Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

2005 MIT Press

Sterling is best known for his work as an author of fictional works within the cyberpunk sci-fi genre, but Shaping Things is a book which largely examines technology, design and sustainability. Sterling is interested in interrogating the types of technological futures we are likely to encounter (a theme which of is of course also central to his fictional works), allied with considering how technological evolution, and the design practices which evolve alongside technologies can provide a future for a civilisation which

‘Can’t go on in their present form. The status quo uses energy and materials which are finite and toxic. They wreck the climate, poison the population and resource wars. They have no future.’ P7
Sterling contends that these problematic technologies can be replaced and their deleterious impacts overcome through the implementation of a technoculture based on SPIMES:

‘Manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly rich and extensive that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. SPIMES begin and end as data… SPIMES are sustainable, enhanceable, uniquely identifiable and made of substances that can and will be folded back into the production stream of the future.’ P11

Sterling argues that dominant technocultures do not abolish previous technical ensembles, but compost them – perhaps composite may have been a more obvious descriptor, but Sterling’s authorial style is full of entertaining linguistic obscurantisms. Consequently a SPIME based technoculture will not replace the artifacts, machines, products and gizmos that we have today, but will alter the forms or flavours these devices take. As an example, Sterling explores a bottle of wine, and the way in which its barcode and link to a website denote that this bottle of wine is from the gizmo era: it’s still a bottle of wine, but one which contains particular informational affordances based on the dominant technoculture from which it emanates.

This leads onto a discussion of what I would consider to be issues around economies of attention, which Sterling describes as cognitive load in a gizmo society. His conclusions around the slogan ‘everyone can’t be a designer’ and the notion of representative design as an analogue of representative government (and frankly, that means not very representative anything) are politically naïve and really not thoroughly though through.

‘We interact differently in a world with representative design. In particular, with enough informational power, the “invisible hand of the market” becomes visible. The hand of the market was called “invisible” because Adam Smith had very few ways to measure it. Adam Smith lacked Metrics.’ P23

Such a perspective on the market and the information society would have drawn critique as a neoliberal fantasy in 2005 when Shaping Things was published. Coming after the global economic crash in 2008 and the current stagnation/double dip recession/Eurozone crisis the notion that information technology has given financial services industries the ability to predict and control the future is simply farcical, and demonstrates the ideology of neoliberal cyberutopianism which permeates Stirling’s text.

Where Sterling is somewhat more interesting is his thoughts around sustainability and temporality. Arguing that there is no way back to a (utopian) pre-industrial era in which humans lived in harmony with nature, Sterling contends that only through intelligent design practices can a pathway to a sustainable society be found. He contends that rapid prototyping will play a big role in this, casting the process as ‘the exhaustion of the phase space of the problem – it isn’t reasoned, thrifty or rational but it has the brutal efficiency of a chess-playing computer.’ (P48) By exploring different possible solutions, and retaining the data which allows other designers to note which avenues provide dead-ends, Stirling argues that rapid prototyping will allow a kind of distributed, swarm-like intelligence to permeate design practices, creating a synchronic society in which innovation occurs increasingly rapidly. This feeds into a general theme exploring relations between technology and temporality, with Sterling arguing that:

Genuinely radical changes in the human perception of time are not caused by philosophy, but instrumentation. The most radical changes in our temporal outlook come from technological devices, tools of temporal perception: clocks, telescopes, radio-carbon daters, spectrometers. P51

This leads Sterling to reflect that:

We’re in trouble as a culture because we lack firm ideas of where we are in time an what we might do to ensure ourselves a future. We’re also in trouble for technical and practical reasons: because we design build and use dysfunctional hardware… To understand hardware, we need to understand hardware’s engagement with TIME. P54/55

When explicating what he envisions as the origins of SPLIME’s in contemporary culture, Sterling points to RFID tags and the potential to create and Internet of Things based on this type of technology, or more likely future iterations of device which evolve from things like RFID tags or the other sensor/actuator relationships which have become far more common in the half dozen years since the book was released with the explosion of smartphones, tablets and other portable, always-on technologies which come with a range of built in sensors. Sterling also explores some of the potential for 3D printers to revolutionise fabrication processes. These subjects aren’t covered in much depth, but credit must go to Sterling to picking these technologies out as potential game changers very early on in their development.

While peer production, commons and open-source to get a mention, it is only that: a fleeting mention in between other ideas, and one which fails to explore the potentials for redistributing wealth throughout societies based upon these models, but then social equity, and the effects of technological ensembles upon equality is a black hole in Sterling’s book, one which can largely be attributed to the neoliberal economic ideology it propounds. He does argue that:

‘It’s no use starting from the top by ideologically re-educating the Consumer to become some kind of rigid hairshirt Green. This means returning to the benighted status of farmers with artifacts.’ P131

As someone involved in education, I find Sterling’s claims that the process of trying to get people to think about the social and ecological implications of their actions leads to ignorance to be misguided at best. When combined with his notion of representative design and the magical powers of markets when combined with information technology I would consider them to be politically dangerous, suggesting that we forgo education and serious thought and instead simply sit back and allow an enlightened design elite and the market to simply lead us to a sustainable future.

Sterling’s insight into the potentials of emerging technologies is worthy of high praise, and some of his thoughts around time, technology and society is intriguing if somewhat underexplored, and these currently within his work are why he’s become a popular figure talking about discourses of futurity and postdigitality. The limitations of his cyberutopian neoliberalism however are clearly evidenced in Shaping Things. While his rhetoric around sustainability is interesting, his arguments about heritage and our descendants are undermined by his lack of concern for social justice – either now or in the speculative futures he presents.

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Over the weekend of the 11th and 12th of June I was at BarnCamp, a fun filled weekend of tech activist related tomfoolery organised by the Hacktionlab network. On the Sunday I gave a talk about the Social and Ecological costs of Technology, which was recorded by the Catalyst radio collective, who launched a 24 hours a day seven days a week at BarnCamp. The talks are available for streaming here.

The first talk on the audio stream is on the Luddite movement and the contemporary relevance of their actions ahead of the bicentenary of the Luddite rebellion in 2012, the second is some thoughts on technology, the self and upgrade culture, and my talk is on third, about 35 minutes in.

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Here’s a selective bibliography of some of the sources I used for my presentation at the Mediating Environmental Change: Exploring the Way Forwards MeCCSA symposium in Bournemouth earlier this month. A few people there asked if I could post these links, so here they are, I hope they’re useful 🙂

Media Materiality and Environment: Exploring the Ethics and Sustainability of Hardware

Basel Action Network (BAN) and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (STVC) (2002), Exporting Harm, The High-Tech Trashing of Asia, http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf

Basel Action Network (BAN) (2005) The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-Use and Abuse to Africa, http://www.ban.org/BANreports/10-24-05/index.htm

Braungart, Michael; and McDonough, William (2009) Cradle to Cradle: Re-making the Way we Make Things, London, Vintage

Jenny Chan and Ngai Pun (2010) Suicide as Protest for the New Generation of Chinese Migrant Workers: Foxconn, Global Capital, and the State The Asia-Pacific Journal, 37-2-10.http://sacom.hk/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/the-asia-pacific-journal-sep2010-suicide-as-protest-jc-pn1.pdf

China Labour Watch (2008) Foxconn Corporation, Cornell University ILR School, http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1496&context=globaldocs

Essick, Kristi (2001) Guns Money and Cell Phones, The Industry Standard Magazine
Issue Date: June 11 2001, http://www.uky.edu/~tmute2/GEI-Web/GEI-readings/Guns,%20Money%20and%20Cell%20Phones%20%97%20Global%20Issues.pdf

Gartner Inc (2007) Gartner Estimates ICT Industry Accounts for 2 Percent of Global CO2 Emissions http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=503867

Greenpeace (2006) Toxic Chemicals in Computers Exposed, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/planet-2/report/2006/9/toxic-chemicals-in-computers.pdf

Huisman, Jaco; Magalini, Federico; Kuehr, Ruediger; Maurer, Claudia (2008) 2008 Review of Directive 2002/96 on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), United Nations University, http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/weee/pdf/final_rep_unu.pdf

#IVF Industrial Research and Development Corporation (2007) European Commission DG TREN Preparatory studies for Eco-design Requirements of EuPs (Contract TREN/D1/40-2005/LOT3/S07.56313) Lot 3 Personal Computers (desktops and
laptops) and Computer Monitors Final Report (Task 1-8), http://extra.ivf.se/ecocomputer/downloads/Eup%20Lot%203%20Final%20Report%20070913%20published.pdf

Kooney, Jonathan G.(2007) Estimating Total Power Consumption by Severs in the U.S. And the World, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

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

Miller, Toby and Maxwell, Richard (2008a) Ecological Ethics and Media Technology, International Journal of Communication 2: Feature 331-53, http://ijoc.org/ojs/index.php/article/computer/2008-07-24/240.html

Raphael, Chad and Smith, Ted (2006) Importing Extended Producer Responsibility for Electronic Equipment into the United States, in Smith, Ted, Sonnenfeld, David, Pellow, David Naguib (2006) Challenging the Chip, Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Temple University Press, Philadelphia

SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour) (2010) Workers as Machines: Military Management in Foxconn, http://sacom.hk/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/report-on-foxconn-workers-as-machines_sacom.pdf

Sells, Edward Anthony (2009), Towards a Self-Manufacturing Rapid Prototyping Machine, Doctoral dissertation, University of Bath, http://opus.bath.ac.uk/20452/2/UnivBath_PhD_2009_E_A_Sells.pdf

Sonnefeld, David A (2006) Global Electronics in Smith, Ted, Sonnenfeld, David, Pellow, David Naguib (2006) Challenging the Chip, Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry, Temple University Press, Philadelphia

UN (2001) Security Council Condemns Illegal Exploitation of Democratic Republic of Congo’s Natural Resources, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2001/sc7057.doc.htm

UN (2001b) Report of the Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo , http://www.un.org/News/dh/latest/drcongo.htm

Underwood, Neil (2011) Cheap skates guide to a $510ish Mendel ($360 if you have access to a 3d printer) http://repraplogphase.blogspot.com/2011/01/cheap-skates-guide-to-510ish-mendel-360.html

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2008) Fact Sheet on National Data Center Energy Efficiency Information Program, http://www1.eere.energy.gov/industry/datacenters/pdfs/national_data_center_fact_sheet_abbrev.pdf

Williams E. (2004). Energy Intensity of Computer Manufacturing: Hybrid Assessment
Combining Process and Economic Input-Output Methods. United Nation University. Environmental Science Technology, Volume 38. No 22. Tokyo, Japan. http://www.cs.ucsb.edu/~chong/290N/Williams.pdf

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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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We are constantly being reminded by environmentalists that we only have one planet on which to live, a single set of resources which are being depleted at an ever increasing rate…

But our biosphere is not a static pool of resources. The world is constantly changing. All around us life is growing, evolving, renewing itself, becoming a new world in every passing instant… The earth is a dynamic system capable of replenishing itself, as life on this planet recovered and evolved following the Permian extinction where 250 million years ago most life was wiped off the planet.

So what then is the worry over natural resource depletion? Is the logic of ecology a new conservatism aiming to ensure that the world’s poorest people remain impoverished, unable to undergo industrial development due to the alleged environmental costs and leaving the already industrialised nations in a permanent state of technological and military hegemony?

The answer is no. Resource depletion is a very real problem which human civilisation must begin to address. While the earth has the potential to recover from the ecological damage industrialization has wrought – if humanity disappeared then more oil would form, rainforests would regrow, and the unsustainable monocultures of industrial agriculture and urban development would be enveloped by sustainable and varied ecosystems – such ecological renewal would take millenia, a timescale which is of no help to those who wish to reduce human suffering here and now.

At present, humanity is using the Earth’s resources faster than they can replenish themselves. This is the definition of an unsustainable society. The consequences of such a society will be increased poverty and immiseration for many of the world’s poorest people, alongside a decline in the quality of life for many who today enjoy affluent lifestyles, as vital resources become increasingly scarce and therefore expensive if left to the market, essentially pricing the world’s poor out of life.

The current average ecological footprint of a UK citizen is 5.4 hectares of productive land. This means that if everyone were to consume as many natural resources as a Brit, then we would need over three times the resources that the Earth provides, and that would be using all of the world’s resources for humans as a baseline level, which in itself is highly dubious.

Expecting to be able to maintain such an unsustainable level of consumption is insanity. Capitalist economics are predicated on unlimited year on year growth, however the reality of our collective situation is that growth is limited and dependent on the ecological situations within which our social context is embedded. While we should unquestionably allow the poorest nations and peoples on Earth to develop and increase their standard of living, this has to be offset by first world consumers taking a cut to their material consumption.

That 20% of the world’s population currently use 80% of its resources is a telling fact which highlights the massive inequalities which exist between people. A sustainable society requires these inequalities to be phased out, so that every human has access to clean water, food, shelter and health care, while no humans hoard wealth in such a manner that either others must go without, or that future generations suffer for their greed.

Yet in the world today, as the world’s largest conventional oil fields begin to run dry and the rainforests continue to be cut down to grow meat for first world consumers, as global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise and the world’s poorest humans cannot afford food or water, shelter, education, health care, the zombie like acolytes of globalised capitalism continue to consume at ever greater levels.

Can we count on the structures which continue to report record profits from the current system be entrusted to revolutionize our current way of living?

Or has the time come for a more democratic, more sustainable society. Another world is possible. Let’s start building that world today.

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