Category Archives: LABOR

Plastopocene [*]

We are used to take plastic for granted as part of our lives. Plastic is everywhere. More than 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year, and according to a UN report, more than 9 billion tonnes of plastic is produced worldwide [1]. By the early 20th century, plastics were used in electric lighting, telephones, wireless telegrams, photography, and sound recordings. In fact, when we look at media devices commonly used over the last century, we find that plastics were crucial to a number of popular media technologies. In 1948, Columbia records introduced a vinyl record. Lightweight polycarbonate plastic is also used in c-cassettes, MiniC´Discs, DVD and Blu-Ray.

Plastic is present in the food packaging, clothing, electronics and pharmaceutical industries, as coatings, in the photographic and film industries, in consumer goods, in childcare – almost everything around us. The electronics industry in Europe uses an estimated 6% of plastics [11] and15-25% of the microelectronics in use (eg smartphones, data computers, tablets) is plastic. Plastic is an ideal insulator because it has poor electrical and thermal conductivity, good formability and is lightweight.

Plastics can be divided into thermoplastics, which do not change when heated and can be reshaped, and disposable plastics, which are used in circuit boards, for example, due to their plasticity and good heat resistance. It usually ends up in a landfill.

In addition, there are bio-based plastics, which refer to plastics processed from renewable raw materials of biological origin. Biodegradable plastics are materials that degrade through a biological process into carbon dioxide and water. Contrary to popular belief, bio-basedness is not a prerequisite for biodegradability or vice versa. [2]

A 1956 world oil production distribution, showing historical data and future production, proposed by M. King Hubbert – it had a peak of 12.5 billion barrels per year in about the year 2000. As of 2016, the world’s oil production was 29.4 billion barrels per year

 

From deep time to the 6th massextinctions

Over more than two hundred years, technocultural systems have transformed significant shares of the Earth’s fossil fuels into heat and plastic. The formation of fossil fuels takes thousands of years, the culture of the plastics industry – extraction, transport, trade, fractionation and conversion into monomers and then polymers and then products that are sold, used and disposed of – takes place within a few months (Marriott and Minio-Paluello 2014) [12]

The overall impact of human societies on earth has led to the anthropocene, a new geological era.

A huge number of living systems are not keeping pace with the ecological changes caused by anthropogenic industrial activities. While some species thrive in these changed conditions, there is an ongoing sixth wave of mass extinction that will be of immense importance to our planet and habitats. This is despite the fact that more than 99 percent of the species that have occurred on Earth have already become extinct (McKinney 1997: 110).

An estimated 5.25 trillion plastic particles floating in the oceans with an estimated total weight of 270,000 kilos. Plastic debris accumulates into large spins that only collect more debris with them.

By 2050, it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the seas than fish.

-Plastics are known to release chemicals that are harmful to the environment, but according to a new study, they also release the greenhouse gases methylene and ethane into the atmosphere. Polyethylene, which is also the most common type of plastic, proved to be the worst producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Polyethylene is used in plastic bags, among other things, and accounts for more than a third of all plastic produced in the world. [3]

Certain forms of bacteria have evolved to inhabit the plastic vortices of the oceans and use it for food. Bacteria are responsible for the most significant changes in the biosphere, the atmospheric oxidation event that occurred 2.3 billion years ago. Microbes also live in the digestive tract of all vertebrates and are responsible for digestion. This raises the question of what we should protect. Aesthetic differences are crucial here; is an easier to feel compassion for a penguin than a micro-organism that requires an electron microscope to examine.

E-waste management, recycling,  environmental pollution and health risks

Since 2015, the global rapidly growing amount of e-waste has exceeded 42 million tons. This poses an ecological, health, ethical and colonialist problem. The global north supplies enormous amounts of waste for recycling and storage in the global south. In the words of geographer David Harvey, “the capitalist economy does not solve its problems, it only moves them from one state to another” **. [4]

Electronic waste mountains are a serious environmental and health risk. Equipment often contains mercury, lead and other heavy metals, various fluorescent and flame retardants, and plastics that, if improperly handled, can contaminate soil, air, and water.  [4] The primary problem of incineration arises from the presence of halogenated flame retardants which release toxic gases. Metals are separated from circuit boards by heating and dissolving in acid. When soaking, wastewater enters rivers as well as soil. In addition, the chemicals used in e-waste treatment are very dangerous to health, and respiratory diseases, for example, are common among scrap collectors in developing countries. Many of them are minor children. E-waste toxins can also cause a variety of birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and many other health hazards [4]

In the words of geographer David Harvey, “the capitalist economy does not solve its problems, it only moves them from one state to another” **. [5]

Photo: IMPEL-EU European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law

Chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system

Many chemicals are used in the processing of plastics and plastic compounds, which have been found to interfere with the human endocrine system, which is the body’s hormonal function responsible for regulating metabolism, growth, development, reproduction and mood. More common endocrine diseases include diabetes, bone loss, obesity, and various thyroid diseases. [6] How important are the chemicals in plastic compounds in the pathogenesis of these living standards diseases.

The greatest concern about the presence of BPA and phthalates has been raised in food and beverage packaging where chemicals can where chemicals can dissolve and be ingested. In particular, the use of BPA-based polycarbonate in baby bottles has been a concern and in many countries their sale is prohibited by law. BPA and phthalates can be found on computers, CDs and DVDs, and, surprisingly, also on thermal papers, commercial receipts, and ATM printouts. It has been found that BPA is absorbed more efficiently if the skin is wet or oily, whether it has been in contact with e.g. moisturizer or sweaty.

Life after plastic

Modern industrial societies are based on the idea of ​​continuous economic growth. Full employment and welfare services are dependent on economic growth, as are debt and growth-based financing and investment systems. A halt in economic growth would mean the dismantling of services and support systems, debt restructuring, bank failures, high unemployment and the downsizing of the entire welfare state. [7]. Growth and development are largely based on the oil industry, the production of plastics and thus the media at the heart of cultures. Communication, transport, stock exchanges and logistics are built on digital media.

In discussions about the collapse of industrial society, the most topical issue is most often the peak of world oil production defined by M. King Hubbert, followed by the inevitable decline in total production. As oil is the world’s main source of energy and its importance is further emphasized in key areas of society’s infrastructure, the oil peak is considered to be an insurmountable problem and the cause of the collapse. What makes the issue topical is the fact that many people assume that the oil peak was passed between 2005 and 2011, when the world economy would have already reached its peak and would soon go into recession. For example, the financial crisis of 2007-2009 is considered to be the result of an oil peak. [8]

Heinberg does not believe that the oil peak can be solved by technical solutions, as the world economy and technological development are far behind the current problem, oil is also crucial for the production of other forms of energy, and a viable form of energy would only delay rather than prevent a collapse. In his book Powerdown; Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, he puts forward as a primary solution a cultural change of direction in which the world abandons the pursuit of growth and high consumption. [8]

Jonathan Huebner, for his part, defined the innovation peak of technological development by comparing the list of major inventions from the Middle Ages to the present with the world’s current population. He found that the peak of innovation was reached as early as 1873 and that the average innovativeness of the world’s population declined throughout the 20th century, despite the fact that the population was more educated and more funds were devoted to research. Based on the innovation curve he has formed, he estimates that in 2005, 85% of all innovations had already been made. According to him, technological development is limited not only by what is physically possible to invent, but also by what is economically possible or sensible to invent. [9]

The collapse of industrial society is seen as a dramatic chain of events that would result in famine, epidemics, the collapse of democratic systems, population displacement, the collapse of safety nets and chaos. As a significant difference from historical collapses, the collapse of industrial societies is seen for the first time in world history as a purely global phenomenon. On the other hand, if humanity is able to renew its culture and values, according to Thom Hartmann, it is possible to build a new society after the collapse that is not based on private property, growth, subjugation and destruction and could therefore be more permanent in structure. [10]

Alternatives are being sought for oil and substitutes are being developed for plastics, such as sunflower oil, seaweed, cellulose and milk. The production of biodiesel, which takes land away from food production, has already been criticized. What about when you want to make more bio-based plastics on the market. It therefore makes sense to focus on the development and production of bio-based plastics in raw material sources that do not compete with food production, [11]

Of the substitutes being developed as a sustainable solution, there are hardly any. They do not solve the problems of continued growth and over-consumption or acquisition. The only solution on a sustainable basis is to seek out the structure of society, worlds of values ​​and material-centredness from society and to look for alternative models of action.

Painting

REFERENCES:

-TECHNOFOSSILS of the ANTHROPOCENE
Media, Geology, and Plastics / Sy Taffel

* ´Plastopocene´ -term copied from: https://ekokumppanit.fi/muoviopas/

[1]  /https://www.maailma.net/uutiset/tuore-tutkimus-muovi-luultua-vaarallisempaa-paastaa-ilmakehaan-kasvihuonekaasuja

[2] s/https://www.pakkaus.com/biopohjainen-ja-biohajoava-muovi-eivat-tarkoita-samaa/

[3]  /https://www.maailma.net/uutiset/tuore-tutkimus-muovi-luultua-vaarallisempaa-paastaa-ilmakehaan-kasvihuonekaasuja

[4]   /https://eetti.fi/vastuullinentekniikka/

/https://www.maailma.net/nakokulmat/muovigaten-jalkipyykki-mita-muovin-dumppaaminen-kehitysmaihin-kertoo-taloudellisesta; **citation  from David Harvey´s lecture ’The Enigma of Capital”, which was arranged in  London School of Economics 26.4.2010

[5] /https://www.maailma.net/nakokulmat/muovigaten-jalkipyykki-mita-muovin-dumppaaminen-kehitysmaihin-kertoo-taloudellisesta; **citation  from David Harvey´s lecture ’The Enigma of Capital”, which was arranged in  London School of Economics 26.4.2010

[6]  https://www.vaasankeskussairaala.fi/potilaille/hoito-ja-tutkimukset/erikoisalat/storningar-i-hormonbalansen-och-amnesomsattningen—endokrinologi/

[7] “Hyvinvointivaltio vaarassa”, Helsingin Sanomat 30.9.2010, s. A5

[8]  Grupp, Adam: Peak Oil Primer energybulletin.net. Energy Bulletin

[9]  Huebner, Jonathan: A possible declining trend for worldwide innovation

[10]  Hartmann, Thom: The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1997

[11] /https://ekokumppanit.fi/muoviopas/

[12]  TECHNOFOSSILS of the ANTHROPOCENE
Media, Geology, and Plastics

Sy Taffel

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

Archaeology of Media Infrastructures – Spring 2020

Course Summary: The course provides a framework of archaeological exploration of media infrastructures. It allows students to think beyond a single media device and design for broader media ecologies. Tracing the emergence of contemporary media infrastructures from early instances in human and media history, it examines both hard infrastructure (architecture, mechanical and computing systems) and soft infrastructure (software, APIs and operating systems). What are the breaks, the discontinuities and ruptures in media-infrastructural history? What has been remediated, in what form, in what characteristics? The course prepares students for the follow-up course: ‘Media and the Environment’ in Fall 2020.

Wednesdays 13.15 – 15.00 / Starting 5.2.2020 / until 1.4.2020

The course is filed under Media Art and Culture / https://into.aalto.fi/display/enmlab/2020-2022+Advanced+studies

Register: weboodi.aalto.fi  

Infragraphy Volume 2, Fall 2019

INFRAGRAPHY Volume 2. is a compilation of critical student artworks and short essays dealing with the materialities of media technologies and their environmental implications.

These works and texts are the outcomes from the course ‘Media and the Environment’ in the Fall of 2019 at the Department of Media, Aalto University. The course was a series of scholarly readings about and around the themes of media including media’s relations and impacts on the so-called Anthropocene, thermocultures of media, ecologies of fabrication, media and plastics, Internet of Things, Planned Obsolescence, e-waste, and media’s energetic landscapes. A key approach of the course was also introducing artistic methods and practices that could address emerging media materialities. The final exhibition of the course was a collection of student artworks as a response to the contemporary discourse of political economy of media and related environmental implications.

DOWNLOAD PDF: http://blogs.aalto.fi/mediainfrastructures/files/2020/01/Infragraphy_Fall2019_WEB.pdf

Infragraphy Volume 1, Spring 2019

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

Download PDF: Infragraphy_Vol1_Spring2019

When Dust is Spice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

Zooming in on infrastructure – invisible labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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