Back in 1949, Martin Heidegger wrote a book entitled The Question Concerning Technology, in which he addressed a method, inspired by Aristotle, that continues to enlighten our understanding of cloud computing, social networks, and most technical innovations emerging today.1 To find the essence of media in his time, as we might do for the Internet in our time, Heidegger suggests four causes, or ways to observe them. Briefly, he lists the materials from which technology is fabricated; the forms that such materials embrace; the function that these forms execute; and the effects that technology has on humans. Judging from the perspective of various digital arts festivals and events, such as the International Digital Art Biennial in Montreal and Transmediale in Berlin, artists have given much attention to the forms and functions of technology; so far, however, surprisingly few of them have focused on its materials and its effects, which are intimately related.
Despite the mitigated response to such causes, an increasing number of artists have begun to express concern over the environmental impact of proliferating network technologies. Photographers, including Edward Burtynsky and Chris Jordan, have reacted most swiftly to these changes by documenting contrasting aspects of the ongoing techno-ecological crisis. In his Anthropocene project (2018-), Burtynsky demonstrates the devastating effects of extracting rare-earth compounds for the manufacturing of electronic goods in his images of landscapes transformed beyond recognition by open-pit mines and contaminated waterways that become tinted red by iron sulfides and other waste materials. His bird’s-eye views of scorched landscapes provide undisputable evidence that pollution from mining alone is wiping out entire ecosystems, with the extraction of zinc and lithium for phone batteries; gold and copper for microprocessors; bromine for flame retardants; and other toxic elements, like mercury, arsenic, and cyanide, to process raw sediments into the building blocks of the Internet.
At the other end of technology’s lifecycle, Jordan produces photographic series such as Intolerable Beauty (2003-2005), which portray vast mounds of discarded cell phones, circuit boards, and electric chargers accumulated into sublime yet deadly wastelands of industrial magnitude as a direct result of today’s consumer frenzy for the latest product upgrades. Numerous scientific studies have corroborated Jordan’s efforts to link natural disasters with the global expanse of electronic communications.2 These pictures also bring to mind the rapid rate of obsolescence of hard drives, cables, and other components of cloud computing—an issue that is currently sparking international tensions. Indeed, the largest consumers of high-tech commodities in Europe and North America continue to urge developing countries such as Nigeria, India, and Pakistan to dump tons of disused devices on their shores. Such manoeuvres contribute to amplifying the economic disparities among nations, in addition to moving the planet to the brink of climate collapse.
The problematic relations between the Internet’s building materials and the polluting effects of online browsing are further complicated by economic pressures, which Naomi Klein outlines in her 2020 article “Screen New Deal.” Klein describes how the forms and functions of emailing, cloud storage, and file sharing are reliant upon “millions of precarious workers in data centers, content moderation mills and electronic sweatshops around the world” to mould websites into the tidy platforms that Western subscribers expect to find.3 She concludes that the very use of social networks extends and reinforces social inequalities, producing a new modeling of the online subject that is closely monitored by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. Known as GAFAM, this consortium also monetizes every user’s browsing history, geographic location, and biometric feature, harvesting them from server farms and selling them to advertisers. Pursuing economies of scale, Facebook collects around 350 million user photos per day, YouTube stores on average 300 hours of video every minute, and Amazon processes more than 300 transactions every second. Given that data centres consume around 2 percent of the world’s total electricity production, chaos theorist Edward Lorenz’s famous metaphor should perhaps be updated to Millions of online files of a butterfly flapping its wings may cause a hurricane to appear on the other side of the planet.4
An increasing number of artists have begun to express
concern over the environmental impact
of proliferating network technologies.
Beyond its controversial hardware, other creators are addressing similar issues from within the digital core of the Internet. Combining prolific art production with lectures and book projects, artist and author James Bridle closely associates the experience of drowning in a sea of information with ongoing states of unrest in many parts of the world. In his 2019 book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, he chronicles the NSA’s attempts to anticipate terrorist acts in the United States, revealing how big data surveillance fails to deter crime, even as Internet communities are increasingly divided by fundamentalism, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics.5 Bridle follows a similar train of thought in his art practice. In Cloud Index, a 2016 commission for Serpentine Galleries in London, he illustrates how the use of online technology affects climate change: a vicious circle is created as more computing power is invested to predict the weather while atmospheric patterns become increasingly chaotic in response to the cloud’s growing carbon footprint. He uses artificial intelligence algorithms to fuse vast amounts of weather data with political poll results; these hybrid statistics generate virtual cloud patterns over specific geographical maps; the patterns, which vary according to elections, referendums, and other polling results, figuratively merge a region’s weather with its geo-political climate.
Bridle also quotes Heidegger in his lectures, recalling the philosopher’s discussions on techne as poiesis (technique as expressive means) to emphasize technology’s original role in protecting humans from nature’s instabilities. But how should the Internet be held accountable for the devastations of oil fracking, bio-fuel power plants, and similar infrastructures, when growing online enterprises like data surveillance, cloud gaming, and Bitcoin mining are so clearly increasing global energy demands and carbon emissions, therefore triggering more instability in the natural world? Should artists regard these latest advances and disruptions from a top-down perspective, as in Burtynsky’s aerial shots; from a first-person view, as in Jordan’s tours of junkyards; or from within the Internet’s digital matrix, akin to Bridle’s encoding of weather systems?
Questions like these should prompt art audiences to demand depictions, both negative and positive, of technology, to present a more holistic image of current geopolitical conditions. Rather than limiting its expressive range to celebrating our desires for technology, Heidegger’s poiesis might help us visualize how the materials, forms, and functions of intelligent machines are not isolated from present social dynamics, earth systems, and economic impulses, but instead are interlinked with all human structures (mining, manufacturing, finance, information, and so on) in a complex, self-organizing flux.
(1) Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1977), 6.
(2) Among numerous studies, see N. R. Haddaway et al., “Evidence of the Impacts of Metal Mining and the Effectiveness of Mining Mitigation Measures on Social–Ecological Systems in Arctic and Boreal Regions: A Systematic Map Protocol,” Environmental Evidence 8, no. 9 (2019), https://doi.org/10.1186/s13750-019-0152-8.
(3) Naomi Klein, “Screen New Deal,” The Intercept, May 8, 2020
(4) Consumption figures collected from Eric Masanet, et al., “Recalibrating Global Data Center Energy-Use Estimates,” Science 367, no. 6481 (February 2020), 984–86.
(5) James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (London and Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2019).