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-
- 99% paper and fiber-based packaging
- 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 
- 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
Detailed read about Nest thermostat- https://downloads.nest.com/press/documents/energy-savings-white-paper.pdf
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?
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?
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.
References and further reads-
I want to first share this VICE piece on Apple’s AirPods. It not only analyses them from the Anthropocene perspective but also from design, cultural and social aspects- https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/neaz3d/airpods-are-a-tragedy
Next up is Ecograder, a service which takes any website URL and gives it a score of how the website is doing in terms of environmental impact. I put that VICE link in there and got this-
Yeah lots of small dev tasks can help optimise the website’s footprint. But the most interesting one to think about is Green Hosting- https://www.mightybytes.com/blog/green-web-hosting/
Then this little piece on Pitchfork, pointing out how music streaming is harmful to the environment than the old school plastic production practices for CDs and vinyls- https://pitchfork.com/news/emissions-from-music-consumption-reach-unprecedented-high-study-shows/
I wonder what’s the carbon footprint of one instagram story?
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?