Towards an Environmental History of Computing

Date: May 20, 2013     Category: research

For the upcoming Society for the History of Technology Conference, I have been working on a paper that situates the history of computing in environmental history. This is about more than simply talking about the environmental consequences of computing (although this is an important and intellectually exciting topic), but about the role of computer technologies in structuring the relationship between humans and their natural environment. What follows is a brief synthesis of the paper. A more complete version to be posted in the future.

One of the more persistent and popular explanations of why the modern “Information Age” is so radically different from other eras in the history of technology has to do with the perceived immateriality of information technology. Whereas other technological revolutions were so clearly associated with the production of physical artifacts and the consumption of material resources, the electronic digital computer is often seen as a low-impact, environmentally-friendly, and increasingly “invisible” (or at least microscopic) technology. We all know that our cars and factories pollute, that large-scale agriculture wastes water, and that our addiction to cheap consumer goods causes landfills to overflow. Information technology, on the other hand, seems to operate largely independently of the physical environment, and in fact enables us to transcend it. To the degree that we can work, live, and interact in Cyberspace, we operate (or so we believe) independently of traditional physical or political geography.

True, the geographical and spiritual center of gravity of the computer industry, Silicon Valley, is named after a component element, but even that small recognition of the material dimensions of semiconductor manufacture manages to conveys a larger message of incorporeality: in the information economy, simple sand and intangible “bits” are transformed, as if by magic, into wealth, power, and control. The fact that Silicon Valley is also home to twenty-nine EPA Superfund sites, the largest concentration in the nation, has not managed to change the perception that the electronic computing is a “clean”, post-industrial technology.

Drawing on the literature on environmental history, this paper surveys the multiple ways in which humans, environment, and computing technology have been in interaction over the past several centuries. From Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine (a product of an increasingly global British maritime empire) to Herman Hollerith’s tabulating machine (designed to solve the problem of “seeing like a state” in the newly trans-continental American Republic) to the emergence of the ecological sciences and the modern petrochemical industry, information technologies have always been closely associated with the human desire to understand and manipulate their physical environment. More recently, humankind has started to realize the environmental impacts of information technology, including not only the toxic byproducts associated with their production, but also the polluting effects of the massive amounts of energy and water required by data centers at Google and Facebook (whose physicality is conveniently and deliberately camouflaged behind the disembodied, ethereal “cloud”).

More specifically, this paper will explore the global life-cycle of a typical laptop computer or cellphone from its material origins in rare earth element mines in post-colonial South America to its manufacture and assembly in the factory city-compounds of southern China through its transportation and distribution to retail stores and households across America and finally to its eventual disposal in the “computer graveyards” outside of Agbogbloshie, Ghana. The goal is to ground the history of information technology in the material world by focusing on the relationship between “computing power” and more traditional processes of resource extraction, exchange, management, and consumption.

My goal for the SHOT Conference over the past few years has been to explore radically new historiographical approaches to the history of computing. (See, for example, my 2012 paper on zombies and artificial intelligence) It would be hard to find a less obvious approach to the history of information technology, whose material dimensions are often dismissed as being irrelevant, than environmental history, but I think this pairing is going to prove particularly fruitful.