Archive for May 2009

Rethinking Our Resource Taxonomy

May 27, 2009

At the endpoint of our last discussion, we came to the conclusion that if was necessary to sort out the assumptions involved in classifying resources into the categories of Natural, Technological, and Cultural. In particular, we need to figure out how our ideas about access and enclosure might change depending on what sort of resource we are addressing. In order to set up a foundation for further inquiry, here are a few points that have already come up and some initial questions that emerge:

1. Taking from Walter Benjamin’s notions about the nature of science and technology, as well as more recently-codified notions of envirotech, we want to approach technology as a relationship between humans and nature. This idea presents us with a potential nexus between natural and technological resources which may complicate our understanding of exactly what types of resources are being accessed or enclosed in certain instances (i.e., privatized water infrastructure).

2. In other instances, the boundary between technological and cultural resources seems similarly complex. For example, when DRM applied to an audio file, the process of enclosure is being practically applied across a spectrum of technologies (hardware, software, media file) that manage a relationship between a song and a listener. The ultimate object of enclosure is both a cultural resource (a song) and a technological resource (an audio file).

3. In both of the prior instances, there seems to be a tension arising between the task of addressing technology as an intermediary between people and some other resouces and the task of addressing technology as a resource in its own right.

4. When addressing points 1 and 2, do we understand technology’s work in managing the relationship between person and natural resource the same way that we understand it’s work in managing the relationship between person and a cultural resouce? In essence, this is to ask whether we have some assumptions about some sort of fundamental public rights of access to natural and/or cultural resources.

4a. Almost certainly, notions of auteurship will feature prominently in tracing the different sets of “rights” as related to these two types of resources. Do we imagine that cultural resources are produced though processes that grant their creators some sort of monopoly – economic or otherwise – over their use (as copyright suggests)? If so, where do we locate the limits of those monopolies and what entities or institutions should codify those limits?

5. On this note, we want to make sure to interrogate the notion that Cultural and Technological resources can be grouped together as “artificial” (i.e., human-made) in opposition to Natural resources.

Def.: Envirotech

May 21, 2009

I wanted to introduce this term as a shorthand for expressing the relationship between nature and technology discussed in the two previous posts. The term was invented by a work-group of scholars in the history of technology and environmental history, see “what is envirotech?” here.

Intersection of Nature and Technology, again, from Walter Benjamin to Virtual Water

May 20, 2009

Your previous post was so inspiring that I had to respond in a fuller form than the comments.

On the one hand, there are several recent trends that point in the direction Arthur is talking about – e.g. all the recent news about switching our medical records over to all-digital, “paperless” billing for telelphone, cable, bank and utilities customers, etc. There is a sense in which, at least informationally, we are moving more and more to an all-digital environment, where the digital version feels like “the original” and all physical, analogue manifestations like a printout feel like copies. It’s worthwhile, even if his ecological argument is worthless, to reflect on some of the historical trends he identifies.

On the other hand, your critique based on the very analog energy and natural resource costs required to operate the ever-expanding global network of digital (i.e. electronic) devices hits Arthur’s argument where it hurts. This really gets me interested as a historian of technology. I’m very inspired by the idea, once expressed by Walter Benjamin in One Way Street, that although “the mastery of nature is, so the imperialists teach, the purpose of all technology…technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man” (Reflections, p. 93).

Science and Technology: these two words describe the relationship between humans and our natural environment – what do we know about that environment? how do we use, manipulate and impact that environment? Every human production requires consumption. Producing mechanical or electrical power, for example, always requires the use of some preexisting natural material or force–sun, water, wind, wood, coal, gas, oil, etc. Technological systems like our electric power grid never function – cannot function – without appropriate inputs of human effort (work, use, maintenance) and inputs of natural forces or resources. Science (broadly, the production of knowledge about nature) works the same way. This formula (human-tech-nature) works equally well for describing the water mill grinding grain, Pasteur observing bacteria under the microscope, or a network of cellphones spreading over the globe like Starbucks (or propagating like rabbits, if you like).

You found this little nugget of Benjaminian wisdom lurking behind Arthur’s argument. It can be found hiding in almost any pat techno-determinist narrative like Arthur’s. And it’s going to be an important nugget to keep in mind as we try to make even stronger ties between our analysis of natural resources and technological resources.

When we think about technological and cultural resources, we need to seek the hidden natural resources behind them. So for example, John Allan of King’s College London, an expert on the water economy of the Middle East, coined the term “virtual water” (AKA embedded water, embodied water or hidden water) to mean the amount of water required to produce any given good or service. In this same vein, we could ask: how much virtual coal do we burn in each blog post? As you argued, this is what Arthur misses.

Energy and the Intersection of Natural and Technological Resources

May 19, 2009

Following up on the topic of peak oil that I brought up in the comments yesterday, I wanted to comment on what I think is a somewhat short-sighted Guardian blog post by Charles Arthur. The thrust of Arthur’s argument is that the rising price of oil combined with with the falling cost of internet connectivity will create a future where the analog world cedes more and more to the digital.

If you need a shorthand for thinking about the future, then, it’s this: analogue will be increasingly expensive; digital will be increasingly cheap. Getting in a car or on a train or a plane? Analogue. Expensive. Non-renewable. By contrast, downloading an album, watching a webcast concert, watching TV: digital. Endlessly replicable, virtually instantly transmitted, cheap.

What, in turn, does that mean for our society? Apart from fewer cars on the roads (though possibly with more people sharing rides in them), it means more time working at or near to home, if your work involves things that can be done digitally. For all those jobs that need to be near to physical things – that is, where you make things like cars or food or whatever – you’ll have to be based nearer the place you work.

Of course, this line of thinking begs the question of exactly how Arthur thinks this ever-expanding digital infrastructure will be powered? The same fossil fuels that are used to power cars and planes are needed not only to run the infrastructure that exists, but to create all the physical pieces of that comprise it, both in terms of the actual production process (running the machines that make the machines) and as raw materials (i.e., every piece of plasic involved). Presumably he did not read the 2008 Harper’s piece on Google’s energy consumption.

Of course, to the extent that solar energy technology becomes more prevalent, it seems difficult to imagine how that particular natural resource could be privatized, even though the requisite technologies could still be proprietary.

Technology Bill of Rights

May 19, 2009

Dovetailing perfectly with our discussion about the various modes of governance in relation to fair use, BoingBoing liked today to a Technology Bill of Rights drafted by Paul Venezia.

The six articles his lists address issues of liability for bugs in closed source software, the need for limitations on DRM, net neurality and anonymity, and so on. It’s a good thought piece in its own right, but particularly interesting here as we consider the various forms of authority that might be brought to bear on the privitization of technological resources. The idea that Venezia promotes here is that emerging world of digital technology and social interaction requires a codified set of universal rights for users, in particular to intercede in the imposition of (in this case, commercial or corporate) tyrrany. To quote Venezia:

The impetus for the creation of the Bill of Rights was the tyranny of the rulers in Britain and its effect on the colonies. As with much of human history, it takes a significant problem to cause the creation of a significant change to society. We may be nearing that point right now, and the time may soon be right for another Bill of Rights — one centered around technology.

Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, my sense is that the “significant problem” he’s referring to is the lack of corporate accountability inherrent in the wholesale privitization of the digital realm. It might be really useful to consider a comparison between this notion of technological rights and the development of labor regulation and unionization. In the latter, the notions of workers’ rights to fair wages, a safe workplace, etc. conflicted with free market notions of corporations’ (and supposedly workers’) rights to freely negotiate the terms of employment: if the poor laborer “wants” to work for peanuts, and the company wants to pay that much, who is the government to intervene? One could very easily see the same argument coming up in the contemprary technological debate: if the tech company wants to sell a product laden with proprietary, buggy software and the consumer agrees (at least implicitly though a EULA) to buy it that way, who’s to stop them? Indeed, this libertarian tone is prominent in the comments on Venezia’s post.

On a side note, perhaps Venezia should consider including an article regarding the retroactive disabling of tech functionality, such as in the case of the text-to-speech function on the Kindle that we discussed in an earlier post.

Introduction to Water Wars

May 18, 2009

Here are some public, usable resources for reading up on the current global water crisis:

Wikipedia on Water Privatization (scroll down for lots of extra sources and links)

Steven Jackson’s nice book review of literature on the Global Water Crisis from Technology and Culture, a leading history of technology journal.

And of course, my current guide to all things Global Water Crisis, Fred Pearce‘s fast-moving survey of global water problems, When The Rivers Run Dry.

Sociologist Erik Swyngedouw has written abour water resource management in Equador, arguing that flows of water are flows of power, too.

Award-winning documentary FLOW (For the Love of Water)

Kimberly Fitch recently wrote a dissertation on recent water privatization trends in France and Germany (see abstract here).

Recent collection of essays on water privatization in South Africa, entitled “The Age of Commodity.”

Recent argumentative essay on Water Privatization by Matthias Finger and Jérémy Allouche.

This only scratches the surface. There is a huge literature out there which I am just beginning to master! Happy reading.

Def.: Water Wars

May 18, 2009 defines Water wars as:

Water wars is a phrase used to describe increased competition for water resources, due to drought, climate change, or increasing populations; controversies over and reduced access due to privatization of water services; or the role of these tensions in leading to physical conflicts, within or among nations.