Monthly Archives: October 2019

the (w)holi(e)ness of aesthetics

Sean Cubitts comment on aesthetics have been haunting me and it raised a lot of questions. Why did he want to turn to aesthetics and what is its relation to media and environment? He said that an aesthetics approach must consider both, the sustainability of material practice of media and a movement through communication as a means towards communication as goal. Also he mentioned that engineering and design in media industry are in demanding spiral of neoliberal growth.

Aesthetics are entangled in every scope of spectrum in human life. Markets in media industry are definitely aesthetics-driven.  In media the content and majority of media devices are filled with aesthetic experiences and are created as a response to the need of them. Aesthetics is a value which we all quite blindly follow. Our need to aesthetics is so valued that it seems like a human right. Commercial trends are based on aesthetics and can anyone honestly say that have made a decision based only, purely on sustainability in any case? That the aesthetics wouldnt affect at all to the choice of consume? Is good conscience an aesthetic experience? Can we forgo of our need to value aesthetics? And does it always mean ugliness of another?

climate change and reductions in biodiversity arise from industrial rhythms that are out of alignment with those of the earth, a media geology of plastic thus forms a critique of the unsustainable, and ultimately self-destructive, speeds of contemporary capitalism

Obviously we value efficiency and speed in practical way but could we think of rhythm and speed aesthetically? Is efficiency an aesthetic choice? What is ugly when it comes to speed? Can you affect on the aesthetics with art or design or is it subjectively unchangeable?

What are we willing to sacrifice in the altar of aesthetics as an artist, a designer or a consumer?

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. 

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