Pernicious myth of digital-as-ethereal

“There’s this long-standing tendency to think about and talk about and market digital to occur or happen in a placeless place,” Josh Lepawsky told me. “We use words like ‘virtual’. That isn’t an accident. It has been part of the conversation around the industries that design, make and build electronics devices really since their inception.”

Dr. Josh Lepawsky, from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, is fascinated by connections between geography, technological systems, and their discards. He researches waste from the manufacturing of electronics to the end of their life. His work has truly opened my eyes to the huge impact the manufacturing of electronics has on the environment. Josh also explores where e-waste accumulates and who it affects. He has a keen interest in “how maintenance and repair might offer lessons for figuring out how to live well together in permanently polluted and always breaking worlds.”

One of the most shocking things I learned from Josh is that modern electronics manufacturers have had a long-term strategy to make their industry seem less polluting than the industries that came before. The Cloud is not an accidental term. It has a long lineage in actions taken by the technology industry to minimize the impression that it is indeed a dirty industry, perhaps the dirtiest of all.

Making the physical of digital invisible was “Quite literally designed into the landscapes of the place that is now called Silicon Valley, deliberately designed in, a primary consideration by the designers of those manufacturing landscapes to create something that would quite literally look like a ‘clean’ industry and be different from what industry had meant up to that point,” Josh explains.

“A lot of that design was about deliberately placing industrial infrastructure out of sight. Literally putting it underground. Things like chemical storage tanks needed to store the chemicals for the manufacturing process. So, it was a deliberate urban design process, and I think it has been with us since at least the 1950s. Why does it all matter? One of the ways that it matters is that it is very useful for the marketing and the industrial interests out of which digital technologies emerge, that they can trade on these images of being light, green. Think of all of the metaphors that go with the digital technologies we use, like ‘The Cloud’, for example. I mean, it’s hard to think of something more ethereal and fleeting than a cloud, and yet, of course, data centers require huge amounts of energy to be built and run. They require huge amounts of water for cooling. So, this myth of digital as ethereal can be very useful as a way to divert attention from the many classic problems that come along with industrial production, that is the use of energy and materials and the pollution that pretty much always results.”

Digital is physical. Intensely physical. Ounce for ounce, there is nothing more intensely physical and intensely material than that smartphone in your hand. There can be up to 60 materials and 1,000 substances involved in the manufacture of a smartphone. All of these materials, all of these substances have environmental impacts that have been deliberately played down and hidden by clever marketing and branding. We may live in a world flooded by information. But we know so little about the stuff that we use, the things we interact with on a day-to-day basis.

Josh Lepawsky chats with Gerry McGovern

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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