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

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Cultural Resources, General, Key Concepts, Natural Resources, Technological Resources

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4 Comments on “Intersection of Nature and Technology, again, from Walter Benjamin to Virtual Water”

  1. P Says:

    Regarding the digital seeming more and more real, I agree that this point may very well be true, but I also think it addresses a socio-cultural question (or a media theory question?) whereas my counterpoint is more materialist. Not that the two aren’t related, but the issue I have with Arthur’s argument is that he makes predictions the digital world as if it is somehow a route by which we can free ourselves from the necessities of material production. Clearly these technologies are shaping our relationship with the world (or nature), but without the fossil fuels etc. to build and run the infrastructure, the argument about whether we consider the output of these machines to be “real” experience may become more or less irrelevant.

    In any case, if we adopt Benjamin’s understanding of science and technology, how do we want to incorporate this into our thinking about privatization? I suppose you could say that the privatization of natural and technological resources is ultimately an attempt to institute a commercial barrier between people and their environment overall. This seems a bit grandiose and I’m not sure how much clarity it provides.

    Do you see another way we might want to bring these concepts together?

  2. pizzapelsa Says:

    Okay, riffing on your question about relating envriotech to privatization…

    When governments, corporations and other social actors enclose natural resources, they drive a new social relationship (private ownership), like a wedge, into the middle of a previously existing human-nature relationship (open access of all beings on this planet to its resources). Privatization, for me, is about who has access. I guess what I’m working towards is this – there are social ways to enclose resources (police power, lawsuits, private ownership, patents, tolls and fees, etc), and there are technological ways (enclosing land in fences, enclosing water in pipes, DRM, etc). Sometimes, as for example with fences, which are often easy to jump or otherwise subvert, it is not clear whether the strategy of enclosure is ‘social’ or ‘technical’ – but this only confirms the importance of “envirotech,” of Benjamin’s point that social, ecological and technological factors are always tangled up. In order to see how privatization changes both human-human and human-nature relationships, we need to pay attention to social, technological and ecological change at the same time. Thus “envirotech” and Benjamin’s quote, which blur the lines between natural resources and “artificial” (technical or cultural) resources, help put humans and nature on equal explanatory footing, seeing them in a dialectical relationship.

    So here’s the intellectual payout, I hope: to understand “enclosure” as a pointedly political (in all those messy Gramscian and Foucaultian ways) attempt to manipulate the relations between human beings and the relations between humans and nature. That’s the general idea – the specifics come in when/if we look at specific historical cases of enclosure, and decide what kind of local changes occurred in society, technology and ecology.

  3. P Says:

    If we:

    1. Agree that privitization can be understood as a commercial wedge between user and resource.

    2. Agree that technology is a relationship between humans and nature.


    3. Accept Benjamin’s argument that the cultural, technological, and natural are always intertwined.

    Perhaps we have gotten ourselves to a place where we need to expand the scope of our inquiry into any particular instance of privitization – to denaturalize our understanding of what is being accessed or enclosed in order to allow for this Benjaminian wiggle room between the three types of resources (natural, technological, cultural) that we established up front.

    For example, when we talk about water privitization, we are referring to government’s decision on behalf of the public to cede the right to manage the relationship between people and the natural resource by installing a technological infrastructure. Both the water itself (which could be freely available) and the technology (which could have been installed by the government to make water freely and easily accessible) are enclosed.

    But when we start to talk about digital content, I think this question becomes more confusing. When Apple puts DRM on a song it sells via the iTunes store, there are several pieces of technology involved. The DRM is a technology which manages our relationship with the resource of the audio file, but the audio file, along with the computer, the digital network, etc., are also technologies and must therefore entail relationships of their own. And if the final resource is the song itself (a cultural resource in our former taxonomy) then do we understand the enclosure of that song through private technologies the same way we thing of the water? Do they both originate as public resources? I guess that’s where we have to get into a discussion about auteurship.

    • pizzapelsa Says:

      Agreed. DRM and other issues of contemporary digital culture are complicated, and our new terms/ideas don’t necessarily make them any easier to understand, yet. But there is one thing to take away immediately from your comments, and that is: as we continue tinkering with these concepts, we want to make sure NOT to lump cultural and technological resources together in some sort of easy equation because they are both “artificial.” We can agree that a water distribution network and iTunes are different technologies – they are both human-made, to be sure, but that doesn’t erase the differences you pointed to in your comment. Cultural resources probably DO work differently in some ways than technological resources – so I guess our next step is thinking about how they work in similiar/different ways.

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