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‘Our wireless lives predicated on a mess of tangled wires’: The ecological stuff of the digital anthropocene

With today’s news on Tesla suspending its use of Bitcoin due to fossil fuel used to power super-computers that mine the crypto-currency,* it seems a good time to come back to thinking about the actual stuff that the ‘digital’ is composed of, in terms of natural resources and impacts on the environment. The digital is easily imagined as an intangible, ephemeral ‘un-thing’, existing either no-where or some non-place in the ‘clouds’. This sense-idea is particularly, I suspect, true for people who relate to technologies and platforms as end users and in communicative capacities mainly in the Global North; rather than as miners, labourers, factory workers, producers, manufacturers, recyclers, ‘pemulungs’, scavengers mainly in the Global South. In the former conception, the digital is a sterile, packaged. non-nature-related thing with little connection to the messy material realities of extraction, manufacture and waste. All digital, all centred on (some) anthropos, little to do with the anthropocene.

I was recently invited to review a paper that made the central suggestion that the stuff of the digital and its intimate physicality and environmental thing-ness is overlooked in the literature. It is clear to me that (historical-)materialist perspectives are crucial for studying the digital and that we need far more empirical work here, if not only to break the fetishised spell of shiny new devices and the un-thing-ness of virtual spaces. It also seems obvious to me that it is no longer tenable for digital researchers to ignore environmental embeddedness and ecological consequences in our research areas/of the technologies we work with and study, again an obvious space for reflection. Nonetheless, the claim that this has not happened yet or has happened too little does not really ring true to me. In the interest of epistemic justice, I suggested some key readings:

Gabrys, Jennifer. 2011. Digital rubbish: A natural history of electronics (author’s site, with links to free pdf copy and resources). University of Michigan Press. Over and above the critical eye on e-waste, the structure of the book that reads as the ‘life’ of electronics is very clever.

Parikka, Jussi. 2015. The Anthrobscene (online version). University of Minnesota Press. The book’s focus is on the ‘metallic materiality of the earth linked to the media-technological through the realm of production and process mediated by political’.

Yusoff, Kathryn. 2019. A billion black anthropocenes or none. University of Minnesota Press. While it may be said that this profoundly important book is not about the digital, it is not a stretch for me to contend that we cannot present a materialist history without an understanding of geology and resource extraction, and with Yusoff’s book, of the intrinsic links between extraction, slavery and colonialism.

From my long-standing peripheral fascination with submarine cables that power most of the world’s internet: Starosielski, Nicole. 2015. The Undersea Network. Duke University Press (where the paraphrased title of today’s post derives from); and Richard J. Aldrich & Athina Karatzogianni. 2020. Postdigital war beneath the sea? The Stack’s underwater cable insecurity, Digital War, vol. 1, 29–35.

Beyond immediate suggestions for readings, it is also clear to me that there is a substantial body of relevant literature that may not be immediately coherent, that can be organised in two ways:

1. Literature that deals with the stuff of the digital through the individual components of the e-production and process chains, from mining to manufacture to retail and consumption to e-waste.

2. Literature focused on the digital under related sub-fields, for example historical materialist studies of ecology (link to a fantastic resource list on a ecology and marxism compiled by Andreas Malm), energy studies (see also previous link to Malm’s resource list under Energy and Capitalism), and the excellent newly consolidated discard studies.

* It is wise here to take Tesla’s pronouncements with a critical spirit for many reasons, not least because of Tesla’s own reliance on mined resources with wide-ranging environmental and ethical implications. It also seems more than a little suspect when corporations target initiatives that threaten to democratise or divest centralised power (not that crypto isn’t problematic on those counts too), by co-opting ‘green’ and ‘socially-minded’ language.