultural Politics, Vol. 12 (3), Duke University Press, 2016: 293-309.
  3. Sean Cubitt, “Ecologies of Fabrication,” in Sustainable Media: Critical Approaches to Media and Environment, eds. Nicole Starosielski and Janet Walker, New York and London, Routledge, 2016: 163-179.
  4. Sy Taffel, “Technofossils of the Anthropocene: Media, Geology and Plastics,” Cultural Politics, Vol. 12 (3), Duke University Press, 2016: 355-375.
  5. Jennifer Gabrys, “Re-thingifying the Internet of Things,” Sustainable Media: Critical Approaches to Media and Environment, eds. Nicole Starosielski and Janet Walker, New York and London, Routledge, 2016: 180 – 195.
  6. Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka, “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method,” Leonardo, Vol. 45, No. 5, 2012: 424–430.
  7. Samir Bhowmik and Jussi Parikka, “Infrascapes for Media Archaeographers,” Archaeographies: Aspects of Radical Media Archaeology, eds. Moritz Hiller and Stefan Höltgen, Berlin: Schwabe Verlage, 2019: 183-194.
  8. Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, “Take a Good Lamp,” Cultural Politics, Vol. 12 (3), Duke University Press, 2016: 332-338.
  9. Unknown Fields, “Rare Earthenware,” Cultural Politics, Vol. 12 (3), Duke University Press, 2016: 376-379.

Infragraphy Volume 1, Spring 2019

This first volume of Infragraphy is a compilation of critical student writings and photo essays about media, infrastructure and the environment. These texts are outcomes from the “Archaeology of Media Infrastructures” Master of Arts course in the Spring of 2019 at the Department of Media, Aalto University Finland. The course examined media infrastructures including the concept of deep time, the materialities of the Internet, Artificial Intelligence, digital labor, water, energy, and critical infrastructure.

Download PDF: Infragraphy_Vol1_Spring2019

#Carbonfeed by Jon Bellona and John Park

I came across to this art project which sonifies Twitter feeds and also makes physical data visualizations. I find the one in the image quite powerful and poetic.

With the advent of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, humans have increased their production of digital content.[1] Even simple online interactions generate carbon emissions; a Google search has been estimated to generate 0.2 grams of CO2.[2] To keep pace with growing online media, there is an increasing dependence upon data centers,[3] which now account for 2% of the US’s electricity consumption.[4]

source: https://carbonfeed.org

An Increasing Need of Electricity and a Decrease of Biodiversity

I got interested to study a bit more about the idea that birds’ magnetic compass orientation would get disrupted by electromagnetic noise. There has been a debate on does electric and magnetic fields affect biological processes and human health and when the article was written, in 2014 there hadn’t been any scientifically proven effects.

Svenja Engels, Nils-Lasse Schneider, Nele Lefeldt, Christine Maira Hein, Manuela Zapka, Andreas Michalik, Dana Elbers, Achim Kittel, P. J. Hore & Henrik Mouritsen performed controlled experiments in the University of Oldenburg and found out that European robins lose their ability to use the Earths’ magnetic field when exposed to low-level AM electromagnetic noise between around 20 kHz and 20 MHz, the kind of noise routinely generated by consumer electrical and electronic equipment. The birds gained the ability back to orient to the Earths’ magnetic field when they were shielded from electromagnetic noise in the frequency range from 2kHz to 5 MHz or tested in a rural setting.

I found a European Commissions’ Guidance for Energy Transmission Infrastructure from 2018. This is only a guidance in a sense that I am not sure if these are actually taken into account when making decisions about energy infrastructure. What I found interesting in this guidance is that they address that biodiversity is an important element and nature provides important socio-economic benefits to society. It seems that they have a very agricultural, anthropocentric view on nature even though this guidance is made to protect endangered species.

In the guidance for energy transmission infrastructure projects the listed impacts are through clearance of land and the removal of surface vegetation: the existing habitats may be altered, damaged, fragmented or destroyed and the indirect effects could be much more widespread especially when projects interfere with water and soil quality. Also when building the site there will be increased traffic, presence of people, noise, dust, pollution, artificial lighting and vibration and the risks of collision with power cables.

Electrocution can have a major impact on several bird species, and causing the death of thousands of birds annually.

source: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/planning-can-help-prevent-renewable-energy-surge-harming-wildlife

There is a strong consensus that the risk posed to birds depends on the technical construction and detailed design of power facilities. In particular, electrocution risk is high with “badly engineered” medium voltage power poles (“killer poles”) (BirdLife International, 2007).

By acknowledging the loss of thousands of birds annually because of the energy infrastructure can we say that they are part of energy infrastructure?

source:http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/natura2000/management/docs/Energy%20guidance%20and%20EU%20Nature%20legislation.pdf

When Dust is Spice

Over the course of last summer I read one of the most popular science fiction novels: Dune by Frank Herbert. Written in 1965, it has inspired a plethora of other space operas, including Star Wars, a personal childhood favorite. Dune is a quintessential sci-fi novel, and not a flawless [1] one. In certain ways it is quite atypical: Herbert’s style focuses heavily on world-building and ecology of imaginary planets, as well as internal soliloquies and emotions. Both of these aspects have been hard to remediate into movie narratives [2], a format which has dominated the attention of the audiences in the recent decades. This is one of the reasons a vast majority of 80’s and 90’s kids know of the adventures of Luke Skywalker by heart—but the prophecy of Muad’Dib remains mostly unknown to those who don’t geek their way into the genre of hard sci-fi.

Recently I also saw the movie (Dune, 1984, directed by David Lynch) and a miniseries produced for television (titled Frank Herbert’s Dune, 2000), so the narrative revolving around the events of the first book is now fresh in my memory. In his essay Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism (2013) Jussi Parikka briefly mentions Dune, but does not elaborate on the connection of cognitive capitalism and the world created by Herbert. [3] In this brief post I’m drawing parallels between ecology of the desert planet Arrakis and its “smart dust” Spice, along with cognitive capitalism.

Dust, as Parikka points out, “marks the temporality of the matter” and signifies “transformations of solids to ephemeral and back”. When it comes to ecology, materials may appear stationary, but are in fact in continuous progress: decaying, eroded, moved by the elements, rock turning into sand over the course of millennia. The narrative of Dune begins when the house Atreides settles on the planet Arrakis (also known as Dune), a world of sand—and sole source of the narcotic Spice Melange essential to the technology and development of the world of Dune. The reader soon learns, as members of the Atreides family find out more about their new home, how the ecology and people of Arrakis have been subjected to effects of exploitation by the families who ruled Arrakis before them. One such group and the nemesis of house Atreides is the spartan and immoral house Harkonnen. Water is scarce and thus sacred on Arrakis, but the dust-like Spice is abundant.

The narrative of Dune is likewise abundant with transformations. Nearly all of the characters experience a transformation from what they used to be into something else, processes provoked by the events around the struggle for control of Spice. In Parikka’s words, dust invites us to rethink the binaries of One/many, both singular and individual in its materiality. The transformation from one to many is observed in the prophecy that Fremen—the deeply spiritual people of Arrakis—have of their messianic instructor, Muad’Dib. The Spice permeates everything on Arrakis, and even its presence is enough to notice the changes it brings. In real life, abundant dust presents a health hazard. In the world of Dune, the effects of Spice are more neutral. For example, the eyes of those who consume Spice in excess are dyed blue throughout. Spice can also be refined into Water of Life, a lethally poisonous blue liquid only to be used by those who have received the training and position to ingest and transmute it. Through the transmuted Water of Life, Muad’Dib sees the past and the present, achieving a higher state of consciousness. With this knowledge, Muad’Dib rules the universe as its emperor.

The use of Spice is potentially life-changing, and excessive use alters one’s own physique. The extraction process is also dangerous—a bit like the extraction of minerals in our world, not without psychosocial effects. Networks of labor relations exist on Arrakis, where the ruling house of the planet provides the machinery to search and collect Spice. However, the sands of Arrakis are also inhabited by sandworms native to the planet. Sandworms—and the different stages of its life-cycle—are essential for the Spice Melange to form within the sands of Arrakis. Harvesting Spice Melange would also mean to expose oneself not only to intense conditions of a desert environment, but also the threat of becoming swallowed or trampled by a sandworm, also attracted and drawn to Spice. As the Spice departs Arrakis and is transported and sold into other parts of the universe presented in Dune, the people harvesting it have little knowledge of how it is used and lead a modest life on the desert. Harvesters of Spice appear to be expendable. During a sandworm attack, instead of protecting the harvesting equipment, Duke Leto Atreides decides to protect the people. This humane act is viewed by the workers as outrageous, different than what they are used to—perhaps even foolish. Who would let the collected Spice or equipment go to waste? Some workers are ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of Spice. Whether this is because of devotion to the society or caused by the addictiveness of Spice remains ambiguous.

Several substances are used in the world of Dune, Spice being overwhelmingly most precious. As mentioned earlier, Spice has many uses. Different coalitions have their own ways to use it. The Bene Gesserit is a matriarchal and ancient order interested in expanding human capabilities when it comes to control and power, as far as hosting an eugenics program; Mentat, a profession/discipline for creating advisors to replace computers and “thinking machines” in a world where they are banned; The Spacing Guild, an organization that had discovered ways of “bending space” and making space travel available at speeds faster than light. All of the groups are invested or at least interested in the control of Spice. (The Mentat utilize the juice of Sapho, the product of another planet, but addictive and increasing the abilities of mind nevertheless.)

“It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.”

— Piter De Vries, a Mentat (Dune, 1984 movie)

Bending space in order to traverse it; accessing a collective consciousness and remembering the past; the prescient abilities to rule wisely; the control of one’s own mind and body to become superior in battle; using one’s own voice to bend others into their will. The powerful mental abilities presented in the fantasy of Dune are numerous. In Dust and Exhaustion, Parikka presents us the thoughts of Franco Berardi about cognitive capitalism and the concept of cognitariat, and the different areas affected by it: body, sexuality, mortality and unconsciousness. All of these areas are utilized, emphasized and controlled in Dune, by the spice and/or the schools of thought. The fiction of Dune could be a (re)vision of how cognitive capitalism plays out, with its workers dulled by a narcotic, leaders drunk with power. All human skills packaged into various schools of thought, but all thoughts bound into the purpose and study of how to control, exploit and prosper.

Millennia of development in telepathic and telekinetic powers, established hierarchies, powerful politics and cultural norms are what Muad’Dib must rise against. How does he know he is on the right path and for the actual betterment of humankind when all the other groups claim to do the same thing, or are of the opinion that the current hierarchies must prevail? Despite seeing and knowing the future, Muad’Dib carries the weight alone, loathing himself and the fate he can’t escape. He subdues the exhaustion for all and frees the people on the lowest rank of his universe, but must transcend his identity in order to do so, giving up the path before him. It could be said he experiences a sense of his (former) self—the death of an ego, albeit to be replaced by a new one. He sacrifices personal choices in favor of following the “Golden Path” that ensures the survival of the humankind.

Just like depressed minds in real life struggle to keep up with digital machinery and capitalism, the human race of Dune (and the economy they have created) struggle with the use of Spice and desire for domination of the universe. Despite the interesting combination of technology, ecology and psychology presented in Dune, descriptions of ecological impact of human actions are quite minimal, perhaps easily overlooked in the light of technopositivism of earlier decades. Nevertheless, technology changes us faster than we are able to adapt—just like Spice changes people on Arrakis. In reality however, there are no miraculous mental powers or a messiah coming to our aid—only the metaphysical horrors and blaring of our screens.

 

Notes

[1] As one could expect, a novel written in the 1960s has some issues in the way it presents its villains and female characters, for example, but in order to keep this text concise, I’m not going to write about these topics.

[2] Currently a new attempt at turning Dune into a full-feature movie is underway. The documentary film Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) also reveals a story behind a failed attempt to film it in the 70s.

[3] Jussi Parikka: Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism (2013)

Zooming in on infrastructure – invisible labour

While reading “Anatomy of an AI system” by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, I came to think once more of the time I worked in a distribution center for groceries in a Stockholm suburb in Sweden. The main purpose of Crawford’s and Joler’s research seems to be to make three different aspects of Amazon Echo visible – Material resources, human labour and data. With a product like that, most of (if not all) labour is hidden behind its slick surface and words like “AI agent Alexa” and “the Cloud” – intangible entities that seems to effortlessly float around above or around us. They seem to take up no space, consume no energy, produce work opportunities and save time for the consumer. But as the authors describe, that’s far from the whole truth.

I think that most infrastructures, non-regarding of industry, works in a similar way in modern day society, and I will use my work experience as a means to describe this in the food industry.

The warehouse corridors in a similar distribution center, room temperature.

I got the job through a student consultancy company. The food supply chain corporation uses this type of service to fill up extra hours. That way they don’t have to constantly hire and fire people when quantities differ over time.

Before getting the job, I hadn’t paid much thought to how the food supply chain works. Just like any citizen in this part of the world, I would go to my local supermarket or mall and buy groceries. I would assume that they would always have everything in stock and that they would provide fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, grains, dairy, legumes, candy, soda, etc from all over the world. I remember one early spring when the stores in Stockholm ran out of chopped-salad bags. In the shelf was a sign stating “due to cold weather and storms in Southern Europe, we cannot provide this product”. I remember feeling annoyed. How hard would it be to get some salad on the shelf? Why couldn’t I get my salad? I realised of course that it was ridiculous to think that I could have salad every day year round, but that’s how it usually was, so why would this day be different?

I worked mostly in the freezer department of the distribution center. These centers are the last stage for the food before it reaches the stores – suppliers drive their packets of product to the center, where we fork lift drivers pack the orders that will be driven to the actual stores. There are several departments – fridge, freezer, non-temperate products such as deodorants, toilet paper, soda, and the likes. The freezer is kept at a temperature of -23 degrees Celsius. When I was employed, I got warm underclothing, boots, hat, scarf, gloves and an overall. The orders are made by a pick-by-voice system. That means that all operators wear a headset with a microphone. When I started my work shift, I turned the headset controller on, logged in and then started a new order with the words “new order”.

The type of fork lift that I drove in the center.

The headset voice, called Talkman, is controlled by a computer system, that will give me the next order in line. You can choose a male or female voice, I chose the latter. She would then emmidieatly tell me the store, order number, number of packages and number of shelves I would have to visit. Most orders are packed on EU-pallets. I confirm the order and Talkman tells me which shelf to go to by stating which corridor and which shelf number the next package is in, for example “Adam 21” (synonymous to Alfa, Beta, Charlie in English). I drive my fork lift to that location and read a number on the shelf to confirm. Talkman then tells me how many packages to pick. I step off the forklift and pick the cardboard boxes with my gloves. It’s quite clumsy to pick packages in the freezer – the gloves are thick to protect the hands. It takes some practice to get fast at picking. It then goes on like that- I confirm the number of packages, she immediately gives me the next location. An order can range from a few packages to over a thousand and can require several EU-pallets. While driving from shelf to shelf, the wind hits my face and numbs the skin that is visible. I try to cover as much as possible with my hat and scarf, leaving only my eyes, nose and mouth unprotected. After driving around for a couple of hours, my feet, nose and hands are geting quite cold. In the freezer you have the right to a short break every two hours. I used to go and sit in the locker room for 15 minutes before returning to my truck. In the first weeks, it was hard to endure working in the cold before I got used to it.

Me in my freezer outfit and pick-by-voice headset

There is almost no social contact during the work shift. Sometimes people stop in the hallways to talk to each other, but it’s too cold to stand still for more than a few minutes. There’s a radio playing in the warehouse – listening to music in headphones is forbidden due to security reasons. There is a dinner break and a short evening break when you work the evening shift, from 3pm to 22pm. In the freezer department, people use the breaks to get warm again. I hang my overall on a hanger and put my shoes, scarf, hat and gloves in the heating cabinet. The scarf is usually stiff from the vapour from my breath. There is a tv in the break room which always shows the same channel. During my year, I watched all episodes of How I met your mother almost two times. People who work in the freezer are not energetic or inspired during their work shift. They try to make the time go by. But there’s not much to think about while working, and you have to make sure you’re not hitting anything or anyone while driving and talking to Talkman. The concrete floor in the warehouse can get slippery at times. Sometimes when I turned with the fork lift, I slid a meter and almost hit the shelves. There is a demand for how much we should pick every shift, but in the freezer they don’t really bug you if you don’t reach that number. They know it’s hard work.

During my last summer there I worked full time. I got to spend more shifts in the regularly tempered department, where people were more outgoing and I didn’t have to eat as much to stay warm. But I slowly developed pain in my feet and my left hip. There was a rumour that the company suggested people to only work two consecutive years full time as a picker, otherwise the work would cause permanent damage to your body. A few people in the freezer had worked there for over twenty years. They were strong but worn out. These people have no pretence about the downsides of capitalist society. The job is, however, well paid compared to other unqualified jobs, which is probably the only way to get people in Sweden to work under such conditions today.

Researching for this post, I found out that the company I worked for is now building a huge automated distribution center that will replace most of their present day warehouses, also the one where I worked, in Sweden at 2023. Around a 1000 employees will be affected and it’s unclear how many will get to keep their jobs at this moment (a minority at best). 

AI, a consumer product not free of the sins of capitalism

The article “Anatomy of an AI System” by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler delves deeply in the more unknown, physical and resource hungry side of creating the AI products and services. They talk a lot about the labour and ecological costs that goes into creating a single product, like Amazon Echo.

It’s easy to agree with the most blatant exploitation in the mines and factories being unethical. However when we talk about the intellectual property it’s more difficult to see the exploitation as clearly. I’m sure we all feel uncomfortable of our personal info being collected. But harnessing the mass of online text and image output I’ve also contributed but what can’t be connected to me doesn’t make me feel exploited. Although I must admit, a relevant question is does this type of data exist at all or is all data collected in processes where it can be tracked back to me. I not feeling particularly exploited is also due to the fact that Google and Facebook offer their services free. As the process of the information harnessing is hidden I just tend to see a free and functional product as a representation of the company. Although the distribution of profits is clearly unfair and skewed and unfair I think the free services provided can operate as a type of distribution of wealth. Access to daily digital tools is definitely something that should be considered when we think about evening out the gap of possibilities in life.

When it comes to the profits only going to the hands of few the article, to my opinion, makes it seem like the phenomenon would be particularly connected to AI. I feel like the skewed distribution of wealth and exploitation of natural resources is more a problem caused by all businesses.  Having the fairly easy possibility to hid money in tax havens and operating in countries with weak workers rights and weak currencies is too tempting to any company that operates in global scale. Why would AI and tech industries be any different? Although in internet tech industries there is especially few global players and giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon have an upper hand in developing AI and therefore controlling its use. Whatever possibilities a normal consumer had for making a political impact by selecting ethical companies over unethical ones they lack in web tech. But would people really move to more ethical Facebook if one appeared to the markets?

Lost & Not Found

Technology is everywhere, existing even in remote locations—especially outdated, abandoned devices. Broken and forlorn in ditches, they can be observed while hiking or picking berries or mushrooms, computer cases and storage devices are trashed amidst heavy home appliances.
In Introduction: The Materiality of Media and Waste, Jussi Parikka writes “…media are of nature, and return to nature”. This describes the intertwining of the processes and dependecies of materials and meanings. But media, once digested, processed and abandoned by humans, does not return to the nature to be a part of the nitrogen cycle. The contents of a broken DVD do not nourish the shrubs and moss that surround it.

Depending on the materials, it will take anywhere between hundreds to thousands or even millions of years for objects to decompose in the nature. Recycling solutions that would break up the materials of an object and reassemble them into new objects are unrealistic in a cultural system that is peculiar about the material qualities of said objects. Even if such a recycling solution existed, there would still be a part of the materials that could not be re-used. Additionally, the machinery used to break up and rearrange the materials requires energy—and thus resources. Despite this, we are accustomed to welcome new objects into a world already filled with objects, and continue conjuring relatively useless objects into the world in the hopes of finding new meanings or marginal profits.

The information on a packaging of any food item informs the consumer the food’s country of origin. The information printed in the casing of a smartphone only tells us where it was assembled: there’s no telling where the oil or minerals or the energy used on the assembly line originated from, and we really don’t care as it seemingly doesn’t affect the qualities of said device. But the material plane and the media infrastructures aren’t separate—what were the effects of tsunamis in Thailand for the international hard drive availability and sales (and the decisions to invest or not to invest on new storage space)? What are the effects of discarding a bunch of new graphics cards (that have been used for mining cryptocurrencies requiring heavy processing power)?

Currently in Amos Rex, works by Amsterdam-based collective Studio Drift are being exhibited: the ongoing project Materialism presents dissections of various everyday objects—such as a plastic bottle, a car or a mobile phone—as cubic compositions or assortments. On their website, Studio Drift describes their project: “…civilization has introduced millions of new ‘artificial species’ through the ecosystems of commerce, objects that support our pleasant, contemporary existence and contain myriad materials forged together by design. Yet, we feel disconnected from this materiality today, blind to the inner workings and composition of all these artificial things, much as we might have looked at the night sky and felt ignorant about the moon and stars in the days before the Renaissance.”

 

Sources/further reading

http://www.livingbooksaboutlife.org/books/Electronic_waste/Introduction

https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/07/business/global/07iht-floods07.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/bitcoin-climate-change-global-warming-cryptocurrency-mining-electricity-a8607036.html

https://amosrex.fi/en/studio-drift-elemental/

http://www.studiodrift.com/work#/materialism/

(Photo: Auri Mäkelä, ca. 2008)

Link

FREIGHTENED – The Real Price of Shipping is a 2016 documentary, revealing an investigation about the many faces and contradictions of massive shipping and sheds light on the consequences of an all-but-visible industry.

Aerial shot of the Puelche container ship

9 out of 10 products consumed today in the Western world come from over seas. This has created a disturbing paradox: buying a product manufactured in a far-off country is often cheaper than purchasing goods made within reach of terrestrial transport. The true backbone of today’s globalised economy is the sea freight apparatus, an armada of gigantic vessels, that yet remains largely obscure to many. Due to their size, freight ships no longer fit into traditional city harbours and so, they have moved away, out of the public’s eye. Only few people are aware that this entire industry is owned by few magnates, having influence on the world’s economy and even on governments. The documentary investigates the mechanics and risks of world-wide freight shipping to discover how this industry has ended up holding the key to our economy, our environment and the very model of our civilisation. The revolutionary invention of the container boosted the freight shipping industry converting it into one of the most lucrative businesses in the world today with 60 thousands vessels constantly sailing seas.

Swimmers share the beach with a rusty container ship

In our consumer-based society, everything is attainable in a short time period. Most likely, the products that we purchase are assembled in different places across oceans. The whole world is seen as a single factory; different tasks can be completed in different places where manufacturing costs are low. One of the consequences of this model is the exploitation of labour forces in emerging countries beside being one of the most dangerous pollution sources of the planet. It is calculated that the 20 largest vessels pump more sulphur into the atmosphere than all the billions cars on the planet. Unfortunately neither the Kyoto Protocol, nor the COP 21 climate agreement, mention “shipping” in any way or form. The IMO (International Maritime Organisation) is slowly taking steps to limit pollution from ships in northern Europe and parts of North America. But enforcing the regulation is proving problematic for member states as, rather unusually for a United Nation organisation, the IMO is funded by its’ member governments. The highest contributor to the IMO budget is Panama, followed by Liberia and the Marshall Islands, the three biggest fleets in the world. These countries sell their national flag to shipping companies so they can maximise profits by escaping tax and home territory labour regulations. The illegal practices of the freight shipping industry have enabled subversive economies to exist, only 2% of the million containers transiting the world’s shipping lanes is scanned or inspected by customs, turning them into an ideal means of conveyance for arm traders, drug traffickers and illegal immigration networks.

Philippine recruiters on the streets of Manila

This industry is, on the other end, highly necessary to fulfill the ever-increasing demands of our society, as it has become the most efficient and cost-effective means of transporting goods. Changes in this sector would require fundamental shifts in the foundations of our economical and social model. The documentary show also some of the different initiatives that are proving to be effective and economically viable. Alternatives such as wind power, which combined with other existing innovations, can reduce a ship’s fuel consumption by 30 to 40%. Other initiatives such as the online platform “ShippingEfficiency.org” launched by the NGO, The Carbon War Room and RightShip helps to increase information flows and transparency around the efficiency of the international shipping fleet. The ability to access accurate, transparent and timely information helps to generate a more efficient shipping industry and engages the buyers in a better practice of consumption. Nevertheless there are still big improvements to be done and compromises to be taken; policy-makers and institutions should take a firm stand to reform this industry and guide it towards better practices, so that shipping can become a true driver of growth that does not leave anybody on the wayside.

Source: https://www.freightened.com/

Dirty mining and clean data – a story about Swedish industry

I remember very well when in 2013, Facebook opened its first data center outside of the US in Luleå, a northern city in Sweden. It was in all the big news channels. One of the largest and most impactful social media corporations chose Sweden!

For Luleå, the deal with Facebook was a great advertisement for the city. One of the world’s most influential corporations chose to put its facilities there. Data as a product has the appearance of modernity, innovation, high-technology, creativity and in this case, green energy. It goes well with the way Sweden as a nation wants to market itself. Most news articles were written in a weirdly proud manner. The primary reason stated by Facebook was the natural cooling of the servers, provided by the cold climate, and the science magazine Forskning och Framsteg wrote an article jokingly named “This is where your likes are cooling down” (1). I remember spontaneously feeling proud as well. We Swedes are raised with a hate/love relationship to the USA. We love to feel better than the Americans, to look down on them for their capitalist, openly class dividing society structure. But we also watch mostly TV series and movies from Hollywood and think that English is much cooler than Swedish. Secrectly, we all want to move to New York, LA or San Francisco and pursue the American dream. We are sold the idea of a service society, where machines do the dirty work and we can sit back and enjoy our touch screens and fancy clothes.

That dream, however, soon fades if one leaves the big cities. Up until a few decades ago, Sweden was an industrial country, with people working in factories, farms, forests and mines. And even though we are pushed to believe that the industrial society died to give birth to the service based society, Sweden’s economy is still based on those old industries. Facebook and other IT companies make a good front page, but the dirtier industries supplying them with material and energy still exist. And this is where Luleå’s history as an industry city becomes interesting.

Luleå has largely flourished because of the iron mines in Malmberget close by, where Luleå has served as the harbour for exportation of iron goods since late 1800s. The municipality now consists of 77000 people and the city hosts one of Sweden’s leading technical universities. In the meantime, the mining town Malmberget is literally collapsing. The mine has created a 200 meter hole in the ground, constantly growing and swallowing buildings and roads. This has caused the city to expand in new directions and buildings are being moved away from the hole’s edges. In the future, Malmberget will not exist in the place where it is today.

The hole in Malmberget municipality, called Gropen in Swedish.

The mine is utilised by state owned corporation LKAB, which also runs the world’s largest underground mine in the inland city Kiruna (see map below). There, the effects of the mining are even bigger. The whole city of Kiruna is now being moved to a new location since the current one is collapsing. Some buildings are moved, but most of the city will be built completely from scratch to house all the mine workers and other citizens. The new city is said to be financially, socially and environmentally sustainable (2).Kiruna’s new city center in the front, with the mine visible in the far left.

Meanwhile, the ecological impact of the mining industry next door is non-reparable. Mining disrupts the landscape and leaves open wounds in the ground. There is always a risk of toxic contamination of fresh water and lakes. The mining industry in Sweden stands for 10% of the CO2 emissions of the country. The indigenous people of the Nordics, the Sami people, have historically and in the present fought against the mining industries since the effects for them can be loss of land, contamination of fresh water and reindeer routes from summer to winter pasture land being cut off (3). Still today, Sweden’s liberal mineral laws permits foreign companies to exploit land without the owner’s permission. The UN have critiqued Swedish governments for not doing enough to protect the indigenous people and their rights to their land (4).

Kiruna at the top and Luleå at the lower right on Google Maps.

Facebook is now planning to double the size of their data center in Luleå, making it 100,000 sqm. The center is purely driven on water energy, according to Facebook. It directly or indirectly gives full time work for 400 people per year, compared to LKAB who employs around 4000 people in Sweden, with a majority working in the northernmost regions, and indirectly provides work for thousands more through related industries. Sweden’s iron mines jointly produces 90% of the iron in Europe.

Some journalists raised the concern that data centers wouldn’t be able to replace the traditional industries, such as mining and forestry, when it comes to employing large numbers of people. Others have claimed that Facebook is just the first of many data companies that will open centers in northern Sweden, thus leading the way for more work opportunities in the future. But how many jobs can this sector actually produce, and especially in relation to its high energy consumption? Will it be possible for all those data centers to run on water energy? Probably not.

As stated previously on the blog, new media infrastructures are often built on top of existing infrastructures. The data center is no exception. In 1910-1915, a large power plant was built in Lule älv, a river ending in Luleå, to be able to replace some of the coal imported from Europe. But the water flow was too high during Spring. Eyes fell on the newly inaugurated national park surrounding Stora sjöfallen, at the time one of Europe’s biggest water falls. The decision was taken from the government to exclude the water fall from the national park so that it could be dammed, with the consequence that the water flow in the river could be controlled like a tap. The Sami people who fished in the area, and who’s reindeer lands would be put under water, were not asked for permission. If the same decision was taken today, it would lead to massive demonstrations from the public (5). I have been at Stora sjöfallet myself. It is a large silent lake with a small flow of water coming down the water fall.

Surely it isn’t Facebook’s fault that those precious nature resources were destroyed a hundred years ago, and one can argue that the mining industry is necessary for providing the world with minerals. But the societal structure that killed Stora Sjöfallet at the beginning of the century is still working its magic, but now on a global scale. With a promise of work opportunities, multinational corporations are allowed to exploit land and energy resources not just in developing countries, but also in Sweden, whether they are producing minerals or data. Only a tiny portion of the capital produced goes back to the local inhabitants, and even less to the indigenous people. Those mines provide material that is necessary for computers, phones, cables, etc to exist in the first place. So Facebook’s “clean energy footprint” is not so clean after all. But perhaps, if we continue down this path of environmental destruction, the world will look much like the inside of a data center in the end. Lots of blinking machines, but no life.

Facebook’s data center in Luleå, Sweden.

Further readings in English:

http://samer.se/4623

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/dec/02/kiruna-swedish-arctic-town-had-to-move-reindeer-herders-in-the-way

Sources (in Swedish):

https://fof.se/tidning/2017/1/artikel/har-svalnar-dina-likes

https://hallbartbyggande.com/det-nya-kiruna-en-hallbar-modellstad-tar-form/)

https://www.naturskyddsforeningen.se/nyheter/gruvindustrins-gruvligaste-effekter

https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=4289211)

http://ottossonochottosson.se/blog/reportage/historien-om-ett-vattenfall/

https://www.lkab.com/sv/SysSiteAssets/documents/publikationer/broschyrer/det-har-ar-lkab.pdf

The physical form on internet

How  Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski in their article “Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures” explain the need for the big server companies to present their data centers in a physical form shows something interesting of people. We need something to take a physical form in order to think that it is real. This has caused the companies that we may use daily to see less personal and part of a world that is not truly present.

Google and Facebook seem like very distant companies, whose presence only matter somewhere far away from Finland. I speculate that in many ways the invisibility of the actions and actual work by the big tech companies has saved them for the ethical reviewal and responsibility. You don’t really think of them as companies consisting of people, the people are rendered out of the picture (with the exception of single face Mark Zuckerberg maybe). Even now that we have started to talk about the social responsibility of the effects of algorithms, the fact that running a data center consumes ridiculous amount of power is not widely known or hardly ever brought up in ethical discussion of sustainability. Nobody also remembers how the new tech has changed how the whole country and it’s crucial infrastructure operates – we talk about more familiar topics everyone has experienced first hand, like school system, taxes or health care.

On top of the illusion of the internet living in a space that is not connected to the physical world around us, the technicality going into the internet infrastructure is intimidatingly complex. For many, seeing code causes an immediate adverse reaction, and talking about the complexity of the data politics and deals one gets so drawn into details that it’s difficult to see the bigger picture. It’s a scary thought, that maybe the world around us is turning too complex for people to make rational, well informed decisions in politics of the topics that truly make changes under the surface, especially when the political game is changing more emotionally provocative along with populism.

Undersea internet cables seen through art

Artist that came to mind while thinking of media infrastructure: EVAN ROTH – Landscape with a ruin

Images taken from the webpage: http://www.evan-roth.com/work/landscape-with-a-ruin/

(Photo by Vinciane Lebrun-Verguethen, courtesy of the Mona Bismarck American Center)

Roth’s art piece comments on the undersea internet cables. I found his webpage maybe a year ago and Samir Bhowmik’s own work on these cables made me remember this.

This is my post commenting on the first lecture, delayed because of technical issues 😉

FIRST NOTES ON ANIMAL RELATIONS TO MEDIA INFRASTRUCTURE

When reading the introduction to Signal Traffic I got the most interested in the thoughts as “We cannot separate media from bio-physicality.” and Nadia Bozaks idea of “The Cinematic Footprint.” When doing a little bit of searching, I found a writer, a media theorist and professor Jussi Parikka and his Insect Media An Archaeology of Animals and Technology book where he analyzes the relations of insect forms of social organization and media technology. I would like to dive deeper into this book.

(photo: Jussi Parikka)

My interest is especially in encounters of media infrastructures and animals. Lisa Parks writes about ospreys on cell towers and a case where a zoo chimpanzee escapes, ends up on the power lines and gets viral and wildlife-crossing in an article called Mediating Animal-Infrastructure Relations from this year. There are interesting thoughts about how animals become infrastructural. If you think of birds, they naturally locate themselves when moving away during winter. How does media infrastructure, for example signal traffic affect on that instinct or is there an affect at all?

Lisa Parks claims in the article mentioned above that all infrastructures are media infrastructures. If we think of anthropocentric agriculture, where cattle, sheep, horses, hens and all the other species, it makes it quite obvious to think that they are mostly part of infrastructure. All this makes me wonder the affect on other species when used as a part of infrastructure, manipulated and how it affects them genetically? How does technical devices affect them as well, how for example milk production technological infrastructure affect on cattle evolution? How much can there be manipulated and what will become of it? How much AI affects to agricultural infrastructure? Also how we maintain this agricultural infrastructure indirectly and how are we part of it?

Deep time and Gossip

While reading the chapter on “Deep time of Media infrastructure” by Shannon Mattern, I started thinking of other texts I’ve read about how civilisation started. The traditional western way of telling history is that “civilised manners” such as advanced hierarchies and communities built of hundreds of people, were born out of agriculture and settlements. Abandoning the original way of life, Homo sapiens in several places in the world suddenly went from hundreds of thousands of years of being nomads, to settling down and starting agriculture.

However, newer research shows that people who led nomadic or half-nomadic lifestyles, could have very complex group dynamics and belief systems. Instead it might have been the other way around – humans slowly developed more and more complex societies and ways of manipulating or taking control over large groups of people, and this in turn led to the ability of developing agriculture, which in its turn led to permanent settlements.

When I was reading Harari’s book “Sapiens”, it really struck me again that the notion that humanity became complex creatures once we settled down and stopped being nomads, is completely false. The only thing that we can know for sure is that these cities and infrastructures that we have today, would not have been possible without settling down.

On the other hand – what infrastructures did and does nomadic people have, that we do not? And even more striking – has the way that we intuitively develop infrastructure over the millennia, even after the vast majority of the world’s population aren’t nomads anymore – been influenced by the way we inherently are nomads as a species?

Harari brings up something else that he sees as crucial for peaceful coexistence in large groups: Gossip. He claims that all apes are intensely interested in social information and that Homo sapiens’ way of speaking developed from gossip. Since we weren’t large and effective predators, cooperation was the key to survival even early on. It’s much more important to know who’s sleeping with who, who hates who, who is honest and who is a trickster, than in what direction the lions are.

This mean of communication – spread from person to person throughout large groups of people – must have influenced the way media infrastructure developed right from the start. Even though the word “gossip” has a bad connotation in today’s society, it’s still taking up a vast amount of space, energy and time in our lives. Gossip is often something that women are considered doing, perhaps because women traditionally have taken care of the home sphere and the relationships of the family. But if this is the force that actually holds us together as a species – why do we then despise it so much?

A large portion of today’s media is taken up by pure gossip, whether there is truth behind it or not. Most of the stories are impossible for us to fact check ourselves. News articles, social media posts and blog posts tell us the latest weird thing Trump did, what the Kardashians are up to and that Jay-z has cheated on Beyoncé again. Most of us don’t know these people personally and have no direct link to them. We have to trust the source or find other sources. This is the strength and the weakness of human societies today. Shannon Mattern again:

Overlooking the way gossip and other ways of communicating has shaped media infrastructure, is perhaps one of the reasons we’re in such a hot mess today. It’s called “social” media for a reason – its primary task is not to offer the truth, but for humans to be social, to gossip. If we took this inherent human trait into account – how would we want to change the infrastructures of media then? And how can we develop trustful ways of tracing the source of information?

Hungry for bandwidth?

Based on the data reported in the 2018 edition of the “Sandvine Global Internet Phenomena Report” a statement is made clear and indisputable: “Video is bigger than ever”.

Sandvine, a networking equipment company based in California, put the spotlight on the consolidated phenomenon of “video streaming”, a practice that keep busy near the 58% of the global downstream internet traffic. The video streaming world does not include only the most known and mainstream services such as Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime. Operator-based streaming and direct consumer streaming are also a big part of the scheme, many operators provide streaming of the content that they own the rights, as well as every network which streams their content in some way. Not to mention social network video sharing and direct video chat services.

Among this various environment of streaming services, one above all has managed to reach the apex in its category, and obviously this one is the more than notorious NETFLIX.
This streaming giant is available today worldwide basically in every country (except four), and with its average total amount of internet traffic near to the 15% (19% in the U.S.), has reached the position of “top video site in the world”.

The dominance of this “giant of streaming”, is even more impressive when the efficiency of its service is taken in analysis. Netflix deserves a lot of credit for reducing the throughput (the amount of data passing through the system) needed to stream its contents. This means that Netflix could easily be 3 times its current volume and at 40% of network traffic, all the time.

On the others positions of this ranking we can found other services with similar percentages to Netflix, but if considering that the categories “HTTP Media Stream – Raw MPEG-TS – QUIC”  are communication protocols, and not services and most of the YouTube contents are available for free, we can see that the only “player” similar to Netflix in this ranking is the Amazon Prime service.

The “newborn” streaming service provided by the global colossus Amazon, has made its voice be heard, not only in the US, but also in other 200 countries worldwide, increasing constantly its presence in the global traffic.
Still, being on the biggest commercial competitor for Netflix, its numbers are still far away from the “top positions” of this ranking.

Even with this abundance of “streaming platform”, another big (and mostly unofficial) player keeps its relevance on the internet traffic, the “BitTorrent” protocol. BitTorrent is the dominant file sharing protocol on the internet, its impact is interesting particularly in the EMEA (Europe – Middle East – Africa) region, where often, the delays or unavailability of “high quality” or “high demanded” content (especially from the U.S.) results, in a increasingly higher file sharing practice.

In the EMEA, with over the 30% of upstream traffic, BitTorrent dominates upstream with a higher ratio of traffic than in any other region. Content rights in EMEA can be complicated, and consumers are more and more cautious on which method or technology to use in the practice of “file transfering”. In the meantime the EU is attempting to block and obstruct these file sharing sites, resulting in what is very similar to a  “game of whack-a-mole”, where when one site gets taken down, another one (or more) pops up to replace it.

 

Link to the “”Sandvine Global Internet Phenomena Report” complete document:
https://www.sandvine.com/hubfs/downloads/phenomena/2018-phenomena-report.pdf

Mediated and Unmediated Cities

The ways in which cities and other living environments are mediated are quite known and researched. If there is a mediated city, surely there exists an unmediated counterpart?

In various contexts, an unmediated city is seen as a city that is not mapped and thus unpredictable. Such an uncharted area is perhaps generally seen as not subject to human intervention, but even abandoned or unlawful constructs could be seen as unmediated ones – given that they have not been mapped and brought into broader knowledge. In many cases throughout the history, the construction of new complexes has either been overlooked by the government due to a political crisis, or the construction has been halted due to financial problems.

Examples of such constructs could include the now-demolished Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong (inspiration for many dystopian books and films), or Torre de David in Caracas, Venezuela (damaged in 2018 earthquakes). Both of these constructs or complexes could be considered unmediated as they were unmapped, uncharted, unfinished. But they were mediated by their inhabitants, who are told to have formed closely-knit communities in order to overcome the threats from outside the complexes. The inhabitants took matters into their own hands and modified the complex according to their own wishes.

The remnants of Pripyat (Ukraine) could also been seen as unmediated: of human origin, but all objects and belongings have been scattered around the ruins as people fled the vicinity of Chernobyl reactor, and being scattered further by the forces of nature, animals and the occasional scavenger. No one has intentionally arranged the decaying objects – they are where they were left, and no one is looking after them. (Side note: there is also a great documentary about people who still live in the area.) A mediated city is different: trash are picked up, graffitis and tags get removed, broken sidewalks are repaired by workers assigned to tend to them.

Is the internet mediated or unmediated? In the 1960’s Marshall McLuhan theorized the introduction of new forms of communication would form a global village, not only revolutionizing the way people communicate, but also extend its effect into all areas of human life. According to McLuhan, time would cease and and space would vanish entirely, reuniting people with their primordial nature and tribal emotions. McLuhan argued we would enter a period of post-history, as the past and present would become intertwined and be simultaneously present.

Elissavet Georgiadou pointed out in 2002 that the internet was (and still is) populated by the elite. Ultimately, the reasons behind the digital divide are poverty as well as political and cultural control. The development of the Internet is interrelated to geographical and social inequalities”, Georgiadou wrote.

Has current technology as well as everyday media usage managed to create the global village McLuhan wrote about? Is the internet more mediated now that it was 10 or 20 years ago? How to mediate such a global village, when inhabitants of a city have little to no way of having an effect on their surroundings? What kind of media infrastructures could unmediated areas offer?

(Photo: Kowloon Walled City in 1989. Ian Lambot, Wikipedia)

Google’s cable investments

There was an article recently on New York Times covering Google’s undersea projects. They have a nice map of the history of undersea cables and which of them Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Amazon “partly own, solely own or are a major capacity buyer of a cable owned by another company”.

Map published in New York Times. Graphics by Karl Russell, Troy Griggs and Blacki Migliozzi.

It looks like the share of these major content providers among all internet cables is increasing quite rapidly. And especially Google is taking lead of creating its own cable infrastructure.

There is an interview of Jayne Stowell, who oversees construction of Google’s undersea cable projects. Couple of nice comments:

“People think that data is in the cloud, but it’s not,”
“It’s in the ocean.”

“It really is management of a very complex multidimensional chess board,” said Ms. Stowell of Google, who wears an undersea cable as a necklace.

There is also interviews and pictures of guys working in the cable ship Durable that Google uses for its laying operations.

“I still get seasick,” said Walt Oswald, a technician who has been laying cables on ships for 20 years. He sticks a small patch behind his ear to hold back the nausea. “It’s not for everybody.”

Recommend to read!

Here’s couple more images of what Google is planning from company blog post.

Thesis and Soulless city development

Pictures from Luca Picardi’s research

My thesis project is about creating a space that would be easily approachable and offer a blank canvas for the local population to create something that represents themselves in a real way, not an interpretation of what their cultural identity is.

I think it has to do with what Richard Sennet talks about when he says that over- zoned and rationalized cities are actually not good for its inhabitants and that the real development happens in the cracks of what’s allowed. So I would say that my thesis project is a vision of a created space that makes this human, natural and anarchistic way of living possible. Would it be a controlled crack?

Helsinki has had these wet dreams about becoming a metropolis for the last ten years. That means that the construction hasn’t really gone I waves, the areas that have been developed are huge (eg. Jätkäsaari) and the result is soulless neighborhoods. They’re just some city planners vision of what the area should be. In Eeva Berglund’s and Cindy Kohtalas book, Changing Helsinki they state that the city and companies, who’re financing the development of the city have no interest in the local everyday life nor the history of the city. It can be seen in the kind of international buildings constructed, the fairly new concert hall for example. They even had a quote from Italo Calvino’s book, Invisible Cities. According to Berglund and Kohtala, the direction where the city is going is ending up reminding all the other cities with Starbucks, branded neighborhoods and financial districts.

Luca Picardi has compared newly developed areas from different cities and found out that they remind each other a lot. https://www.lucapicardi.com/FAMILIAR Jätkäsaari is one of the areas that was compared.

The way Romans used their architecture as a surface for written media was fascinating. Would they see the commercials that can be seen in our current cityscape as rubbish? I find the video screens that are starting to replace the old paper rolling ones as something that should be illegal. There should be laws for(maybe there are) when commercials are invading peoples personal space too much.

Hydropolis & Cybercity

Infrastructure used to refer to roads, tunnels and other public works. In Signal Traffic, Shannon Mattern points out how words “architecture” along with “telecommunications” and “media” began to trend in the 1960’s, approximately at the same time. “Infrastructures made human settlements possible”, Mattern continues, and this indeed the case with the Salpausselkä ridges spreading across Southern and South-Eastern Finland: a national highway number 12 follows the Salpausselkä I ridge, along with a railway and some major cities and towns. The formation itself does not stand out very much from the landscape, save for a few steep quarries revealing the moraine and materiality of the ridge. According to Mattern, an area in which human settlements gathered, also forms an infrastructure — “an area of local intercourse”. What are examples of these areas and what kinds of local intercourses do they entail?

Considering the various urban forms: topography, transportation, cosmology, philosophy, defense… Everything intertwines and services merge to one another. An example could be a case of postal services piggybacking in the cargo compartment of a vehicle intended for commuting. Decreased commuting may mean changing timetables and thus affecting the time when the postal service is able to do their work. That means people receive their mail less frequently or later during the day — how will everyday habits be shaped by such a trivial change in society?

How are cities mediated or unmediated? Was there an unmediated era, and what did it look like compared to today? What were the visual characteristics of an unmediated city: unpainted surfaces, human-sized buildings? We can now access overviews of areas more easily with drones or with the aid of Google Earth. Has it already changed views of how we construct neighborhoods or new suburbs?

The intermingling of temporalities: old and new form interfaces with one another, sometimes leaking into one another. New technologies are introduced, old are discarded, but not entirely. During the implementation of mobile network technologies, analog television broadcasts were phased out. If you listen to amateur radio, unused bandwidth frees up space in the “spectrum” for other purposes and transmission of data. Listening to the various signals nowadays (conveniently with the help of an online SDR), aside from voice communication, one may find out there are people out there still communicating with morse code; planes transmit some of the flight data as continuous signals to airports without manual human reporting; remote weather stations send weather data, all this without the help of internet connection that the contemporary human is so dependent on.

It is evident the Salpausselkä ridges are natural formations that have supported human activity for thousands of years: their affordances have allowed convenient ways to arrange defense, logistics, trade routes, services and other industrial endeavors. The formations are an obvious location for erecting radio/TV/telephone masts and water towers. Some buildings and sites have been built on top of the ridge to highlight their presence in the area, or to offer the visitors an outlook to enjoy.

Lauttasaari water tower was taken down in 2015. In an article by HSY about constructing a new water tower instead of trying to preserve the old one, it is stated that repurposing old water towers is an expensive and difficult feat, depending on the way the tower has been originally constructed. A study conducted in Romania points out how many of the old water towers have been converted into sites for preserving cultural artefacts or sites for cultural activities. In many cases, radio towers and antennas are located on top of a water tower. What is the relationship between the hydropolis of water and waste with an electrified and communicative cybercity?

The Salpausselkä ridges contain majority of the groundwater reserves of the area. The gravel within the ridge filters the water — some of this water is bottled, and the water can be bought from Finnish supermarkets. What is the future of water system when faced with challenges such as drought? How are these very essential and invisible infrastructures and related ecosystems designed to prevail?

(Image: Jari Laamanen, Wikipedia)