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.