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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.

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A recent conceptual history of the Digital Anthropocene

Rather than jumping straight into what the Digital Anthropocene could be or is not, it occurs to me that a better place to start would be to map the brief recent history of the concept. This is as much a matter of epistemic justice as grounded review. There have been a number of related ideas/concepts that have been coalescing broadly around critical points to do with human-nature relationships in technologised/digitised settings. Five key concepts may be identified in somewhat neat chronological order: Anthrobscene/Media Ecologies, Nature 2.0, Digital Conservation, and more recently Digital Anthropocene and Digital Ecologies. The reading list below (by no means exhaustive) represents for me some key conceptual contributions to recent attempts to think about the more-than-human in our digital age:

Anthrobscene: Parikka, Jussi. 2015. The Anthrobscene. University of Minnesota Press; which builds on/relates to the idea of Media Ecologies: Parikka, Jussi. 2011. Media ecologies and imaginary media: Transversal expansions, contractions, and foldings (pdf). The Fibreculture Journal 17.

Nature 2.0: Büscher, Bram. 2014. Nature 2.0: Exploring and theorizing the links between new media and nature conservation. New Media and Society 18:5.

Digital Conservation: Van der Wal, René and Arts, Koen. 2015. Digital conservation: An introduction. Ambio 44: Supplement 4. This is the introduction to a special volume on digital conservation.

Digital Anthropocene: McLean, Jessica, 2020. Changing digital geographies: Technologies, environments and people. Palgrave Macmillan. The concept is used multiple times, coming across more clearly in the text, and makes tentative (in my opinion) moves toward delineating the Digital Anthropocene.

Digital Ecologies: Digital Ecologies workshop, 29–30 March 2021.

While there are clear overlaps in the matters of concerns, there are also key differences: Media Ecologies attend to the material aspects of digital technologies in critical and necessary ways. Nature 2.0 zeroes in on the political economy of new media and its implications for practice (e.g. of conservation). Digital Conservation supersedes Nature 2.0 in some ways with an applied focus, drawing together technological practices/practitioners with more critical theoretical perspectives on what these mean for human-nature relationships. Digital Ecologies and Digital Anthropocene I believe both hold the potential to meaningfully speak to broad but clearly connected interests for long-term usage. McLean’s use of Digital Anthropocene crucially highlights the affective and experiential aspects of environmentalism in digitised settings. I am less clear on Digital Ecologies, particularly on how ‘ecologies’ is understood and operationalised in this context and how this might speak to disciplinary uses of the term not least for ecologists. Based on the conference structure however, it appears to be a fascinating early catch-all that effectively extends the concerns of Digital Conservation.

While all of these terms have attracted multi-disciplinary perspectives, the disciplinary origins, mix of disciplines, leanings and abilities to speak across a broad spectrum have varied considerably with each term. For example, Digital Conversation attracts technologists and conservation practitioners, but Media Ecologies – for all its attention to actual stuff – seems to appeal mainly on a conceptual and academic level.

With regards to alternatives and complements, Digital Nature has been floated in some literature, but I have yet to come across work that clearly sets a case for its use, in part possibly because of the conceptual ‘trickiness’ of nature itself. This is not to say that ‘anthropocene’ is any less tricky, or that ‘ecologies’ is a clearer term. These likely just have just had shorter histories or more limited traction than ‘nature’, and therefore have had less time to accrue baggage from troublesome social scientists. Digital Environmentalism has also been used in the literature, and is a crucial part of the story (not least for my own research), but this seems to me to be a key conceptual subset, for Digital Activism/Social Justice and Digital Anthropocene/Ecologies.

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Work in Progress

This page is a work in progress on the Digital Anthropocene (DigAnt). The concept of the Digital Anthropocene is one that I have been thinking about a great deal with my research on technologically mediated human-nature relationship since 2012, under the rubric of Digital Conservation. I have since seen these and associated terms e.g. Digital Ecologies, Digital Nature, emerging and gaining some traction in relevant literature. On this blog, as I start to piece together my writing after 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork on digital environmental activism, I intend to post some initial review pieces, reflection posts and a tentative syllabus. Please stay tuned or get in touch.