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Posts Tagged ‘media ecology’

This is a draft version of a paper which was published in NYX: Vol 7 Machines in 2012.

 

Contemporary analyses of the relationships between humans and machines − ways that machines influence the scale, pace, and patterns of socio-technical assemblages − tend to focus upon the effects, impacts, and results of the finished products: the packaged information processing commodities of digital culture. This work is undeniably important in demarcating the multiple and complex ways that human symbiosis with machinic prostheses alters cognitive capacities and presents novel, distributed, peer-to-peer architectures for economic, political, and socio-technical networks. However, existing discourses surrounding machines and digital culture largely fail to explore the wider material ecologies implicated in contemporary technics.

 

Ecological analysis of machines seeks to go beyond exploring marketable commodities, instead examining the ecological costs involved in the reconfiguration of ores, metals, and minerals into smartphones and servers. This involves considering the systems implicated in each stage of the life-cycle of contemporary information-processing machines: the extraction of materials from the earth; their refinement and processing into pure elements, compounds, and then components; the product-manufacturing process; and finally what happens to these machines when they break or are discarded due to perceived obsolescence. At each stage of this life-cycle, and in the overall structure of the ecology of machines, there are ethical and political costs and problematics. This paper seeks to outline examples of these impacts and consider several ways in which they can be mitigated.

 

Hardware is not the only ecological scale associated with machines: flows of information and code, of content and software, also comprise complex, dynamic, systems open to flows of matter and energy; however, issues surrounding these two scales are substantially addressed by existing approaches to media and culture. We can understand scale as a way of framing the mode of organisation evident within the specific system being studied. The notion of ecological analysis approaching different scales, stems from the scientific discipline of ecology and is transposed into critical theory through the works of Gregory Bateson and Felix Guattari. Within the science of ecology, scale is a paramount concern, with the discipline approaching several distinct scales, the relationships between: organism and environment, populations (numerous organisms of the same species), communities (organisms of differing species), and ecosystems (comprising living and nonliving elements within a geographical location).i No particular scale is hierarchically privileged, with each nested scale understood as crucial to the functioning of ecosystem dynamics.

 

The notion of multiple, entangled scales are similarly advanced by Bateson, who presents three ecologies − mind, society and environment.ii Key to understanding their entangled − and thus inseparable – nature, is Bateson’s elaboration of distributed cognition, whereby the pathways of the mind are not reducible to the brain, nervous systems, or confines of the body, but are immanent in broader social and environmental systems. The human is only ever part of a thinking system which includes other humans, technology and an environment. Indeed, Bateson contends that arrogating mental capacity exclusively to individuals or humans constitutes an epistemological error, whose wrongful identification of the individual (life-form or species) as the unit of ecological survival necessarily promotes a perspective whereby the environment is viewed as a resource to be exploited, rather than the source of all systemic value.iii

 

Guattari advances Bateson’s concepts in The Three Ecologies,iv expounding a mode of political ecology which has little to do with the notion of preserving ‘nature’, instead constructing an ethical paradigm and political mobilisations predicated upon connecting subjective, societal and environmental scales in order to escape globalised capitalism’s focus upon economic growth as the sole measure of wealth. According to Guattari, only by implementing an ethics which works across these three entangled ecologies can socially beneficial and environmentally sustainable models of growth be founded. Ecology then, presents a way of approaching machines which decentres the commonly encountered anthropocentrism that depicts machines (objects) assisting humans (subjects), instead encouraging us to consider ourselves and technologies as nodes within complex networks which extend across individual, social, environmental, and technological dimensions. Correspondingly, ecology requires a shift when considering value and growth; moving from the economic-led anthropocentric approach characteristic of neoliberalism, to valuing the health and resilience of ecosystems and their human and nonhuman, living and nonliving components. Consequently, applying an ecological ethics may prove useful in considering ways to mitigate many of the deleterious material impacts of the contemporaneous ecology of machines.

 

This paper will proceed by exploring the contemporary ecology of hardware, examining ecological costs which are incurred during each phase of the current industrial production cycle. Additionally,  the overall structure of this process will be analysed, alongside a conclusion which considers whether current iterations of information processing machines presents opportunities for the implementation of a mode of production within which the barriers between producers and consumers are less rigid, allowing alternative ethics and value systems to become viable.

 

The initial stages in the contemporary industrial production process are resource extraction and processing. A vast array of materials is required for contemporary microelectronics manufacturing, including: iron, copper, tin, tungsten, tantalum, gold, silicon, rare earth elements and various plastics. Considering the ways that these materials are mined connects information processing technologies to the flows of energy and matter that comprise the globalised networks of contemporary markets and trade systems, refuting claims that information processing technologies are part of a virtual, cognitive, or immaterial form of production.

 

One environmentally damaging practice currently widely employed is open-cast mining, whereby the topmost layers of earth are stripped back to provide access to ores underneath, whilst whatever ecosystem previously occupied the surface is destroyed. Mining also produces ecological costs including erosion and the contamination of local groundwater, for example in Picher, Oklahoma, lead and zinc mines left the area so badly polluted and at risk of structural subsidence, that the Environmental Protection Agency declared the town uninhabitable and ordered an evacuation.v Another series of ecological costs associated with resource extraction surrounds conflict minerals, which is increasingly being acknowledged thanks to the activities of NGOs and activists publicising the links between conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (particularly coltan, the Congolese tantalum-containing ore) and information technologies (particularly mobile phones). Whilst coltan and other conflict minerals were not a primary factor in the outbreak of civil/regional conflict in the DRC, which has led directly or indirectly to the deaths of over five million people over a dozen years, as the conflict wore on and the various factions required revenue-raising activities to finance their continuing campaigns, conflict minerals ‘became a major reason to continue fighting… the Congo war became a conflict in which economic agendas became just as important as other agendas, and at times more important than other interests.’vi Factions including the Congolese army, various rebel groups and invading armies from numerous neighbouring states fiercely contested mining areas, as controlling mines allowed the various armed groups to procure minerals which were then sold for use in microelectronics, in order to finance munitions, enabling the continuation of military activities.

The role of the global microelectronics industry in financing the most brutal conflict of the last twenty years, reveals the connections between ‘virtual’ technologies and the geopolitics of globalised capitalism.

 

Engaging with the ecology of machines requires consideration of the ethical and political implications of the consequences wrought by current patterns of consumption upon people and ecosystems geographically far removed from sites of consumption, onto whom the brunt of negative externalities generated by current practices frequently falls. In this case the costs of acquiring cheap tantalum – a crucial substance in the miniaturisation of contemporary microelectronics – are not borne by consumers or corporations, but by people inside an impoverished and war-ravaged central African state.

 

Once extracted, materials are refined into pure elements and compounds, transformed into components, and then assembled into products during the manufacturing phase of the production process. Since the late 1980s there has been a shift away from the corporations who brand and sell information technology hardware incorporating manufacturing into their operations. Instead, a globalised model now dominates the industry, whereby manufacturing is primarily conducted by subcontractors in vast complexes concentrated in a handful of low cost regions, primarily south-east Asia.[vii] This can be understood within the broader context of changes to the global system of industrial production, whereby manufacturing is increasingly handled by subcontractors in areas where labour costs are low and there does not exist rigorously enforced legislation protecting the rights of workers or local ecosystems. Consequently, this transition has been accompanied by marked decreases in wages and safety conditions, alongside increased environmental damage as companies externalise costs onto local ecosystems.viii

 

Information technology sweatshops are receiving increasing attention, and have begun to punctuate public consciousness, partially as a consequence of campaigning from NGOs, and partially due to a spate of suicides among young migrant workers at Foxconn’s Longhua Science and Technology plant in Shenzhen, China. Fourteen workers aged 18-25 jumped off factory roofs to end their lives between January and May 2010 to escape an existence spent working 60-80 hours a week and earning around US$1.78 per hour manufacturing information processing devices such as the Apple iPad for consumers elsewhere in the world.

 

Once information processing technologies have been discarded, they become part of the 20-50 million tonnes of annually produced e-waste,ix much of which contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium and cadmium. Whilst it is illegal for most OECD nations to ship hazardous or toxic materials to non-OECD countries, and illegal for non-OECD nations to receive hazardous wastes,x vast quantities of e-waste are shipped illicitly, with e-waste routinely mislabelled  as working goods for resale, circumventing laws such as the Basel Convention and the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment (WEEE) Directive.xi In 2006 estimates suggest that 80% of North American and 60% of the EU’s electronics wastes were being exported to regions such as China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ghana.xii Essentially, wealthy nations externalise the ecological costs of their toxic waste to impoverished peoples in the global south.

 

Once e-waste arrives in these areas it is ‘recycled’: machines are manually disassembled by workers often earning less than US$1.50 per day,xiii who implement a variety of techniques for recovering materials which can be resold. For example, copper is retrieved from wiring by burning the plastic casings, a process which releases brominated and chlorinated dioxins and furans; highly toxic materials which persist in organic systems, meaning that workers are poisoning themselves and local ecosystems. Investigation by the Basel Action Network reveals that:

 

Interviews reveal that the workers and the general public are completely unaware of the hazards of the materials that are being processed and the toxins they contain. There is no proper regulatory authority to oversee or control the pollution nor the occupational exposures to the toxins in the waste. Because of the general poverty people are forced to work in these hazardous conditions.xiv

 

This activity is often subsumed under the rhetoric of ‘recycling’, with associated connotations of environmental concern, however, the reality is that international conventions and regional laws are broken in order to reduce the economic costs of treating the hazardous remains of digital hardware.

 

The systematic displacement of negative externalities minimises the cost of commodities for consumers and improves profitability for corporations, but in doing so, makes the epistemological error delineated by Bateson and Guattari regarding the wrongful identification of value within systems. Creating systems designed to maximise benefits for the individual consumer − or individual corporation − while externalising costs onto the social and ecological systems which support those individual entities ultimately results in the breakdown of systems which consumers and corporations rely upon. Although such strategies create short term profitability, their neglect for longer term consequences breeds systemic instabilities which will eventually return to haunt these actors:

 

            If an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its ‘progress’ ends up with a destroyed environment. If the organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself… The unit of survival is not the breeding organism, or the family line or the society… The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment.xv

 

There have however, been numerous interventions by NGOs, activists, and concerned citizens who have employed the guilty machines at issue to address and alter these deleterious effects. The deployment of social media, for instance, to raise awareness of these issues and pressure corporations and governments to alter practices and laws, highlights what Bernard Stiegler and Ars Industrialis describe as the pharmacological context of contemporary technics:xvi xvii machines are simultaneously poisonous and the remedy to this poison. Thinking in terms of poison and toxicity is particularly cogent with reference to the material impacts of digital technologies, whereby what can otherwise appear to be a metaphorical way of approaching attention and desire amongst consumers, presents an insightful analysis of the material impacts which accompany the shifts in subjectivity, which Stiegler argues arise from changing technological environments.

 

The actions implied by this approach initially seem entirely inadequate given the scope of the problems: ‘retweeting’ messages and ‘liking’ pages in the face of serious social and ecological problematics that relate to the dynamics of globalised capitalism appears laughable. However, the impacts of collective action made possible by networked telecommunications has effected numerous cases: Wages at Foxconn’s plant in Shenzhen have risen from 900 to over 2000 yuan in less than a year in response to sustained pressure mobilised by assemblages of humans and machines, many of the latter having been assembled within that factory. In the face of widespread networked protests, Apple cancelled a contract with another Chinese subcontractor because of their employment of child labour.xviii Lobbying by NGOs such as Raise Hope For Congo,xix supported by a networked activist community, has convinced the US congress to examine legislating to phase out the use of conflict minerals.

 

The mobilisation of attention via these socio-technological networks effects change in two primary ways: through raising awareness and altering vectors of subjectivity amongst consumers, and by subsequently mobilising this attention as public opinion to pressurise governmental and corporate actors to alter practices. In the face of this type of networked action, governments are compelled to avoid the appearance of supporting unethical practices. Corporations, as fabrication-free entities which design and market, but do not manufacture products, are faced with the potential toxification of their brand. Corporations such as Apple and Dellxx have demonstrated a willingness to take remedial action, albeit often in a limited way.xxi

 

There are additional issues raised by the structure of the flows of matter associated with the system in its entirety. The industrial model of production involves a near-linear flow throughout the stages of a machine’s lifespan; resources are extracted, processed, used, and then discarded. Recycling is partial, leading to the steady accumulation of ‘waste’ matter in landfills. By contrast, when examining how ecosystems work, we are confronted with cyclical processes with multiple negative feedback loops. These cycles create sustainable processes: there is no end stage where waste accumulates, as the outputs of processes become inputs for other nodes in the network, allowing systems to run continuously for millions of years. Feedback loops within these systems build resilience, so minor perturbations do not create systemic instability or collapse, only when the system faces major disturbance, a substantial alteration to the speeds or viscosities of ecological flows which exceed adaptive capacity, does collapse occur. In the past, ecological collapse and planetary mass extinction events have been triggered by phenomena such as an asteroid striking the planet, today a mass extinction event and new geological age, the Anthropocenexxii is under way because of anthropogenic industrial activity.

 

Given the state of play with reference to climate change, loss of biodiversity, and associated impacts upon human civilisations, urgent action is required in reconfiguring the industrial production process along alternatives based on biomimicry: cyclical processes resembling closed-loop systems such as the nitrogen cycle. This methodology has been adopted by the cradle-to-cradle movement, who advocate that the waste from one iteration of processes should become the nutrients, or food for successive iterations. Products are not conceived of as commodities to be sold and discarded, but valuable assets to be leased for a period before the materials are transformed into other, equally valuable products. A cradle-to-cradle methodology also seeks to remove toxic substances from goods during the design process, entailing that there is no subsequent conflict of interest between cheap but damaging and responsible but expensive disposal at a later date. 

 

Another movement which points towards alternative methods of producing machines are open-source hardware (OSH) communities, which apply an ethic derived from free/open-source software (FOSS) development, and implement homologous processes to designing and producing hardware.  Whereas FOSS involves the distributed collaboration of self-aggregating peers using the hardware/software/social infrastructures of the Internet to create software – a non-rival good which can be directly created and shared by exchanging digital data – OSH communities cannot collectively create the finished products, but share designs for how to make machines and source the requisite parts. Operating in this manner enables a mode of producing rival goods, including information technology hardware, which is led by user innovation and the desires and ethics of the producer/user community, rather than profit-orientated corporations, who have a vested interest in creating products which rapidly become obsolete and require replacement. OSH presents an example of the democratisation of innovation and production,xxiii and a rebuttal of the contention that peer-to-peer systems are only relevant to non-rival, informational ventures, whilst also presenting one way of approaching Stiegler’s concept of an economy of contribution.

 

Stiegler contends that the particular affordances of contemporary computing technologies enable the construction of a new economy which elides the distinction between producers and consumers. According to Stiegler, free software exemplifies a historically novel methodology predicated on communal labour and which is characterised by the formation of positive externalities.xxiv Whereas the contemporary ecology of machines is dominated by a model based on an econocentricism which advocates the externalisation of any possible costs onto social and environmental systems which are seen as ‘outside’ of economic concern and therefore valueless, Stiegler contends that there exists the potential to construct an alternative ecology of machines based upon broader conceptions of growth, resembling the ecological value systems advocated by Bateson and Guattari.

 

While the pharmacological context of technology entails that an economy of contribution is by no means certain, or even probable, a reorientation of the ecology of machines is crucial if we are to escape the spectre of ecological collapse. The current system of producing the material infrastructure of digital cultures is ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust, with problems at the scales of the structure of the production process as a whole, and within the specificities of each constituent stage. Only through a sustained engagement with the material consequences of information technologies, involving an eco-ethically inflected application of these machines themselves, may equitable alternatives based around contribution rather than commodities supersede the destructive tendencies of the contemporary ecology of machines.

 

i Michael Begon, Colin Townsend and John Harper, Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems, 4th Edition, Malden MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006

ii Gregory Bateson, Steps To An Ecology of Mind, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronsen Inc, 1972 p435-445

iii Gregory Bateson, Steps To An Ecology of Mind, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronsen Inc, 1972 p468

iv Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies,  trans Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton, London:Athelone Press, 2000

v John D. Sutter Last Man Standing at Wake for Toxic Town, 2009, CNN, available at http://articles.cnn.com/2009-06-30/us/oklahoma.toxic.town_1_tar-creek-superfund-site-picher-mines?_s=PM:US#cnnSTCText last visited 22/03/2012

vi Michael Nest, Coltan, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011 p76

vii Boy Lujthe (2006) The Changing Map of Global Electronics: Networks of Mass Production in the New Economy, in Ted Smith, David Sonnenfeld, David Naguib Pellow, (2006) Challenging the Chip, Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 2006, p22

viii Rohan Price, WhyNo Choice is a ChoiceDoes Not Absolve the West of Chinese Factory Deaths, Social Science Research Network, 2010, Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1709315   (last visited 15/03/2012)

ix Electronics Takeback Coalition,  Facts and Figures on E-Waste and Recycling, 2011, avaialble at http://www.electronicstakeback.com/wpcontent/uploads/Facts_and_Figures_on_EWaste_and_Recycling.pdf last visited 15/03/2012

Under the Basel Convention which forbids the transfer of toxic substances from OECD nations to non-OECD nations. However, the USA, Canada and Australia refused to sign the convention, and so it remains legal for these states to export hazardous wastes, although it is illegal for the non-OECD countries they send hazardous wastes to, to receive them

xi The WEEE directive, passed into EU law in 2003 and transposed into UK law in 2006 states that all e-waste must be safely disposed of within the EU at an approved facility, and that consumers can return used WEEE products when they purchase new products

xii Jim Puckett, High-Tech’s Dirty Little Secret: Economics and Ethics of the Electronic Waste Trade, in Ted Smith, David Sonnenfeld, David Naguib Pellow, (2006) Challenging the Chip, Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 2006, p225

xiii Jim Puckett and Lauren Roman, E-Scrap Exportation, Challenges and Considerations, Electronics and the Environment, 2002 Annual IEEE International Symposium, available at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=1003243 last visited 15/03/2012

xiv Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Exporting Harm, The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, 2002, p26 available at http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf last visited 15/03/2012

xv Gregory Bateson, Steps To An Ecology of Mind, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronsen Inc, 1972 p457

xvi Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, Cambridge:Polity 2010

xvii Ars Industrialis, Manifesto 2010, 2010, available at http://arsindustrialis.org/manifesto-2010 last visited 17/03/2012

xviii Tania Branigan, Apple Report Reveals Child Labour Increase, The Guardian, 15 February 2011, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/feb/15/apple-report-reveals-child-labour last visited 18/03/2012

xix http://www.raisehopeforcongo.org/ last visited 15/03/12

xx David Wood and Robin Schneider, Toxicdude.com: The Dell Campaign, in Ted Smith, David Sonnenfeld, David Naguib Pellow, (2006) Challenging the Chip, Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 2006, p285-297

xxi For example the similarities between the labour rights violations found in reports at Foxconn in Shenzhen in 2006 and 2012 suggest that Apple’s claims in 2006 that they would take action to redress these violations were public relations rhetoric not substantiated by actions

xxii Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Will Steffen, and Paul Crutzen, The New World of the Anthropocene,  2010, Environment Science & Technology 44 (7): 2228–2231. doi:10.1021/es903118j.

xxiii Eric Von Hippel, Democratising Innovation, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2005

xxiv Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, Cambridge:Polity 2010 p129

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I’ve just had an article published as part of the spring/summer edition of Necsus, the European Journal of Media Studies. Necsus is an open access journal, so you can find the full text HERE.  My text is a look at how notions of scale and entanglement can productively add to media ecologies as an emergent way of exploring media systems. If looks at case studies of Phone Story and Open Source Ecology, and examines how in both cases a multiscalar approach which looks across content, software and hardware can be productively applied.

The journal also features an interview with Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell, the authors of Greening the Media, a book released last year which is one of the first full-length pieces to look at issues pertaining to the ecological costs of media technologies (both old and new), and a series on interesting essays which look at the intersection of media/film studies and ecology from diverse perspectives. Outside of the Green material, there are essays by Sean Cubitt (who was my PhD external examiner a few months back) and Jonathan Beller which are well worth a read.

 

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During my several months of failing to blog I’ve had a paper published in a special edition of the journal Culture Machine, which is an open access journal, meaning that unlike much of academia it isn’t up behind a paywall.

The article is called Escaping Attention: Digital Media Hardware, Materiality and Ecological Cost, and it looks at ways that discourses around the attention economy and immateriality tend to obscure various material ecological impacts of digital technologies. It’s part of a special edition on the attention economy which was co-edited by Patrick Crogan and Sam Kinsley from the the Digital Cultures Research Centre at UWE. Material for the journal was drawn from the 2010 European Science Foundation funded conference entitled ‘Paying Attention: Digital Media Cultures and Generational Responsibility,’ which was convened by the Digital Cultures Research Centre.

Alongside my contribution, the special edition features a substantial introduction by the editors, which presents a critical examination of the workings of the ‘attention economy’ in the context of today’s rapidly emerging realtime, ubiquitous, online digital technoculture. It re-focusses work on this theme of attention in light of the current and emerging digital technocultural media sphere of smart devices, the pervasive mediation of experience, and the massive financial speculation in the attention capturing potential of social networking media. The special issue includes an interview by Kinsley with peer2peer co-founder, Michel Bauwens, essays by key theorists of attention Jonathan Beller, Bernard Stiegler, Tiziana Terranova, and several papers on topics from Facebook and Free and Open Software, to the problematic role of digital social networking in Istanbul’s recent (2010) European Capital of Culture project. Its really great to be published alongside such thought provoking and insightful pieces.

http://payingattention.org/2012/07/24/paying-attention-special-issue-of-culture-machine/

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There’s a special issue of the open-access journal Fibrecultures out which explores a series of ideas around media ecologies, inlcuding contributions from the likes of Jussi Parikka, Matthew Fuller and Michael Goddard…

The special issue includes some really interesting perspectives on the emergence of media ecologies as a methodology for exploring media systems using neo-materialist theory and post-humanist politics.

This issue is an exercise in media ecology that is paradoxically unnatural. Instead of assuming a natural connection to the established tradition of Media Ecology in the Toronto-school fashion of Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and the work of scholars involved in the Media Ecology Association (http://www.media-ecology.org/media_ecology/), our issue stems from another direction; its theoretical orientation is more inspired by the work of Felix Guattari and engages with several overlapping ecologies that are aesthetico-political in their nature. It stems from a more politically oriented way of understanding the various scales and layers through which media are articulated together with politics, capitalism and nature, in which processes of media and technology cannot be detached from subjectivation. In this context, media ecology is itself a vibrant sphere of dynamics and turbulences including on its technical level. Technology is not only a passive surface for the inscription of meanings and signification, but a material assemblage that partakes in machinic ecologies. And, instead of assuming that ‘ecologies’ are by their nature natural (even if naturalizing perhaps in terms of their impact on capacities of sensation and thought) we assume them as radically contingent and dynamic, in other words as prone to change.

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Here are my lecture notes from the lecture I gave to the MA in Creative Practice at UWE a couple of weeks ago. They’re only notes, so there are probably a few places where they wont entirely make sense to anyone else, but hopefully they give a general sense of where media ecologies is coming from and some of the ways it might be as a useful methodology.

The presentation that went alongside the lecture is available here

Media Ecology Lecture

Intro

1.What is Media Ecology?

What is ecology?

Before attempting to define media ecology, I ought to take a step back and begin by discussing ecology more generally. Ecology is not a trendy metaphor for environment. Etymologically ecology comes from the Greek oikos- meaning home/household and -logy meaning study of. It is not the study of things in themselves, (which within the realm of living systems is biology) but the study of interconnection, relationships and the transfer of energy within complex networks of matter.

While the term environment suggests something outside of human systems, some kind of ‘natural’ exterior, the term ecology makes no such distinction between human and nonhuman, living and non-living nodes within these networks, and as such has a utility in connecting humans both to the nonhuman ecosystems which we are dependent upon for food, water, clean air etc, and also to the technical nodes within the socio-technical networks which underpin social organisations and media systems.

We can begin to conceptualise media ecology then as the application of eco-philosophical or ecosophical thinking to the field of media studies. The recent application of eco-philosophical concepts to various aspects of critical theory and academic practice is by no means exclusive to media studies, and there are nascent movements towards for example eco-psychology, eco-sociology and eco-design in other disciplines.

Key Ecosophical Concepts

Positive/Sustainable growth: not growth in the econocentric approach which fetishises GDP as the only measure of growth to the detriment of all other measures such as ecological sustainability and personal well being. Ecological thinking values personal, social and environmental balance and well being. Ecological thinking also values diversity, ecosystems tend to thrive when they are complex and contain a multitude of heterogeneous actors, rather than the monocultural systems of industrial production.

Feedback: Processes of negative feedback (homeostasis) and positive feedback (potential for increased complexity or runaway. Roots in cybernetics (negative feedback based) and later systems biology/autopoiesis/complexity theory (positive feedback as useful – not just noise).

Cybernetics from kybernetes or steersman, the metaphor of someone steering a boat down a river as an example of a negative feedback loop.

Ecological thought pertains to systems which frequently involve multiple feedback loops, such as media systems which involve complex networks of silicon, precious metals, electromagnetic spectrum, operating systems, software, screens and humans. In these systems causality is rarely experienced as a linear force because of the impact of feedbacks.

Scale

Ecology presents systems as various scales as being governed by the same processes of feedback and emergence. Consequently we don’t need to know everything about every subsystem to get a picture of the scale of system we are investigating, indeed if this was necessary, then science would never have gotten anywhere, as it would be perpetually bogged down in explaining all chemical biological and ecological systems at the quantum scale. We can envision the world as we know it as a series of scalar dynamic systems, when you focus in on any subsystem what you discover is not a fully formed part, but another ecology which operates at a different scale.

When we think of ourselves we generally think of individual wholes. An ecological perspective however stresses instead that actually we are a dynamic assemblage which includes for example a multitude of strains of bacteria living within our guts, without which or digestive systems wouldn’t work. As negentropic or open systems, humans, like all other living systems (and indeed numerous nonliving systems like hurricanes) require a constant flow of energy in order for them to maintain their degree of organisation. In our case this flow of energy comes from food, water and sunlight, from which we extract the chemicals, vitamins proteins etc which are necessary for our continued existence.

As well as these internal dynamics our capacities are largely shaped by external factors, the people we speak to, who have taught us how to communicate, the diverse range of technical and media systems we engage with all affect what we consider to be ‘our’ abilities but they are only created through the interconnections between our bodies and external apparatus.

Moving up a scale we can think of human social systems as another scale of ecology. As with the ecology of body/mind, social ecologies are systems composed of a multitude of networked heterogeneous components with numerous feedback mechanisms.

Within ecophilosophy, both Gregory Bateson and Felix Guattari use this model which they describe as the three ecologies; of body/mind, culture/society and the environment as a useful way of conceptualising a series of scalar ecosystems in which humans are embedded, and which need to be considered concurrently if we are to take collective ethical actions with regards to pressing ethical concerns.

  • 42. It is quite wrong to make a distinction between action on the psyche, the socius and the environment… We need to kick the habit of sedative discourse… in order to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses of the three ecologies.Guattari 1992:42

Emergence:

Furthermore, ecological thinking contends that at different scalar ecologies, we see the emergence of new qualities, tendencies and capacities, which are not attributable to any of the subcomponents of that ecosystem. This is a clear contradiction to the methodologies of analytic reductionism and physicalism which contend that complex structures/systems can be broken down into smaller systems, which provide all the information necessary to analyse the more complex system. Causality is always attributed to the micro-level, and can be traced upwards as a linear set of determining forces.

Emergence instead proposes that the ecological system as a whole can exhibit behaviours which emerge only at larger scales.

An example of this kind of emergence is the complex behaviours observed by ant colonies. Individual ants are very simple creatures which follow a simple series of rules regarding producing and following pheramone trails. Despite the simplicity of the ‘parts’ ant colonies as an emergent whole can display remarkably complex behaviour. Ant colonies can discover the shortests most efficient routes to food supplies and exhibit a collective memory which far exceeds the capabilities of the individual ant.

Similarly we cannot grasp what is happening in game of chess or go simply by adding up the number of pieces on the board. To understand the game we need to look at the position of the pieces in relation to one another, it is through this relationality that meaning in terms of game state emerges.

Ecocentricism/Posthumanism:

Most approaches to media are based on humanism, the belief that humans are rational animals which are quantitatively different to other forms of life. This stems from the mechanistic or dualistic philosophies associated with enlightenment thinkers such as Rene Descartes and Issac Newton.

This lineage of thought prescribes that nonhumans, be they other life forms or technical beings are mere automatons; predictable and linear systems whose properties can be ascertained through the analytic reduction of the whole into the parts which compose the larger system. By contrast to these determinate automatons, humans are thought to possess free will, that is humans have the capacity to freely choose between alternative possibilities.

This is the basis of the nature/culture dualism, which has been a key component of Occidental thought, and which is throughly opposed by ecological thought which instead presents a monistic pluralism, in which there is no concretised dividing line between humans and nonhumans. Indeed an ecological perspective instead views the human as always being situated within both environmental and technical networks, and contends that an analysis of the human must not proceed from an abstract essence, such as the concept of the soul or free will, but instead should compose an investigation into the networks in which humanity is situated.

  • In the posthuman view, conscious agency has never been ‘in control.’ In fact, the very illusion of control bespeaks a fundamental ignorance about the fundamental nature of the emergent processes through which consciousness, the organism and the environment are constituted. Mastery through the exercise of the autonomous will is merely the story consciousness tells itself to explain results that actually come about through chaotic dynamics and emergent structures.

Hayles 1999:288

As pioneering eco-philosopher and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson argued back in the 1970′s

  • Let us consider for a moment the question of whether a computer thinks. I would state that it does not. What thinks and engages in trial and error is the man plus the computer plus the environment. And the lines between man, computer and environment are purely artificial, fictitious lines. They are lines across the pathways along which information or difference is transmitted. They are not boundaries of the thinking system. What thinks is the total system which engages in trial and error, which is man plus environment.

Bateson 1972:491

Ecological thinking as opposed to dualistic thinking

  • culture/nature
  • free will/determinism
  • mind/body
  • good/bad
  • man/woman
  • rational/emotional
  • civilized/savage

We invoke one dualism only to challenge another. We employ a dualism of models on in order to arrive at a process that challenges all models. Each time mental correctives are necessary to undo the dualisms we had no wish to construct, but through which we pass. Arrive at the magic formula we all seek- PLURALISM = MONISM – via all the dualisms that are the enemy, an entirely necessary enemy, the furniture we are forever rearranging.

Deleuze and Guattari 1982:23

Applying Ecosophy to Media Studies

Within the context of media ecology, Mat Fuller describes the utility of the term by stating that:

The term ‘ecology’ is used here because it is one of the most expressive language currently has to indicate the massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter

Fuller 2005:2

A usable definition of media ecology then, is that: Media ecology is the study of connections between actors and processes in media systems at various scales.

Usually when we consider media we think about content, and how that content affects humans, and potentially how those affected humans can then take action (exercise agency) to influence social systems.

Media ecology opens up thinking about other scales of system to that of content. For example what are the affordances of the systems of production used to manufacture the hardware which creates, distributes and plays the content? Similarly with the current hegemony of digitally created and distributed media content, what kinds of software systems are used to mediate between the hardware devices and the human producers and consumers of digital media? Are these systems value neutral or does the method of producing software, the algorithms, language choices, code, interface designs and licensing systems employed produce certain values? For example when we type search terms into Google, there is an algorithm which produces the results, and which will embed paid for Adwords links into the page. Adwords is one of the ways that Google makes its money, but it has nothing to do with providing a neutral or value free series of search results. Because someone has paid the search engine operator to prominently link their site, the results we get from our searches reflect this model of organisation.

Why might Media Ecology be a useful way of approaching media studies and practice

Rethinking Technological Determinism

To consider the way media ecologies challenges the types of thinking around technology and technological determinism in media studies, it is useful to look back to the debate over technological determinism which occurred in the 1960′s and 70′s and which has informed the way the media studies has broadly approached the subject ever since.

In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan boldly declared that ‘the medium is message.’ According to McLuhan the primary meaning or effect of ‘any medium or technology, is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.’ (1964:16) This contrasts with what McLuhan describes as ‘our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how it is used that counts,’ which he terms ‘the numb stance of the technological idiot.’ (1964:26). McLuhan’s analysis was pioneering insofar as it bequeathed agency to the technology itself, as opposed to a humanist account in which all nonhumans (natural and technological) were reduced to the status of Cartesian automatons in contrast to the free will enjoyed by human agents.

McLuhan’s argument centres on the concept that humans use technology in order to extend their bodies and senses into the environment, and that each individual technology or medium’s chief effect is this sensorial extension, which is simultaneously accompanied by the numbing of the body part which is extended.

McLuhan’s chief critic at the time was Raymond Williams, a British Marxist and theorist of media and literature who played an integral role in the foundation of media and cultural studies as academic disciplines in the UK. Williams contended that ‘If the medium is the cause, all other causes, all that men ordinarily see as history, are at once reduced to effects.’ (Williams, 2003:130) and ‘If the effect of the medium is the same, whoever controls or uses it then we can forget ordinary political and cultural argument and let the technology run itself. Williams 2003:131′

Williams’s argument then, is that McLuhan essentialises the technology and claims that it alone determines the effects of the medium, relegating human agency and intention out of sight. When McLuhan makes claims such as ‘The older patterns of mechanical, one way expansion from the centres to margins is no longer relevant to our electric world. Electricity does not centralise but decentralises’ (2003:55).’ it’s very hard to see any kind of room for human agency within the framework of the technological determinism that McLuhan proposes. It’s also hard to reconcile McLuhan’s words with many of the experiences of electronic media which occurred in the 20th century. Its difficult to see how electronic media such as the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl, Stalinist apologists, Fox news and other similar uses of media can be described as decentralising forces.

Consequently technological determinism was largely relegated to a footnote in media and cultural studies, a fatally flawed thesis from the 60′s which it was thought had been firmly refuted. As Williams concludes, ‘ we have to reject technological determinism, in all its forms.’

The re-examination of technological determinism in the current media system comes from a couple of places, partially to do with the pace and scale of technological change which has been occurring with ever greater speed since the introduction of personal computers in the early 1980′s, and partially because of some advances in scientific understanding which have changed the way we think about deterministic systems.

Complexity theory, which is connected to ecological thinking through philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Manuel DeLanda basically states that for open, or negentropic systems, while there may be ways to formally (mathematically) describe the systems using simple deterministic equations, the results of these equations are not deterministic, they can be drawn as a field of probabilities, but never reduced to a single answer. Consequently, the Cartesian/Newtonian view of nature as predictable automatons is firmly rebuffed, and a new understanding of determinism in nonlinear systems, that is dynamic systems characterised by the presence of feedback loops, or put another way: ecologies, emerges. In this new view there is no dualism between free will and determinsm, instead determinisitic systems are re-conceived as systems which have certain degrees of freedom to operate within a determined probability space.

Applying this to think about technology and media we rethink determinsim not as the linear and definite statements such as McLuhan’s claim that electricity decentralises, but instead that there are various determinisms surrounding technology, that they afford certain types of usage and can tend towards various outcomes in specific contexts, but that technological determinism always occurs within concrete social contexts which will also contribute to the uses and resultant meanings of technological use. Consequently media ecologies contends that the effects of technologies are not solely determined by either the technological nodes or the human ones, but by the network as a whole.

Neuroplasticity

A second area of scientific discovery which provides useful insight into understandings of technological determinism is cognitive neuro-science, and in particular discoveries around of the plasticity of the human brain.

‘It is well known that the brain’s plasticity is an inherent biological trait; human beings are born with their nervous systems ready to be reconfigured in response to the environment. While the number of neurons in the brain remains more or less constant throughout a lifetime, the number of synapses—the connec­tions that neurons form to communicate with other neurons—is greatest at birth. Through a process known as synaptogenesis, a newborn infant undergoes a pruning process whereby the neural connections in the brain that are used strengthen and grow, while those that are not decay and disappear (Bear, Bear, Connors, and Paradiso 175–96). The evolutionary advantage of this pruning process is clear, for it bestows remarkable flexi­bility, giving human beings the power to adapt to widely differing environ­ments. Although synaptogenesis is greatest in infancy, plasticity continues throughout childhood and adolescence, with some degree continuing even into adulthood. In contemporary developed societies, this plasticity implies that the brain’s synaptic connections are coevolving with an environment in which media consumption is a dominant factor. Children growing up in media-rich environments literally have brains wired differently from those of people who did not come to maturity under that condition.’

Hayles 2007

When cognitive scientists have conducted experiments which have involved neural imaging scans of children before and after playing video games they have found that not only does the form of attention required by the games alter brain activity not only during but after playing games. If we can quantitatively see that our material engagements with technology effect the wiring of our brains, then we see strong support for the thesis that technology does determine aspects of our world view. The philosopher Bernard Stiegler explores these ideas, proposing that technology forms a kind of externalised memory, where ‘ “All technical objects constitute an intergenerational support of memory which, as material culture, overdetermines learning and mnesic activities’ Stiegler 2009:9

This notion of technology as an exteriorised collective form of memory connects with the posthuman and ecological notions of distributed cognition, whereby the ecology of mind is not just something bound by the contraints of the body, but is immanent in the connections between the body and its environment. In this view the reason that humans today appear smarter than cavemen is nothing to do with spirits or souls, but is due to the fact that humans have collectively evolved smarter social ecologies within which to live.

Looking at evolutionary processes rather than objects:

Traditional approaches to media have tended to examine media texts as objects, which in the context of a film, a novel, a newspaper article or a radio broadcast seemed to make sense because you were largely dealing with a fixed text which proliferated from a central point, be it a printers or broadcast centre. When we look at the contemporary media ecology though, we see a lot of media forms which don’t resemble traditional media objects. Whether we’re looking at Wikipedia, World of Warcraft, Facebook or Twitter, what we see are a multitude of media forms which are more like evolutionary processes than objects. These media types are dynamic, open systems, sustained through the attention of both the programmers who are constantly updating the platform itself, as well as the users who are constantly producing an ever changing series of encounters. When we look for conceptual tools with which to analyse the way these processes evolve, there seems to be some quite productive homologies in using some of the tools that are used to analyse other registers of ecology, as the form of the distributed network and the patterns of emergent behaviours and feedback loops are common to these types of network at all scales.

The presentation of media as scalar dynamic systems affords the exploration of things which happen at global as well as local scales, the register of the global industrial hardware production processes as well as the register of micro-networks of thematically linked blogs.

By offering a methodology which affords analyses between different scales ranging from the extremely local to the global, media ecologies affords a synthetic method which allows us to address the complexity of ethical and political problematics faced in an increasingly globalised society without neglecting local concerns. As such it cuts across the dualisms of global/local and macro/micro which both prove immensely problematic as the scalar networks which connect the binaries up are frequently obscured.

Materialism

Media ecologies as presenting a form of ontological realism which is based on material systems – resists the metaphors of virtuality, informationalisation and post-industrialism. The problem with these types of discourse is primarily the fact that they seek to de-materialise media systems, which are always predicated on a huge amount of matter and energy. By seeking to analyse media systems as virutal, somehow not quite real, these approaches have the effect of obscuring the ethical issues pertaining to social and environmental justice which are abundant throughout the contemporary industrial production process. If we want to meaningfully engage with the ethics of media systems we need to take a systems based view which incorporates the material as well as the informational issues these systems raise. If we ignore ethical issues pertaining to the material status of these technologies we can in fact become technophillic advocates for global injustices.

Case Study: Hardware: Media Materiality and Ethics

Conclusions

The best way for media studies to really make sense is to think outside media – of where it expands, takes us, if we persistently follow its lead. So far, for a long time, it took us to think about humans, human relations, intentions, unconscious desires, economics as much as politics as power. Such paths need to take us to the other direction too; to things less intentional, but as important; to nature, bacteria, chemicals, forms of life outside our headspace but inside our gut; to milieus of living in which our conscious agency is only a minor part of what matters.

Parikka 2011

To understand media systems, we need to trace the complex networks they exists within, which frequently takes us away from the traditional approaches to media studies which contend that it is just the content of media, and the effect this has on an audience that matters.

Media ecology presents a method of working which is about tracing networks of matter through, around and between media technologies, softwares, standards, protocols, users, designers and the social and environmental contexts these networks exist within. Such an opening out of the field of study might appear off putting and daunting, but if we are to renergise media theory and practice in ways that can create positive changes to the complex challenges that we’re faced with when we think about complex issues such as anthropogenic climate change and sustainable economies. I’m not suggesting that media ecologies has the answers to these problems or provides a teleology towards utopia, but if we don’t at least attempt to engage with the complexity and nonlinearity of these issues then it seems to me that we have little chance of impacting upon them in a meaningful way.

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Media, Materiality and the Environment: Exploring the Ethics and Sustainability of Hardware on Prezi

Here’s a link (it seems that WordPress doesn’t like Prezi’s embed codes) to the Prezi presentation I made for the Mediating Environmental Change: Exploring the Way Forwards symposium in Bournemouth which took place on Friday 4th March 2011. It was a really fascinating event which brought together a diverse group of researchers, practitioners and activists who work in areas around media and environmental change, and I’m hoping to find some time to blog about some of the talks which were given there. I’m also going to post up a collection of links to some of the sources I’ve used for the information contained in the presentation, and that should be up sometime later in the week.

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Really good blog post from Tomas Rawlings, a Pervasive Media Studio Resident, DCRC PhD candidate and all round top bloke, on how his research adopts an ecological approach to media.

I’m doing a talk at Goldsmiths about games today.  Not just games as we tend to find them now, but how the impact of the networking of our technology is going to change the design, development and support of gaming.  Below are my notes to accompany the session…

A Bit of Theory
I’m coming at media from the angle of Media Ecology, a new(ish) term that you might see bandied about, that I think indicates an approach that offers us new ways of viewing the world.   Once you start to see media as networked – connected – then the realisation of this confluence changes how you approach design.  This also brings to mind Fuller (2005) and his illuminating discussion of why he uses the term ‘ecology’ in his book ‘Media Ecologies‘;

The term ‘ecology’ is used here because it is one of the most expressive language currently has to indicate the massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter….The term ‘media ecology’ is used and in circulation in a number of ways. The term is chosen here because this multiple use turns it into a crossroads: Putting these two words next to each other produces a conjunction of two variables that are always busy with meaning. Their dynamism, however, always arises out of concrete conditions. The virtuality of such conditions, their possible reinvention or alternative state, their pregnancy with change and interrelation, is as deeply implied in this concreteness as much as it can be said to be subject to definition. (Fuller 2005:2-3)

Parikka’s (2007) study of computer viruses, suffuse with biological terminology, firmly stating the position of life and the biological as within the realm of media ecology;

The coupling of biology and technology, which, of course, has longer roots beyond digital culture, finds alive and kicking within the media ecology of digital culture. These types of couplings can also provide vectors of becoming for a novel understanding of digital culture. Life does not remain a mere metaphor but also becomes an implication of autopoiesis, of self-moving, of acting and force.” (Parikka 2007:26)

So why go all ecological? Ecology is all about relationships of energy. It’s about understanding the complex web that life weaves. When you look at ecology, you are looking at context. We don’t look at an individual organism, we look at how it relates to it’s fellow organisms – whether in competition, co-operation, predation, symbiosis, parasitism and so on.

Ecological Food Web

The Physics of Media are changing
Its all up in the air now. The safe certainty of buying a physical product (VHS, DVD, cartridge…) that has a contained, non-networked media artefact are fading rapidly. We are moving from a world of discrete non-relational media to one based on physical products to one based on virtual products. This means it is easy to distribute, modify, copy and paste. It means the barriers to entry and distribution are much, much lower. The problem that will be faced by future digital projects is getting noticed. Lets take video as the example…

“In mid-2007, six hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute. Then it grew to eight hours per minute, then 10, then 13. In January of this year, it became 15 hours of video uploaded every minute, the equivalent of Hollywood releasing over 86,000 new full-length movies into theaters each week.” (link)

The biggest problem we will face in creating new media artefacts is getting noticed. So a number of people are looking to the idea of media as a service (or happening) and not a product…..

Games as a Service
What this means is that the user is not so much buying a game as buying into a world. The job of the developers is to create and maintain that world and it’s integrity. The user is paying for the maintenance that the developer is undertaking.

Examples of Games as service include subscription MMOs, for example World of Warcraft – 12 million subscribers that pay to buy the game and pay to play. Blizzard (who develop the game) has earned $1.1 billion in income this year alone. There are also free to play MMOs (where you pay for time-shortcuts!) – an example is Darkorbit by Big Point (where you can save time by purchasing Uridium).

Game Feedback Loops
This is where the system running the game has within it the capacity to create feedback and more importantly, feed-forward loops. So the activity of players encourages more players to join in. An example of this is the iPhone chart, where many people buy new games based on what’s popular – which in turn fuels what is popular. It also used to be the case that the rating system, where players deleting an app were asked to rate it, was slightly bias to the negative, and hence a feedback loop. So building into the development process the expectation of iteration is a good thing. Also listening to the user feedback and where possible, acting on it can also help to build that feed-forward loop.

Control Systems (from Wikipedia)

Quality & Value Added
Savage Moon as a tower-defence game on Playstation Network. It cost £5 when you could play loads of different games of the same type for free online. So why would anyone bother to play it? I’m happy to say lots and lots did. Because when you pay £5 there is an expectation of a curatorial process, a higher standard of graphics, gameplay and testing. (This is the same idea as used by Arduino, the open source hardware company that allows other manufacturers to make it’s circuit boards knowing many users gravitate towards them as they are the best at making them…)

So in summary – we’re into new territory here for games, but I think one thing is certain – that the idea of designing and building a small one-off experience is over. An example that draws all of these in is the user-generated content (UGC) and a great game, is LittleBigPlanet where the users make the content and the developers build the platform. It still has a box purchase but the costs of maintaining the ongoing 1.5 million levels is met by a roll-out of additional value-added objects that players can (and do, by the million!) buy.

So in summary (again) – we’re into new territory but I think one thing is certain – is that the idea of designing and building a small one-off experience is over…. the physics of media have changedexcept where they haven’t….

Witch-house bands go even further: they put their music up for free on places like SoundCloud, but remove the files after a certain number of listens or downloads, creating scheduling and scarcity in a system that’s otherwise about abundance and time-shifting. Aside from the fact that some of these bands are really good, witch house is interesting to follow because it’s a sort of ad hoc Darknet — the places where you can hear this music move around. One week, it’s a private group on Last.fm. The next week, it’s a public message board. The week after, they’re all living on a blog entry’s comment thread. To keep finding this stuff, you’ve really got to want it. Modern networking tools are mobilised in pursuit of an atemporal way of gathering a fan base.

Generally this is a really good introduction to some of the key ideas around Media Ecology illustrated by some well thought out practical examples which many people will be familiar with. The only statement I found myself disagreeing with was the line that argued ‘We are moving from a world of discrete non-relational media to one based on physical products to one based on virtual products.’ While its true that pre-digital media existed as discrete physical products, whose capacities to connect and exchange information with one another was frequently either impossible (trying to record from an audio cassette onto vinyl on a domestic LP player) or involved a highly lossy analogue recording process (such as recording vinyl onto tape, or anything onto VHS), it is wrong to characterise flows of digital information as a virtual process.

Copying material between networked digital computers is certainly far faster and easier than using ‘old media’ analogue technologies, and it is also possible to create perfect digital copies (although popular digital media formats such as .mp3, .mp4 and .flv are often in fact heavily compressed lossy recordings). However this is not as a result of a de-materialisation or virtualisation of the information. Contemporary digital computing technologies provide highly complex physical systems which combine the properties of extremely powerful information processing power, vast amounts of storage space for binary data, and connectivity to a massive global network of similar machines. These three properties combined afford computer users the ability to digitise (to translate material previously encoded in analogue media into discrete binary code which is then readable by other digital computing technologies) and share media assets and other digital data far more easily than previously.

However this process is entirely dependent on physical (non-virtual) computing technologies which require a vast expenditure of energy and resources to create. A UN University paper from 2004 found that producing a desktop computer and 17 inch CRT monitor uses 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of various chemical and 1500kg of water. The material costs of digital computing technologies used for media production and distribution are frequently overlooked by media studies as a discipline. I see media ecology, a method based on relationality, connectivity and context as a way of exploring material impacts of media technology which are frequently obscured by the rhetoric of virtuality.

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