There is a tendency to make waste invisible, pushed out of sight and out of mind. There is a tendency to make the internet invisible: virtual, a parallel universe. Both of these tendencies are misguided. They separate us from cause and effect, production and consumption, our social and economic lives and their impact on the so-called natural world.
We describe these impacts as Cyber-Waste, the hidden environmental and social harms brought about by digital technology and its infrastructures. The digital arrangements we depend on are not as benign, clean, and utopian as they are often presented. Nor are their design and structure inevitable. Rather, they emerge from historical, economic and political contexts and choices.
There are many points from which you could start this story. One is the industrial revolution, a time of rapid expansion of imperialist fossil capitalism alongside the emergence of telegram communications. Another is the aftermath of WW2, the start of the Great Acceleration and the permanent mobilisation of the American wartime economy. This period also saw the emergence of cybernetics, a field that conceptualised life on earth as a series of interconnected ecosystems and feedback loops, ultimately a communications network for living beings and machines.
We focus on Cyber-Waste as it exists today, contextualising it in the years since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). A time of rapidly unfolding and increasingly visible climate breakdown and rampant economic inequality, a time where heavily capitalised technology firms and governmental architectures have established greater and greater control over economic and social coordination. Their power is large and increasingly hard to constrain, narrowing the capacity to hold their harms to account.
This power has accelerated even further in the last year, with the Covid-19 pandemic collapsing some sectors and boosting others, none more so than technology companies whose use has shot up even further during lockdowns. At one point in April last year, the market capitalisation of the Big Five US tech firms (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft) accounted for 20% of the total value of the S&P 500, and in May, at a moment of zero work travel and seemingly infinite video conferencing, Zoom was valued higher than the seven largest airlines combined.
And despite the idea of a clean, green, post-industrial informational economy that has been promised for decades, or maybe because of it, it is often overlooked that digital technology and its infrastructures produce quite a lot of waste, of many forms, in many places. As Hunter Vaughan says, ‘the smart tech industry convinced everyone that digital culture – data – is immaterial, and that’s why terms like the cloud became so popular because it makes it sound like this stuff is not stuff, that data is not a thing’. Lots of work, creative, curious and critical, has been carried out demonstrating the materiality of the internet. And lots of work has been done critiquing the political economy of digital technology as it exists in the 21st century, from early warnings about solutionism and data populism, through to analyses of what is variously called platform, data and surveillance capitalism. Policy responses have tended to reflect the critiques, calling for break up of monopoly power, better conditions for precarious workers, greater transparency on terms and conditions, and so on.
However, we believe that the huge and increasing economic power of these (mostly) American and Chinese firms at a time of rapidly unfolding climate breakdown demands a fresh perspective. Cyber-Waste is a label that – perhaps ambitiously – brings these strands together and tries to account for a wide-ranging set of often hidden waste streams. It argues that there is no distinction between the so-called digital and real world. It argues that the atomising power of life mediated by digital technology hides its effects. It argues that the relentless pursuit of growth in the face of competition adds to existing waste production and creates new forms of it as well, even in a so-called digital economy.
Waste is a useful lens for this study. A slippery term, laden with power relations, geographical pathways and moral baggage, it encourages us to question what is valuable and what is harmful. The study of waste is a fascinating area. Cyber-Waste takes many forms. Well publicised photos of physical decay dominate the imagination, like the mountains of toxic eWaste in places like Guiyu, and the accompanying informal economies that sit on top of it. However, these accounts obscure the fact that, just like much manufacturing, over 90% of electronic waste is produced in its production, not its post-consumer life. This is why Cyber-Waste looks at sites of extraction of earth materials such as copper or lithium, and the environmental and biodiversity losses sustained in satisfying the global demand for electronic devices. It also looks at the governance of data, a universally produced but privately hoarded commodity and asset, and the waste trails of slick, ‘efficient’ on-demand digital services. It looks at the so-called digital public sphere, a site of time wasted for better and worse, and the runaway climate disaster of digital currencies like Bitcoin.
PostRational has created a virtual exhibition about Cyber-Waste. Part of the Forecast Platform programme, developed in partnership with WAAG and mentored by writer, critic and founder of The Syllabus Evgeny Morozov, it invites people to consider the accumulative waste effects of our so-called digital world. Fittingly a virtual-only exhibit due to Covid-19 restrictions, find yourself simultaneously in your own room, in an exhibition hall in Berlin, and on a server somewhere in the Netherlands.
The systems just behind our direct encounters with digital technology are designed in a way that produces a lot of waste and harm. We believe these harms are not inevitable, nor are they necessary at a time of environmental and social degradation. Other designs are possible, but first we must see, understand and discuss what we are dealing with.
This article was written by Dan Gavshon Kirkbride, a former Global Political Economy student at Goldsmiths. He can be found at @DanGB88.
Dan is a founding member of PostRational, a fictional consultancy. PostRational have previously published with Goldsmiths Press and MIT Press. Cyber-Waste is their first exhibition, launching on Friday 9th April 2021.