Monthly Archives: September 2020

Planned Obsolescence and the Lifespan of Electronics

Back in the 1920s the US automotive industry were faced with a problem. An industry which had long enjoyed explosive growth was now faced with falling numbers. It had taken less than twenty years, after the launch of Ford Model T in 1908, for car ownership to go from a luxury to an assumption. But now the market was hitting a saturation point: most everyone who wanted a car already had one.

As a solution to this, the head of General Motors Alfred P. Sloan Jr. suggested annual design changes to convince buyers that they needed to buy a new car even if the old one still worked fine. The strategy, which he’d borrowed from the bicycle manufacturers, was quickly branded as “planned obsolescence” by critics, though Sloan preferred the term “dynamic obsolescence”. Planned obsolescence has had far reaching consequences not only on the automotive industry, but on the whole field of product design and thus on all the market economies of the world. A shining example of this is modern electronics.

A recent report on ‘electronics and obsolescence in a circular economy’ from the EEA’s European Topic Centre on Waste and Materials in a Green Economy gives us good insights on this issue in the European context and its affects on the environment.

The report states that consumption of electronics has grown steadily over the past decades, mainly driven by information technology, namely smartphones. Today an average of 20 kg of electronics per EU citizen is put on the market every year. Much of this growth in demand can be attributed to falling costs of production: “purchasing a new washing machine, for example, cost 59 working hours work in 2004 but dropped to just 39 hours in 2014 (CECED, 2017)”.  Once discarded only around half of these electronics enter official recycling systems, leaving large amounts untreated. One of the main findings of the report is that the average real lifetime of products is at least 2.3 years shorter than the designers of the products estimate them to be.

Source: ETC/WMGE based on Cordella et al., 2019 and Wieser et al., 2015 for smartphones; Kalyani et al., 2017, King County, 2008 and Wieser et al., 2015 for televisions; Wieser et al., 2015 for washing machines; Rames et al., 2019, EC, 2019 and Wieser et al., 2015 for vacuum cleaners)

The report recommends the EU to pursue policies which enable and encourage circular business models which would extend the lifespans and delay obsolescence of electronics.

 

References

1. Europes consumption in a circular economy: the benefits of longer-lasting electronics https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/waste/resource-efficiency/benefits-of-longer-lasting-electronics

Cancer Villages in Vietnam

Cancer village is the word used in Vietnamese to refer to villages in Vietnam, where many people have cancer because of water pollution. According to the Ministry of Health, as of 2007, there are about 51 villages and communes scattered in 25 provinces/cities nationwide recorded as “cancer villages”. Focusing mainly in the North and Central – where high-intensity handicraft and craft village activities take place (Ha Tay, Bac Ninh, Nam Dinh), near old industrial zones (such as Thai Nguyen, Phu Tho) or near old plant protection warehouses (Nghe An, Ha Tinh) … [1]

Water sources in cancer villages in Vietnam according to the investigation are polluted by pesticides at drug stores, war poisons, graveyards, craft villages, domestic and industrial wastes, and public works. The analysis results of water samples being used for drinking in the “cancer villages” show that most of them are contaminated with microorganisms, some samples have Content of phenol, arsenic or manganese exceeds the permissible standard many times. 

The people of Thong Nhat village (Hanoi) mainly use water from drilled wells.

Image: Contaminated Nhue River (Hanoi, Vietnam) [2]


Case Thach Son Cancer village: The village is contaminated, in both air and water. According to a survey by the Ministry of Natural Resources, the atmosphere here is seriously poisoned by industrial emissions, especially in the area around Lam Thao Supe phosphate factories, Phu Tho battery factory. Besides, the breathing air in Thach Son must receive smoke from 90 brick kilns and the bad smell at the outlet of the wastewater of the Bai Bang paper factory to the Red River. Regarding water sources, both surface water and groundwater in Thach Son are toxic. All lakes and wells are polluted. [3]

From 1991 to 2009, Thach Son commune had 106 people died of cancer, most commonly cancer of the liver, lung, stomach, throat. 19 families with at least 2 people die from this disease (husband and wife, or father and daughter, mother and child), of which more than 3 people have died from cancer. In the Mom Den area, 15 years ago, 200 households had moved to another place by themselves because they could not stand the heavily polluted air from the Lam Thao Supe Phosphate factory. 70% of these families have died of cancer. [4]

— 

I would like to propose three levels of responsibility: Change starts from a systemic level to corporate responsibility and consumerism. The government has the power to gives permission for fabrications’ manufacturing activities on their homeland, hence, takes major responsibility for environmental and social impacts. Corporations must make ethical decisions that impact both the environment and humans. Consumers contribute to the scene by being mindful of everyday consumption, raising environmental concerns, and pushing for systemic changes.


Three levels of responsibility

References:

[1] https://nongnghiep.vn/viet-nam-co-51-lang-ung-thu-d5069.html Nong Nghiep VN. Accessed Sept 28th, 2020.

[2] Image: http://suckhoenguoiviet.org/danh-sach-10-lang-ung-thu-o-viet-nam.html Suc khoe nguoi Viet. Accessed Sept 28th, 2020.

[3] https://vnexpress.net/lang-ung-thu-thach-son-tu-dat-den-troi-deu-doc-2261643.html Vnexpress, accessed Sept 28th, 2020.

[4] https://www.vietnamplus.vn/noi-dau-dai-dang-o-lang-ung-thu-thach-son/21061.vnp Vietnam Plus. Accessed Sept 28th, 2020.

 

I live in the land of a thousand lakes but not a single one of them is like Baotou lake in Inner Mongolia, China.

I have taken hundreds of images of the beautiful lake next to our summer cottage. Most often I’ve photographed it with my smart phone made of aluminium, carbon, oxygen, iron, silicon, copper, cobalt, hydrogen, chrome, nickel and 4.9 grams of other materials like gold, tin and zinc.[1][2] It is a small lake with good water quality. There are no fields nearby that would lay down fertilizers to the streams connected to the lake nor are there any mines nearby that could pollute the small lake in a blink of an eye. There’s just the awesome calmness of the forest, a pair of swans and a family of black-throated loons swimming on the lake and me with my smart phone, the end product of all the mining happening somewhere far away from this paradise.

The technology we nowadays use to work, to participate in social media and to consume entertainment looks shiny, pure and clean. Smooth parts made of glass, aluminium and chrome feel and look good and are actively trying to make us forget where they really come from. Designed in California, Assembled in China but mined where and at what expense?

When buying an iPhone we pay around 1000 dollars for it. The materials of an iPhone are calculated to be worth a bit over 1 dollar.[1] Then with the remaining 999 dollars we probably cover the assembling, design, software, logistics, sales and of course the profit for the huge corporation behind it all. That is a lot of money for an average consumer but you might still wonder who in the end pays the biggest price?

Have a look at this awesome sunset at the lake next to our summer cottage that I photographed with 1000 dollars less on my bank account than before buying the smart phone I took this with!

Then have a look at this video by BBC journalist Tim Maughan from the Baotou lake.

“You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking. It is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world’s supply of these elements, and it’s estimated that the Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world’s reserves.”[3]

So who after all is paying the biggest price for sustaining this technology filled modern life? And who collects the profit? Answer to one these questions lies in Baotou. Which one? That should be as obvious as is the whole content of this text. We all know this stuff, we are just so skilled in ignoring unpleasant facts as long as they don’t pollute our own lakes.

Finland does not yet have a toxic lake such as Baotou, the scale is luckily smaller, but already during the last 10 years people living or owning summer houses in Sotkamo, on the shores of the lakes near Talvivaara mine, have suffered from the mining company’s polluting. On 2014 the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland gave a statement that Talvivaara Sotkamo Oy has not been able to obey the rules given in their environmental permit during its whole time of existence. This has changed the way many people in Finland see the mining business and its negative effects on the environment. These mines create jobs but with too extreme consequences for the environment the positive effects get nullified in people’s minds.[4]

This way of thinking seems to work locally inside the Finnish borders but in a way this environmentalism has some nationalistic features. It is still “our lakes” that we are talking about here and even if we quit mining any materials from Finland, we don’t have to quit living the modern life with all the technology. There isn’t that big compromise we have to make. But even though we have seen what mines like Talvivaara can do to our nature I don’t see people wishing to stop this kind of environmentally hazardous mining everywhere outside our borders that strongly because that would have a lot more effects on our comfortable digital lives. And here I am too, using all these devices built from the materials digged from Baotou and contributing to the toxicity of the lake there. But is it individuals who have created this destructive system by wanting to buy new technology with cheaper and cheaper prices? That is how the corporations probably wan’t us to feel about it, but I would point my blaming finger more towards them instead.

References

  1. https://www.statista.com/chart/10719/materials-used-in-iphone-6/
  2. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/433wyq/everything-thats-inside-your-iphone?ex_cid=SigDig 
  3. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth
  4. https://www.apu.fi/artikkelit/talvivaara-pilatut-jarvivedet-nostivat-ymparistonsuojelun-koko-kansan-puheenaiheeksi-nain-kaikki-tapahtui (In Finnish)

The politics of mass production and fabrication

While reading Sean Cubitt’s “Ecologies of Fabrication” text [1], I couldn’t help but think about the mass production, mass selling and market domination in postcolonial capitalistic society. In the era since the ending of World War II new economy was established, where there is a large need for the creation, production and manufactures of the common goods. Being a designer myself, the text made me think about how large corporations influence and establish social, cultural and economic authority in globalism and mass market. Particular resonance with  a sociologist C.Wright Mills’s book “The Politics of Truth” [2] comes to my mind here; in his paper “The Man in the Middle”, Mills stated that “Continuous and expanding production requires continuous and expanding consumption, so consumption must be speeded up by all the techniques and frauds of marketing” (“Politics of Truth”, p. 177). In the paper Mills was talking about certain techniques designers in the mass market quite often rely onto and how “the waste of human labor and material become irrationally central to the performance of the capitalist mechanism” (“Politics of Truth”, p. 178).

Society is in itself a sales room. The common big lie in capitalist society is the classical phrase “We only give them what they want”. However, when we truly think about it, the skills of advertising, packaging products in a certain way and fake need for the products are the dogma of the mass production culture. Do we really need everything that we have and posses? When and why lifeless objects became so important in our everyday life? As a designer myself I couldn’t stop but question these important notions, as we, designers, can play and influence the market greatly. Even the model of the capitalist market structure is create yearly styles, make people become ashamed of not owning newest styles and trends and boost their self-esteem with the purchase of this year’s.

If the economy’s task is to sell, where do we stand in it and how can we help as designers, researchers, artists, writers, sociologists within the media field and beyond and how can we influence and establish new ways of producing and create new fundamental values in mass market and mass production. Perhaps, our society needs to be built and constructed around artisanal work and higher quality of products vs.capitalistic cultural apparatus of mass culture, mass society and mass production.

[1] Sean Cubitt, “Ecologies of Fabrication,” in Sustainable Media: Critical Approaches to Media and Environment, eds. Nicole Starosielski and Janet Walker, NY and London, Routledge, 2016

[2] C.Wright Mills , “The Man in the Middle”,  in The Politics of Truth, eds. John Summers, 2008: p. 173-183

Circuits of Capital

A system of high-risk, low-paid work in offshore factories, where human and environmental rights are casually ignored is an essential part of the global success story of electronic companies, the automobile, and the fashion industry, among others. [1]

The fact that components for virtually all technological products are manufactured in different locations around the globe is disconnecting us from the reality of human and environmental suffering. This system allows companies to distance themselves from the supply chains they’ve build-up themself. Transparency is claimed impossible and responsibilities are conveniently shifted.
“lt is clear, however, that corporations resist taking responsibility, spending instead vast sums on legal actions blocking charges against them and on public relations campaigns (including the expensive scientists whose reports they commission).”  [2]

Some companies even have the audacity to claim that it wouldn’t be possible for them to demand their suppliers to comply with human rights. This system allows us to maintain our privileged, wasteful, and unsustainable lifestyle without realizing that this way of living is supporting child-labor (e.g. in fashion production) [3] , modern slavery as seen in the fish industry in Thailand [4], and the brutal suppression of minorities supported (e.g. by VW in China. [5]

In what world do we live in where companies feel like human-rights are negotiable?

Among the things that really stayed with me in Sean Cubitt’s Ecologies Fabrication is that when you fight for the environment you also have to fight for human rights: “Environmentalists need to expand their political horizons to include human victims of anti-ecological practices, (…) these include not only workers and those living in the immediate vicinity, but everyone involved in the circuits of neoliberal capital.” [6]


[1] Sean Cubitt, “Ecologies of Fabrication,” in Sustainable Media: Critical Approaches to Media and Environment, eds. Nicole Starosielski and Janet Walker, NY and London, Routledge, 2016: p.168
[2] ibid 173
[3] https://www.commonobjective.co/article/child-labour-in-the-fashion-industry
[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/21/such-brutality-tricked-into-slavery-in-the-thai-fishing-industry
[5] https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/menschenrechte-ueruemqi-vw-haelt-an-werk-in-chinesischer-provinz-xinjiang-fest-dpa.urn-newsml-dpa-com-20090101-200108-99-391133
[6] Sean Cubitt 2016, p. 164

 

 

Outsourcing and Offshoring of Fabrication in the 21st Century

The terms outsourcing and offshoring are considered a thing of the modern era of humanity. They were introduced and put into practice together in the 20th century, due to the process of the globalisation. By the early 1980s, both terms are featured in a business lexicon and they become a very common practice in the fabrication of goods.

In the post WW2 era, a lot of companies started experiencing massive growth and the demand for their goods increased for a big percentage. While external providers were often able to provide the service quicker and more efficient, the heavy use of that practice only started towards the end of the 20th century, due to the massive communication, shipment and technology development. Working in other geographic locations, especially in developed countries where wages are lower, has become increasingly effective. This became known as offshoring. The practice called outsourcing however moves a part of the production into a foreign country – contracting work out to an external organization. [2]

Both practices have benefits and risks. Offshoring is useful as the production costs are usually much lower and done faster, while still retaining the quality of the products. Many criticise offshoring for transferring jobs to other countries, rather than employing the local people. That also introduces a geopolitical risk as the cultural and language differences are present.

Outsourcing on the other hand takes the advantage of specialized skills of foreign workers, lower costs and labour flexibility. But relying on third parties can for example introduce misaligned interests of clients and vendors, therefore the collaboration is not that efficient and beneficial.[3]

Many times both practices are combined and put to use together. This way the companies get the advantages of both of them. Sadly, often the environmental and fair labour issues are ignored, even though they are present. A big factor is a fact, that the third party managers don’t want to risk alienating their clients by raising issues of environmental responsibility and fair labour practices offshore.

The biggest environmental issue is of course pollution that is caused by fabrication. Outsourcing/offshoring transfers the problem to countries that already have a big pollution rate. The fabrication of outsourced goods and services contaminate the air, water, and soil, trigger deforestation and increases concerns about global warming. It also depletes labour and material pools and as a consequence endangers public health. [4]

Sadly, lower costs of fabrication lead to a higher, less regulated level of pollution. There are attempts from major companies to limit the effect that the two practices have on the environment, but it often takes them more than a decade to reach the desired level. But for many companies the profit is the most important thing, therefore they will pursue the most efficient way to increase their profits even if that goes against their true values. As George Bernard Shaw once said: “Lack of money is the root of all evil.” [1][5]

References:

[1] 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.

[2] Strange, Roger & Magnani, Giovanna. (2017). Outsourcing, Offshoring And The Global Factory. 10.4324/9781315667379-4.

[3] Diffen, Offshoring vs. Outsourcing, Last accessed September 27, 2020, https://www.diffen.com/difference/Offshoring_vs_Outsourcing

[4] Ecommerce Times, 2004, Environmental Impacts of Outsourcing, Last modified October 19, 2004, https://www.ecommercetimes.com/story/37421.html

[5] Xiaoyang Li & Yue M. Zhou, Strategic Management Journal, 2017, Offshoring Pollution while Offshoring Production?, 2310–2329

The Early Submarine Cables

After the first working telegraph was invented by William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in 1839, the idea to connect North America and Europe with a transatlantic submarine cable was born. The desire to connect continents was always present, and after a decade of experiments and testings, the idea became reality.

The first successful attempt in the early 1850s connected Great Britain to the mainland Europe and laid the foundation for the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858 that connected Valentia Island in western Ireland to Heart’s Content in eastern Newfoundland, successfully reducing the communication time from 10 days to a matter of minutes. The first cable didn’t last very long but it was the first successful attempt of a long-distance communication cable. Until the 1870s a couple more cables were laid. The mentioned cables were much more durable and they allowed much quicker transmission than the first one. [1][2]

(Fig. 1: Laying the cables in the early 20th century)

Even though the first cables were laid in the middle of the 19th century, the environmental concern of the potential impact of cables on the marine environment is a much more recent question. During installation, maintenance and decommissioning phases many potential environmental effects can occur. Habitat disturbances, sediment resuspension, chemical pollution and underwater noise emission, while during the operation phase the changes in electromagnetic fields, heat emission, risk of entanglement, chemical pollution, and creation of artificial reef and reserve effects can all harm the environment.[3]

(Fig 2: Corals growing on one of the old cables)

In my opinion, we must acknowledge the potential environmental effects and try to avoid interfering with nature. I believe that we should try and leave the marine environment intact as much as we possibly can. Even though some of the old submarine cables are still working and could be used, they were abandoned because of their small capacity that wouldn’t be enough for heavy commercial use. The abandonment of said cables and the decision to just leave them at the bottom of the ocean possesses a threat to the environment and present irreversible damage to our environment.

Anze Bratus

References:

[1] Cookson, Gillian. (2006). Submarine Cables: Novelty and Innovation, 1850–1870. Transactions of the Newcomen Society. 76. 207-219.

[2] Wikipedia, 2020, Submarine Communications Cable, Last modified November 8, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Submarine_communications_cable

[3] & [Fig. 2] Bastien Taormina, Juan Bald, Andrew Want, Gérard Thouzeau, Morgane Lejart, Nicolas Desroy, Antoine Carlier (2018), A review of potential impacts of submarine power cables on the marine environment: Knowledge gaps, recommendations and future directions

[Fig. 1] LTE Magazine, 2018, Submarine cables from 1850 to present days, Last modified November 5, 2018, https://ltemagazine.com/submarine-cables-from-1850-to-present-days

Thermocultures of Geological Media – A summary

The article by Nicole Starosielski examines thermal manipulation in transforming the earth’s raw materials into media and maintaining those materials as media. Examinations include the extraction and refining of Earth’s raw materials into pure materials for media usages, the utilization of air conditioner for even temperature for media productions, and thermal infrared imaging.

Purity of elements: One set of thermal practices is transforming geological matter into the circulation of mass media. Especially refining raw minerals into media materials, where the temperature is used to ensure purity and consistency of materials across media objects. However, it is impossible to reach an entirely pure state of minerals. Mary Douglas defines purity as the designation of one set of phenomena as clean (specifically copper and silicon communication circuits in Nicole’s article) which integrally tied to pollution as a result of a systematic order of elements while rejecting inappropriate ones.

Even temperature: The invention of the air conditioner (1902 by Willis Carrier) was with the intention of standardizing media rather than cooling humans. The reason being the dynamic relationship of pure elements with their surroundings despite an attempt to control their internal composition and limitation of interactions. Nicole takes a look at the fluctuated temperature issues with the printing and lithography industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which are external climate and excess heat produced during press productions. Air conditioning systems since then has been used in ensuring the precision and efficiency in many other forms of media productions. Eventually, after the standardization of temperature regulation, the thermosensitivities of media persisted. Some examples mentioned are the preservation of analog media like magazines, films, microchips, libraries and archives, architectures, factories; as well as digital media like ensuring the operation of large data centers and computational devices.

Productive variation: In this part, Nicole argues that environmental control is incomplete as the temperature remains a force that affects all thermosensitive bodies despite expansive thermal infrastructures. Temperature variations in the productive ends for the expansion of media and capital, for example, the extractive industry with the increasing use of fiber-optic and thermal infrared image technique in the mining industry.

Thermocultures: The study of thermocultures set light to how matters take shape and circulate through the world and offer a branching path to the geology of media. Thermal control and manipulation are underlying operations of differentiation and homogeneity of contemporary media, and the process of controlling the environment in which materials are reactive or stable and in which transformations can occur.


In this course, we aim to investigate media culture under the belief that there is no nature, but the Earth has already been transformed into a mass body of media. The geology of media investigates the state that makes it possible to transform the Earth into media. This perspective leads to a more important question: What can we change in our system to save the planet Earth?

Reference:
Douglas, Mary. (1996) 1984. Purity and Danger: An analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. NewYork: Routledge.
Parikka, Jussi. 2015. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Starosielski, Nicole. 2016. Thermocultures of Geological Media. Cultural Politics, Volume 12, Issue 3. Duke University Press.

On the borderline

Standing in the borderline of land and the water with salt water splashing on my face, the words that were discussed during the first Media&Environment -lecture are echoing in my head: ”THERE IS NO NATURE.” There is no nature because everything is mediated -ocean, forest, nature is mediated.  To me who love the sea and feel like home in the forest  it´s quite a provocative line. But what is the behind the line?

In 2000, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Paul Crutzen noted that the Earth has moved into a new geological era, the anthropocene, or human time. In 2016, naturalists defined the starting point of anthropocene as 1950, when the effects of nuclear experiments are visible in the soil. the beginning of the anthropocene era depends on who is asked. If it is considered to have started in the 1950s, the effects of industrialisation on the environment are ignored. From human kinds impact to the planet there`s no turning back. The footprint of humankind on the planet is far smaller compared to the impact of Ice Eras or asteroids. 

Jussi Parikka is describing the current state of Anthropocene: ´The anthrobscene, referring to the obscenities of the ecocrises.  [1] The impact of humankind is divided into five categories: climate change, mass extinctions, ecosystem loss, pollution, and population growth and overconsumption.

There is no such thing as wild nature. Pollution – including marine plastic waste rafts, microplastic particles, the deposition of composites in the soil and changes in the atmosphere – extends to the point where man does not physically reach himself. Wildlife makes up only three percent of the planet’s megafauna biomass. Everything else is people and cattle.  The wireless network is present almost everywhere, internet cables and gas pipes slice through the seabed,  the atmosphere is full of harmful small particles and microfibers are everywhere; natural resources are used ruthlessly all over the planet.  If the latest geological strata of the country were ever studied, the bones of production animals — broilers, cattle, pigs — would be found en masse among concrete, asphalt, glass, and plastics.

Historian Tero Toivanen points out that: ´Wild nature  exists only in advertisements where the car is sold with the impression that the car enters the wild nature.´ [2].

Reference

[1] The Anthrobscene Jussi Parikka University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis

[2]  Kansanuutiset, Villiä luontoa ei enää ole, Tero Toivanen, interview Katri Simonen

Demand of raw materials in advanced technologies

In her paper “Thermocultures” Nicole Starosielski [1] talks about raw materials needed for media technologies. In order to grasp and understand the paper deeper, I tried to give my own version of the meaning what the compound term “thermocultures” could be. Prefix “thermo” corresponds to something relating to heat, whether “cultures”, in this instance, could correspond the the social behaviour and customs of society.

“Thermocultures” paper gave quite a big overview of how we are treating and transforming the earth’s raw materials currently. “For each ton of ore removed, only ten pounds of pure copper will be produced”. So when the valuable materials are produced, what becomes with the rest of excavated materials. Do they become waste? And where does this culture of pure materials originally come from?

In Cecilia Jamasmie paper “Copper supply crunch earlier than predicted – experts” [2] mentions that “increased consumption from new technologies, including electric vehicles, will drive demand for the metal and its by-products” and that sooner or later the deficit of copper will become visible and evident, as the demand is becoming higher. Copper is one of the main metal of transition and it is an essential component in electronic product manufacture, it is also one of the best electrical conductors. In Cecilia Jamasmie paper [2] a very fascinating chart was presented about the supply gap of copper:

Copper supply crunch earlier than predicted — experts

Without a doubt, raw materials play an important role to the success of the economy of the country and society, however, raw materials could soon be in short supply, as a direct result of them being in high demand. Perhaps, the purification process needs to be re-thought and certain predictions are required to be understood, which raw materials are needed for resource-sensitive future technologies.

[1] Starosielski, N., 2016. Thermocultures of Geological Media. Cultural Politics, 12(3), pp.293-309.

[2] Jamasmie, Cecilia, 2018. Copper supply crunch earlier than predicted – experts. https://www.mining.com/copper-supply-crunch-earlier-predicted-experts/ (Accessed: 20 September 2020)

Thoughts and trembling while reading Thermocultures of Geological Media by Niclole Starosielski

Media runs on perfection. One of those perfect pillars needed for communication and power transmission is copper. After copper sulfide is mined, crushed and grinded a compound containing 25% copper is left. Useless in the eyes of technology. Only after heavy treatment with thermal techniques a 99% copper substance will remain. Still pathetic in the realm of purity. Another stage of electrolytic refining is needed to generate 99.99 % pure copper. Perfection at last. All that was needed for the blessing of ten pounds of pure copper is the vanity of a single ton of ore and a trail of pollution guarding every step of the way.

The purity that is needed for technology to function is both fascinating and scary. But in this ever-changing world perfection is never lasting. Humankind doesn’t run on perfection, we strive on defects and diversity just like every ecosystem we so desperately try to destroy.

J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, once wrote: “You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.” When we look at such a feeble and imperfect species such as ourself, the desire for purity is understandable. I just don’t think it’s worth everything.

Digital Media Exists Materially

Thermal manipulation is essential in transforming raw material into media and maintaining media work regularly[1]. When I saw the term “thermal manipulation” for the first time, I was at home with my air conditioner on, and I always appreciate the inventor of air conditioners. After reading the article, I realize that instead of designing for humans who are afraid of heat, it was designed to cool media printers and lithographers in the first place.

I feel surprised how complicated it can be only to maintain the media stable. When I use digital devices on a daily basis, I did not realize the complicated process behind them. Although those screens and devices seem harmless and green, digital media exists materially. It produces heat and makes up of a lot of materials. My former company has a sign next to a printer and papers: If you can send a document digitally, please do not use paper. But is digital documentation more environmentally friendly? We know that using too many papers can harm our forests, but digital communication, documentation, storage, also cause heat produce, waste of earth’s raw material. Which one is a more harmless way for us to do? From fig 1., we can see that electric consumption is increasing[2], so is it a worse way to use digital paper instead of physical?

If we print out a brunch of paper, we feel guilty because we can easily realize that we are wasting energy. But When we post on social media or send something to the “cloud”, we might not feel guilty at all, because what we did just clicking mouse or touch screen. But we actually transform the guilt or responsibility to other people who deal with the engineering, cables, and thermal manipulation[3].

[1]Starosielski, N., 2016. Thermocultures of Geological Media. Cultural Politics, 12(3), pp.293-309.

[2] Francisco Velásquez, Energy & The Internet – How Much Energy Does The Web Consume?https://www.dexma.com/blog-en/how-much-energy-does-the-web-consume/

[3]Andrew Blum, What Is The Internet, Really?

Computation Under Uncertainty

Nicole Starosielski’s text “Thermocultures of Geological Media” [1] talks about a “culture of purity”, where our cultural imperatives have resulted in us choosing to only use pure metals and other materials in our electronics. Her main critique of this is that the purification process of metals such as copper and quartz is very energy intensive, and that developing technologies which would utilize metals of a lesser purity would result in media with a lower environmental impact. She also says that this kind of technologies, which probably would have to compromise speed and accuracy, would “…significantly alter the form of existing media texts and technologies”. I find the idea interesting but at the same time I finding it very difficult imagining how computation would work in such an inaccurate system seeped with uncertainty.

Our current models of computation rely heavily on reproducibility and stability: bits will not flip randomly (except in extreme cases) and code will always be executed in the same way. Given the same inputs, a set of commands will always result in the same outputs. Introducing uncertainty into this system would not only cause “subtle variations across media objects”, but result in bugs, crashes, corruption and loss of data. Maybe some new computational models could be developed which could better deal with randomness (quantum computation comes to mind), but currently one of our only methods of dealing with uncertainty in computation is by verifying the validity of data and performing recalculations as needed. Already a small amount of uncertainty could cause huge numbers of unnecessary CPU cycles, which across the millions of computers in use today might very well negate any environmental benefits gained from the use of impure metals. And with a high enough level of randomness, even these methods would no longer work and the system would come crashing down under the pressures of uncertainty.

The word “uncertainty” has a negative connotations, even though it is non-partial in the quality of the future it describes. Uncertain events might as well lead to unexpected successes as to devastating failure, but our negativity bias makes us focus and lay greater importance to the latter and makes us uncomfortable in situations where we have too little control of the future. Seen through this lens, the strive to control our future is a very natural trait. In fact, I believe one way to look at the evolution of organisms is as a struggle for control over uncertainty. Existence is an extremely complex system which humans and animals alike have evolved to navigate as best they can in the fight for survival. Excessive uncontrolled futures results in accidents, broken bones, death and the extinction of species.

Ultimately, I enjoyed this thermal perspective on media that Starosielski’s text gave, but question the validity of her thoughts on purity of metals and the possibility of moving away from them in our electronics.

1. Starosielski, Nicole. Thermocultures of Geological Media. Cultural Politics (2016) 12 (3): 293–309.

Terminology in the Anthropocene

The world feels overwhelming at times.

We relate everything to everything and problematize without limit. Murder and theft of land can through Adam Smith’s invisible hand, global trade networks and under sea cables be traced to me not recycling thoroughly enough. Not to say that we shouldn’t see the truth of this, just that it’s exhausting. The world is so complex. There is always another angle to everything, always new terminology to comprehend. There are no Simple Truths™.

In the spirit of this mood, while reading Jussi Parikka’s The Anthrobscene [1], I wondered what the point of coining new terminology is. Specifically, why do we need a term like “the anthopocene”, or any of its’ contenders like Parikka’s “anthrobscene”?

While looking for answers to this question I found an interview [2] of Erle Ellis, an environmental scientist who is a part of the Anthropocene Working Group. In the interview he explained his stance on why formally defining and accepting the term is important:
What’s at stake here, outside the domains of geology and stratigraphy, is a new story of human social relations with Earth. The Anthropocene changes the story from one in which human and natural history play out in separate theaters, to one in which humans shape Earth’s past, present and future. In the Anthropocene, it really matters what humans do to Earth. By placing humanity firmly in the role of an Earth-changing force, with all of its complexities, the Anthropocene demands answers to some hard questions – what are we doing with Earth? Are we doing the right things? What can we do better? And the most challenging question of all: Who is or are “we”?

This is the explanation I’d been looking for. Obviously it doesn’t give me any simple truths, but it seems like a good enough reason to add another complex term into this already complex world.

1. Parikka, Jussi. The Anthrobscene. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
2. futureearth.org: Why efforts to define the Anthropocene must be more inclusive and transparent

Not Seeing

The idea behind Jussi Parikka’s essay The Anthrobscene is a natural continuation of the overall obscenity of human beings. Parikka’s comment, “To call it “anthrobscene” is just to emphasize what we knew but perhaps shied away from acting on: a horrific human-caused drive toward a sixth mass extinction of species”,[1] made me think of the general discussions about climate change and how immediately seeing (or in this case especially not seeing) the consequences of one’s actions affects the behaviour.

Piling up all the space junk we as humankind have left to float around space on your own yard could help give some perspective. Also making your important calls with your smart phone while looking out from your window and seeing for example all the miners (possibly children) working to provide the materials for your devices could help in at least not taking everything for granted. Maybe you could ask Siri, Alexa or who/whatever to play some music from Spotify on the yard too to keep the workers entertained?

This quote also reminded me of one example where even seeing the truth wasn’t enough. People seem to be pretty nostalgic and driven by their feelings when it comes to their own living environment. While doing my photography BA thesis work in 2015 I ran into Ton Lemaire’s philosophical writings of landscape and through him also a research from 1980’s France conducted by DATAR, the Delegation for Planning and Regional Action, where the participants were asked about the landscapes of their living environments.

Cultural anthropologist Ton Lemaire wrote about the 20th century urbanisation and its affects to landscape and how in 1970’s and 80’s people were already aware and discussing about the “environmental crisis” and the spreading of urban infrastructure but despite of that the answers DATAR got for its survey were far from the truth. People seemed to ignore the growing urbanism around them and were describing (very natural) landscapes that no longer really existed around them.[2] Those visual ideas of natural landscapes had not exited people’s minds even though the world around them had changed. If the urban infrastructure didn’t match the dream image of the living environment, its existence seemed to be surprisingly easy to just forget. 

From the human rights perspective I could easily claim that urbanism in the form of motorways, bus stops, apartment buildings etc. is a lot smaller problem and source of anxiety than the non-human working conditions that many people are forced to cope with in their daily lives. But for most of the westerners enjoying the global infrastructure built with human right violations the latter one is nearly invisible. And if the visible urban landscape was so easy to crop out from people’s thoughts, how easy is it with something nearly invisible? 

Not seeing, just feeling whatever we want to, ignoring the truth, re-imagining the natural, forgetting the work done for us by so many others are all too easily done. How to make it harder? That should be asked more often and hopefully somehow answered too.

 

1. Parikka, Jussi. The Anthrobscene. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

2. Druckrey T., Gierstberg F., de Graaf J., Lemaire T. & Vroege B. Wasteland: Landscape From Now On. Haag: Fotografie Biennale Rotterdam & Uitgeverij 010 Publishers, 1992.

The Anthrobscene

The beginning of Anthropocene epoch could date back as far as the beginning of the agricultural revolution to as recent as the start of the big technology development in the 1960s. It is connected with the effects of humans on the well being of our planet/the environment and they are getting more and more evident as years pass by.

Back in the 18th century, in the era of colonialism, the raw/unspoiled nature was seen as something that needs improvement, something that doesn’t contribute to the enhancement of our daily lives. Humans fanatically tried to redesign the environment to give it a different, unnatural purpose. Hence began the irreversible influence of mankind on the environment or the era of mankind.

As time passed the increasing numbers of the human population, the advance in technology and the needs of the consumers started to affect the environment and nature more and more heavily. We developed from society needing a pretty restricted list of materials (“wood, brick, iron, copper, gold, silver, and a few plastics”) into a society in which a computer chip is composed of “60 different elements.” [1]

The excavation of those materials presents a great danger to our planet, especially because we need to “dig deeper and deeper” to obtain the desired elements that are slowly running out. The discarded waste and scrap metals from the production of multimedia devices or the discarded devices that are ready for the afterlife are piling up because most of them are either not being recycled or not recyclable at all. That presents an even bigger threat to the environment than the process of obtaining the elements.

In my opinion, the biggest issue is the human’s tendency to adapt and avoid the problem instead of tackling it and changing the way we live to resolve the issue before it starts to haunt us. Technology spoiled us and in a way we keep on playing Russian roulette with our planet. We refuse to be the losers of the climate change issue, but many are just postponing the solutions, passing the problem on to the next generation. But where does it end? Are we able to go back and step out of the luxury of modernisation? Is there enough desire to change things for the better?

In conclusion, the media technologies present a big threat to our planet; consequently to humanity. Our ways of consumption will have to change to efficiently extend the life span of our planet. Instead of doing our best to find a different inhabitable planet, we should focus on preserving this one.

References:

1. Jussi Parikka, “The Anthrobscene”, University of Minnesota, 2015

2. Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, documentary, Canada, 2018

3. Sophie Yeo, 2016, “Anthropocene: The journey to a new geological epoch”, viewed 11 September 2020, https://www.carbonbrief.org/anthropocene-journey-to-new-geological-epoch

Anthrobscene and the Neocolonial

The author of Anthrobscene mentions China as an essential part of the global chains of production and abandonment of media technologies and gives multiple examples. In my opinion, using China as an example is not only because China is a typical country that exists in the Anthropocene, but also due to neocolonial issues caused by Anthrobscene.

Anthropocene, was first defined as relating to the current geological period, also denoting the age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. While Anthropocene, is marked by the human ability to move vast quantities of geologic material. Anthrobscene, is another name to describe Anthropocene, but emphasize its obscene part. As Peter mentioned, the environment is always related to media studies. Anthrobscene relates to Issues of energy, which are caused by heavy reliance on polluting forms of nonrenewable energy production and through the various chemicals, metals, media cultural aftereffects of the geological strata.

To conclude how china contributes Anthrobscene is rather easy: China itself lacks raw materials to support industrial development, so importing scrap metals is inevitable. To support the infrastructure of modernizing society, China becomes the largest scrap importer of recycled metal, although the profit margin is less than 1%. However, China has a new restriction policy about reducing the import of scrap metal. Given is a line graph that shows the trend of The recovery of waste nonferrous metals in china between 2014-2018. It is obvious that the quantity of recycling has increased, even reach 111 million tons in 2018. Nevertheless, the trend of import scrap metal has decreased by 36%.

It comes to the worry of neocolonialism: Instead of the previous colonial methods of direct military control, developed countries now use economics and conditional aid to influence a developing country. Shipping their electronic waste to developing countries can be regarded as an example. If not China, there must be some other countries or some other area to pay for electronic garbage.

 

Reference:

https://www.spglobal.com/platts/en/market-insights/latest-news/metals/070920-china-boosts-metal-scrap-imports-after-policy-change-bir

https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/11/how-china-profits-from-our-junk/281044/

https://www.metalsinfo.com/news/display_pid_9-cid_18-news_id_216082.html