Computers as Poison

June 21, 2016     #related

While wrapping up my review of Ron Kline’s The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age, I fell down the rabbit-hole of his fascinating footnotes and somehow ended up landing on the January 1985 issue of the Whole Earth Review. As Fred Turner has described in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, the Whole Earth Review was designed to “do for computing what the original [Whole Earth Catalog] had done for the counterculture.” Kevin Kelly, one of the editors of Whole Earth Review, famously went on to become the founding editor of Wired Magazine.

I am not sure how representative it is of the whole, but this particular issue is astonishing. The title and theme is “Computers as Poison,” and the contributors include Langdon Winner, E.M. Forster, and R. Crumb! The Winner article is an early version of his now-classic essay “Mythinformation”. The E.M. Forster is his similarly classic 1909 short-story “The Machine Stops”. The R. Crumb cartoons illustrate a remarkably prescient article “Six Grave Doubts about Computers” by the advertising executive-turned-environmental activist Jerry Mander. Of direct relevance to my Dirty Bits project is his questioning of whether or not computers are “clean,” but his discussion of a host of concerns about computing, from its influence on occupational health and safety to its centralizing affects on economic and political power, are part of a larger conversation about the social implications of the computer revolution that has not yet been well-documented by historians of computing.

The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge

December 16, 2015     #related

The journalist Ingrid Burrington has been doing an excellent series on the infrastructure of the information economy. Her most recent piece, The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge references the Dirty Bits project.

Other stellar pieces from this series include:

Special Issue on Information Technology and the Environment

December 14, 2015     #new

Rebecca Slayton and I are putting together a special issue of the journal Information and Culture on Information Technology and the Environment. Here is the call for papers:

Information technology has long played an important role in structuring relationships between humans and their environment. In recent decades, digital information and communications technologies have been heralded as the key to cutting carbon emissions through “smart” electric power grids, improved supply chain management, and other cybernetic visions. Computerized models and sensors have shaped and transformed ways of representing and intervening in the natural world, from efforts to study and manage localized eco-systems, to global climate modeling and proposals for geoengineering. While many environmentalists view computing as a key to protecting the natural environment, others have underscored the environmental damage done through global practices of mining, production, and waste disposal in the computing industry. This special issue aims to deepen understanding of the historically contingent and changing ways that information technology mediates between social and natural worlds.

We invite submissions of papers that address the role of information and communications technologies in structuring human and social experience of the environment in any historical period, including the contemporary one. Information and communications technologies are broadly defined and may include non-digital and non-electronic systems. We are particularly interested in papers responding to the following questions:

  • Has the digital turn in environmental studies transformed conceptions of local and global environment, and if so how?
  • How should we weigh environmentally-friendly uses of ICT against the significant levels of natural exploitation and waste by the global ICT industry?
  • How has the late modern environmental movement influenced the production and use of information technology?

Target dates

To propose a paper for inclusion in the special issue, please submit a short abstract (500 words or less) to by January 15, 2016. Full papers will be peer-reviewed by at least two external reviewers, and will be due for review by April 30, 2016. Authors may be invited to present their research at a workshop in the summer of 2016. Final papers that are accepted for publication will be due for copyediting by December 1, 2016.

Lecture at the University of Michigan

November 09, 2015     #talk

On November 9, 2015 I presented a version of the Dirty Bits project to the Science and Technology Studies program at the University of Michigan.

SIGCIS Keynote

October 06, 2015    

I was pleased to be asked to present this year’s keynote address at the annual Special Interest Group for Computers, Information and Society workshop. The theme this year was on infrastructures and so was a perfect fit for my new project on the global environmental history of computing.

A brief description of keynote can be found at the most recent newsletter of the Charles Babbage Institute.

Association for Environmental History

March 21, 2015     #conferences

I presented on “Bitcoin ‘Mining’ and the Materiality of Digital Goods” at the Association for Environmental History conference in Washington, D.C. This was part of a panel on Computing and the Environmental that included papers by Joy Rankin (Yale) and Rebecca Slayton (Cornell).