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