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Archive for May, 2011

On Friday I was in London for an unconference hosted by Furtherfields.org at the University of Westminster, London which approached the subject of re-rooting digital culture from an ecological perspective. Here’s the brief for the event:

Over the last decade the awareness of anthropogenic climate change has emerged in parallel with global digital communication networks. In the context of environmental and economic collapse people around the world are seeking alternative visions of prosperity and sustainable ways of living.

While the legacy of the carbon fuelled Industrial Revolution plays itself out, we find ourselves grappling with questions about the future implications of fast-evolving global digital infrastructure. By their very nature the new tools, networks and behaviours of productivity, exchange and cooperation between humans and machines grow and develop at an accelerated rate.

The ideas for this transdisciplinary panel have grown out of Furtherfield’s Media Art Ecologies programme and will explore the impact of digital culture on climate change, developing themes adopted in grass-roots, emerging and established practices in art, design and science.

One thing which left me somewhat confused was why the event was billed as an unconference, when in reality it was a fairly straightforward event with three speakers and a short Q+A after. Listening to three presentations (with accompanying powerpoints and prezis) and then having the chance to ask a few questions at the end is not a participant driven meeting, its the same format as you find at any conventional conference panel.

The first speaker was Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for Peer to Peer Alternatives. Bauwens began by prescribing the central problems of the contemporary socio-economic system with regards to sustainability and equity. The first problem he outlined was that of pseudo-abundance: the aim of achieving infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources and the externalisation of ecological costs from our limited understanding of economics. The second problem he delineated was that of artificial scarcity: the ways in which intellectual property is enforced via patents and copyrights which create scarcity around assets whose cost of reproduction often approaches zero with digital networked technology. This Bauwens argued, leads to the stifling of innovation, which prevents the types of solutions to ecological crises being developed as commonwealth, outside of a profit driven market framework. The final problem Bauwens diagnosed was that of social justice, as exemplified by the cavernous (and growing) divide between rich and poor on a global level.

Bauwens’ suggestions around potential solutions to these problems is primarily through commons based peer production. In commons based peer production, individuals are able to voluntarily self-aggregate into distributed networks based on coordination through networked telecommunications. While Bauwens presents this as an entirely new phenomena, afforded by the massive increase in computational power and networked connectivity associated with the information revolution, it is worth mentioning that voluntary self-aggregation and democratised and decentralised ownership of projects has long been a foundational concept of anarcho-syndicalist thought. What appears to be different about P2P networks in the contemporary context however are their ability to connect peers outside of a localised context through digital telecommunications networks, and also for the projects to be scaled up accordingly in terms of size and scope. These affordances have the potential to enable commons based peer production to out-compete market based initiatives in many circumstances, however what is potentially of greater significance than the efficiency gains P2P networks can provide is the alternative set of values they tend to embody.

Bauwens used examples of numerous forms of consumer electronics as instantiations of planned obsolescence, whereby the company making the product has a financial incentive to create a product which has a highly limited shelf life, and whose design is not modular, so that failure of individual components leads to users replacing the entire device. While the manufacturer profits each time this cycle continues and new items are bought, the ecological costs increase, however these are externalised from the market transaction. By contrast the open design methodology is based around values whereby the user/designer (the term prouser was suggested) wants their device to be as durable and long lasting as possible, and for a modular design to exist which eanables them to easily replace any parts which are damaged over time. Consequently the argument Bauwens promoted was that the values of the open design movement present an ethical alternative to market production whereby ecological sustainability and social justice can be built into the production process itself.

Bauwens argued that this argument was not merely utopianism but was based on a material analysis of the prescient features of contemporary capitalism, which he argued already needs commons based peer production in order to remain profitable.

The second speaker was Catherine Bottrill of Julie’s Bicycle, an organisation which works with arts ‘buisnesses’ to reduce their carbon footprint. While I’m sure the organisation does good work, the scheduling seemed somewhat odd. Following a talk about the problems of contemporary capitalism and the necessity to replace it with a system with alternative ethical values created via grassroots and decentralised P2P networks we had a talk which seemed to imply that if the major record labels reduced their carbon footprint slightly and their star acts planned their world tours slightly differently there would be no ecological crisis.

It was problematic that Bottrill didn’t address any of the concerns or solutions Bauwens had just raised, and one slide in particular caused (presumably) inadvertant entertainment with her diagnosis of contemporary challenges to society. First came recession, second came the Middle East Crisis, followed by cuts to Arts Council funding. I’m not sure what came next because I was laughing too hard. On a more serious note though, for a group of uniformly white middle class people at a posh London university to listen to someone raise arts funding cuts as a major social problem above the other aspects of the government’s austerity programme; cuts to disability benefits, cuts to welfare, cuts to education, the privatisation of the NHS etc was somewhat depressing.

The final presentation was from Ruth Catlow of Furtherfields.org on ecological approaches to networks, tools and digital art. Catlow began with a delineation of network topography, referring to a 1964 RAND corporation diagram on various forms of structure

Catlow argued that while mass media networks resemble the centralised structure on the left, the Internet is a mixture of the decentralised (via the cables and gateways that make up the material apparatus of connectivity) and distributed (as each computer functions as a node in a distributed network). While this has been a traditional way that the Internet, and its potential for creating a democratic media system has been trumpeted for over two decades now, this analysis misses a crucial part of the picture. Recent research into the structure and connectivity of complex networks such as the World Wide Web (which is the most common encounter people have with the Intenet) reveals that far from a distributed system in which all nodes are equal or every blogger is a pamphleteer, the structure of these networks is that of a power law, with a few preferentially attached ‘superstars’ such as Google, Facebok, Twitter and Amazon, while the vast majority of content resides in the ‘long tail’ where it receives scant attention.

Systems as diverse as genetic networks or the World Wide Web are best
described as networks with complex topology. A common property of many
large networks is that the vertex connectivities follow a scale-free power-law
distribution. This feature was found to be a consequence of two generic mech-
anisms: (i) networks expand continuously by the addition of new vertices, and
(ii) new vertices attach preferentially to sites that are already well connected.
A model based on these two ingredients reproduces the observed stationary
scale-free distributions, which indicates that the development of large networks
is governed by robust self-organizing phenomena that go beyond the particulars
of the individual systems
Barabasi and Albert 1999

When we talk about network topology we need to engage with these findings, as while the power law functions as an attractor which partially determines the distribution of the network, there has been some research which suggests that this is not a fixed and finite determinism and that there may be methods or tactics which communities can use to make these networks more equitable. But for me, that discussion is the interesting one to be having about network topologies now, not merely a recapitulation of the earliest models.

Following this, Catlow went on to detail a number of projects which Furtherfields have been involved in, including the Zero Dollar Laptop Project; which is an innovative way of both mitigating the ecological cost of contemporary computing hardware while also providing social benefits to disadvantaged groups, We Wont Fly For Art, a project designed to mitigate the carbon emissions created by artists and the Feral Trade Cafe, a project by Kate Rich which establishes social networks to ethically trade goods.

Overall the event was worth attending, Bauwens’ talk in particular being a highlight.

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