towards an ecology of media ecology
an introduction to the .x-med-a. magazine by matthew fuller
Should any society that can’t deal with the waste it produces be allowed, allow itself, to produce anything new? Why should we be celebrating the creative use of computers, electronics, media systems, when they are simply plastic wrapped condensations of heavy metals and other poisons? Can we imagine a technology that is able to disentangle itself from technocracy, the idea that all the world’s problems can be solved by the application of a narrow band of productised science?
These are not questions that this book is set up to answer, but I daresay that they lie in the backs of the minds of many of its contributors. If we work with media and technology in the present day, how can we understand and reformulate what we do in terms of the crucial realisation that the planet we inhabit is undergoing a catastrophe in which technology is both deeply implicated (the internal combustion engine, powered flight) and never more required (atmospheric monitoring and computer simulation of climate and ecologies).(1) In this introduction, what I propose to do is to firstly take some of the contents of this book as a way of pointing towards ways of differentiating technology and allowing its capacities and tendencies to become more fully palpable in specific instances. Secondly - taking off from this amazing collection of accounts, think about the politics and aesthetics of the kinds of practices (workshops, interventions, movement, programming) included in the book - this article aims to trace some ways of working that might be useful.
From accounts such as those of James Lovelock, (2) Lester Brown (3) and Jared Diamond (4), however circumspect one has to be about their partiality, it seems odds on that within the timeframe of a few lifespans, enlightened, technological, market-happy human society is plunging itself towards a massive planetary trauma. In its pathological stupidity it seems it has no intention of at least making some partial attempt at avoiding taking more worthy specimens of life with it. Nematode worms and dust mites will go along with Las Vegas and the Vatican. Capitalism is a suicide pact we never asked to join, one which must be reneged from.
Even if such a planetary mortification, the extreme future of Earth as a burning Martian desert, used as a figure by James Lovelock, does not occur, it is there as an attractor, a virtuality embedded in a potential future which we draw now nearer, now further away from. Under the force of this attractor, capitalism is cannibalism feeding back from such a future. Organised scarcity is organised as an anticipation of the time when, tasting passably better than the tyres from rotten cars, all that will be available to eat is the meat from each others’ bones. Against the ecological collapse being brought about by an economic system that will itself collapse if it cannot stop expanding, there are a myriad attempts at change.
Amongst these is the question of technology. Technology is the absolute narcissism of the image of control and it is the shrapnel launched by the explosion of a social and ecological reality that is out of control. Equally, technology is anything produced by humans and other primates, several birds, termites spiders and other organisms that allows them to trick themselves into associations with other entities, associations that make them more than just wildly spinning atoms: a held leaf that catches rain, an ear trumpet, a dog lead (5), nerve gas and medicine. Technology and capitalism are not mutually symmetric. Whilst they may have co-evolved, the one does not necessarily imply the other. One may have grown so much inside the other that it cannot continue to exist without a vampiric life support system. In such cases it should be ditched, dismantled.
A sage involvement with technology would aim at moving in two directions. The first would be to disentangle skills, materials, devices, ways of knowing and making from the ways they might imply a reliance upon and an inevitability of the planetary suicide pact. The parallel approach would be to work out the means by which, firstly, technologies, and by this I also inherently mean those of media, can be developed in tandem with forms of life which supplement and enhance the earth’s ability to self-organise in ways that allow continued and delightful human existence as part of this planet; and which secondly, allows us to find ways of testing existing technologies against such a criteria, finding ways of conjoing and working them against such a requirement.
Here, the utilitarian answer is a modest baseline: desist from the use of fossil fuels; take part in a vegan dietary cycle (6); make full participation in society not dependent upon either the self or the society being captured by concentrations of capital or burned energy; and so on. But there are other things that need doing, and one of these is the development of an imaginary of technology, an understanding of its poetics and a testing manifestation of those poetics in ways that allow us to think and sense through what that technology is, and what it is in composition with those elements with which it is conjoined. What is ‘the internet’ that subtle and amazing meshwork of millions of parts when conjoined with a supermarket? What is it when it is coupled with sensors tracing muscle movements through and across a dancing body? What are the basic meaningful components of all this electronic and computational stuff? What are these amazingly powerful little things called algorithms?
At the beginning of one of the classic textbooks of computer science, ‘Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs’ by Abelson, Sussmen and Sussman, a book that is core to the culture of the Scheme language as used in Fluxus software, there is a brilliant description of the power and pleasure of computing, “The source of the exhilaration associated with computer programming is the continual unfolding within the mind and on the computer of mechanisms expressed as programs and the explosion of perception they generate.” (7)
There is much of an echo of this sensibility in this vivid collection of materials. Textiles are understood to have social, political and aesthetic dimensions and a dress is described as constituting the space between the self and the non-self. Fabrics begin to perform in ways which are associated only with electronic media systems, or even weather monitoring devices, and coding, a practice normally done alone, separate from the moment of execution is done live, at run-time. Rather than being discrete layers in a process programming and synthetic audio visual materials fold into each other each rearticulating the capacities, norms and sensual/intellectual understanding of the other. There is a constant switch backwards and forwards between software and subjectivation, between matter and its context, between the moments of work and the societies they are embedded in and which they make. Almost everything in the book jumps it ‘proper’ category. The continual unfolding of thought and technology also flows out into the world. The explosions of perception they generate are always also tied up with forms of thought such as logic or other material formalisations such as clothing patterns, interfaces, and choreographic diagrams. On the one hand, this means we run the risk of riddling the world with yet more figures and devices of technocratic hubris. On the other, it means we have a chance to rethink technology, computation and the qualities of our materials.
So, given that this introduction began by a discussion of the immediate crisis in the chemical and thermodynamic circulation systems of the earth and called for a careful disentanglement of technology and capitalism, what should be done, and what clues are offered in this book?
Firstly, sort out your own shit, by this I mean, let’s change what we have the power to change: the basic utilitarian measures should be taken, now. Equally, this is a working area that can make a massive contribution to the thoughtful diminution of the amount of energy used. Artists, designers and others working with computational and networked digital media are well placed to imagine and kick-start globalised communication cultures, devices, and technologies that supercede our reliance on carbon-releasing burned fuels. For a start, the area known as media art should ween itself fast from dependence on air travel. Whilst one of its core cultural forms is the demo, the need to show stuff working with a live human ‘animateur’ working the knobs, it is also an area that has an immense capacity to work on and improve technologies such as telepresence (8) streaming and networked working platforms.
Many of the articles in this book develop an attitude to technology that is smart enough to be at once suspicious and clever enough to get under the lid and get to work at deeper levels than users are scripted for. All of the work here goes beyond the surface excitement of computing as a cultural material. We need to extend these qualities, and to widen their scope. If programming can re-invest the world with thought, thought with which it coevolves, why stop at the edges of the box? Many of the articles here are already beyond this question, showing some of the ways things might be done.
Four broad currents can be identified. Firstly, tinkering: knowledge acquisition as a form of direct action; the joyful, dogged, and ‘intellectual property’ defying, testing and conjoining of things to find out what they can do. Secondly, this book is rich with examples of people using technologies for purposes beyond their original intentions or understood conventions – such as developing computational clothing that interacts as a mischevious, doggedly, annoyingly, recursively horny, partner-in-play; or in learning by reverse engineering – and taking that principle onwards to the reverse engineering of learning. Thirdly, recognising the synthetic novelty and power of mathematico-material drives, conjugations of abstraction, calculational power and the capacities of different kinds of matter. Fourthly, a revalourisation of materials, techniques and skills that, according to the script of the economic suicide pact, should be reviled as outdated. Instead, knitting is coupled with computing and media campaigns against slavery and corporate domination of the imagination. Here we can see handcrafts and supposedly ‘obsolete’ knowledge, technologies that are out of date but that crunch numbers, make words appear, make patterns fly between fingers and flow structure-forming, entropy-defying information through networks and between people and things.
Alongside these elements of work, one can see that the organisation and knowledge practices that accompany them and make them live: the interplay of workshops; collaborative groups; skill-sharing; free software, open repositories of programs and information; and a principled curiosity that operates as much through sensuality as by logic and the possession of technique.... These are all ways of working that need to be developed, and in turn to broaden their scope. If we allow ourselves to make something new, it had better be different. Read on, carefully, disentangling what is useful from what there is here and there as a residue of the culture of the planetary suicide pact. Look for some clues in these pages: they’re there.
(1) See, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Third Assessment Report, 2001’ available at www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/vol4/english/index.htm
(2) James Lovelock, ‘The Revenge of Gaia, why the earth is fighting back and how we can still save humanity’, Penguin / Allen Lane, London, 2006
(3) Lester R. Brown, ‘Plan B 2.0, rescuing a planet under stress and a civilization in trouble’, W.W. Norton & Co. London, 2006
(4) Jared Diamond, ‘Collapse, how societies choose to fail or survive’, Viking, New York, 2005
(5) Mike Michael, ‘Reconnecting Culture, Technology and Nature, from society to heterogeneity’, Routledge, London, 2000
(6) see, Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, ‘Diet, Energy and Global Warming’, Dept. of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago, geosci.uchicago.edu/~gidon/papers/nutri/EI167text.pdf When Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli) say ‘Beef is oil prices and geopolitics’, they’re right, twice over.
(7) Alan J. Perlis, Foreword to Harold Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman, with Julie Sussman, ‘Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs’, 2nd ed. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996, p.xi The thinking in SICP also underlies some of the other projects here: in fact, the book was recommended to me by Casey Reas.
(8) See for instance, devices such as the Pre-sence Chair’ www.pre-sence.com/