The Matter of Technology – Why it Matters

Anita McKeown

CATALYST Manager, SMARTlab UCD
Power / Gridlocked Panel Convenor, with panelists: Tara Baoth Mooney (SMARTlab, Ireland), Claire Cote, (Artist / Founder of LEAP, New Mexico, United States), Ruth Catlow (Furtherfield, United Kingdom), Anna Keleher, (Artist, UK), PLAND, (Practice Liberating Art through Necessary Dislocation, New Mexico.)

The Matter of Technology, 2012, Anita Mckeown, video summary of the panel presented at ISEA2012 Machine Wilderness Theme: Power / Gridlock, ©Anita McKeown. (Used with permission.)

Is the cloud a green technology alternative or a dark storm brewing? When an avatar in Second Life [1] generates a carbon footprint equivalent to that of an individual in Brazil then, perhaps, it is time to take a closer look at The Matter of Technology.

The panel was convened during ISEA2012 under the theme Power / Gridlocked, bringing together artists, technologists and activists to present their practices as a means to consider our complex relationship with digital / electronic technology and its resource consumption. With the onset of cloud computing and the increasing ubiquity of our technology we are consuming more electricity and natural resources than ever before, yet often the relationship between our gigabytes of storage and our carbon footprints remain invisible.

Technology has multiple benefits for sustainability and quality of life such as monitoring power usage in web 2.0 technologies that consolidate and disseminate knowledge, or as assistive technology in ‘Bones,’ the high-tech orthopedic cast that monitors recovery through an electromyographic (EMG) sensor created by Brazilian designer Pedro Nakazato Andrade. However, most of us are unaware of the relationship between gigabytes of storage, our electronic waste, and our carbon and environmental footprints – too often an abstract concept.

Despite its benefits, statistics and current research predict that an increasing reliance on the cloud and Internet will result in more consumption of electricity and natural resources such as rare earth metals, rather than less. [2] Rare Earth Metals are the seventeen chemical elements and the building blocks of our current technologies. They are considered rare because their extraction is not often commercially viable. Not only prevalent in electronics, rare earth metals are also integral to many emergent ‘Cleantech’ [3] industries whether alternative energy such as solar cells or wind turbines, energy efficient appliances or future fuel replacements.

The development of new technology parallels some of the current discussions around replacement of the fossil fuel industry. Yet, there are no alternatives for the rare earth metals, as they cannot be synthesized. A few geologists and materials chemists [4] are attempting to calculate the material costs of our technology use, as presently an accurate account of the annual global consumption of rare earth metals is unknown.

A World Wildlife Fund study in 2002 projected that by 2050 the earth would not have the resources to sustain human life. Tom Graedel acknowledges the limitations as many rare earth metals “appear inadequate to sustain the modern ‘developed world’ quality of life for all of Earth’s people under contemporary technology.” [5] A collaborator of Graedel’s, Dr. Armin Reller, estimates that “zinc could be used up by 2037; indium and hafnium – increasingly important in computer chips – could be gone by 2017.” [6] The full implications of our current consumption have yet to be factored into the creation of new technology, with governments and academics only beginning to realize potential future problems. With such gloomy predictions on the reserves of basic components, questions are raised on the cloud‘s performance as a green alternative and it indeed begins to appear ever more as a dark storm brewing that could add to our problems.

Furthermore, issues such as the link between our smart technologies and the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and what is increasingly known as ‘conflict metals’ e.g. tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold, used in mobile / smart phones and touch screens are often unknown. Militia groups like the Rwandan linked FDLR charged with human rights abuses such as mass murder, rape and enforced recruitment, control much of the mining of these metals in the DRC.

Greenpeace International have undertaken a number of audits that highlight the carbon usage of many of our social media platforms and other reports consider water usage, necessary when cooling data centres. [7] Linden Labs, the company behind Second Life have calculated the kilowatt-hours generated by the servers in data centres, their air conditioning, personal computers and number of users that is consumed by approx. 12.500 ‘living’ avatars per hour. [8] Per user, a virtual alter ego’s carbon footprint has been calculated as equivlent to the average use of an individual in Brazil.

If one were better informed, would one make different technology choices and develop different technologies?

The accompanying video introduces some of the key concerns, research and statistics that motivated the panel, and includes a summary of how each of the invited panellists are engaging with such matters in their own practices. The panellists collectively offer a broad range of creative, solution-driven strategies investigating the following questions:

1. How might we make The Matter of Technology more visible through creative practice?
2. How can we co-create disruptive yet sustainable technologies that address current issues?
3. Given our current reliance on technology, how might we transition to a more sustainable future that harnesses the potential of technology without adding to the problems?

The panellists were convened to discuss the theme from their own perspectives and practices, whether through gathering and disseminating information or collaborating to develop effective solutions and meaningful technology for our future. Each panel member outlined their approach regarding the consumption of natural resources, and on the production and use of technology within artistic practice. These viewpoints are succinctly reflected in the following paragraphs that include descriptions on the four presenters’ projects:

Tara Baoth Mooney, an artist whose work explores sustainable technology through the lens of SMARTfashion an interface between man and the immediate environment to promote reflection, communication, and emotional and ecological sustainability. Material Matters: The Matter of Technology showcased her full life cycle approach when developing projects and how technology is integrated creatively and mindfully within the designs. Her Diary of our Daily Threads project is a poignant meditation on long-term human attachment through textiles and clothing in conjunction with the sensitive inclusion of technology that will be used and re-used.

Claire Long Cote, an artist living and working in Questa, New Mexico – founder of LEAP (Land Experience and Art of Place,) an artists’ initiative and networking hub, and producer of NeoRio Arts Festival – presented her collaborative work with Anna Keleher, an artist living and working in the United Kingdom.

Their partnership is an international collaboration shaped by technologies of the past, present and future that could not exist without the use of digital communication and audio technologies. Their presentation included a pre-recorded message to the audience from Anna. Anna’s disembodied voice, clearly illustrated the use of technology to augment their practice and maintain their collaboration across the Atlantic.

In this way they presented their most recent collaboration Radio Dreaming, a five-part radio adventure and simultaneous Dreaming Pod Tour, a mobile, solar-powered listening and recording suite and collaborative drawing studio. This PlaceDreamer Tool-Kit encouraged visitors to climb aboard, and to listen, dream, draw and ultimately connect with their home places in new ways.

Ruth Catlow and Marc Garret are artists, educators and technologists who co-founded Furtherfield, a London (England) based organisation that promotes the ability of arts and technology to inspire the active co-creation of culture and society. The film We Won’t fly for Art (WWFFA) was presented in their absence and showcased their project that used a range of technologies (low tech phones / computers, the internet) as a way to discuss and consider the alternatives to attending art fairs, conferences or keynotes by professional artists.

WWFFA began with a published manifesto in pledge bank, a website encouraging others to sign up to it. Functioning as a ‘simple participatory algorithm, a pyramid pledge for exponential growth,’ WWFFA presented their artful exploration of an alternative to the prevailing globe trotting art career.

Erin Elder, Nancy Zastudil & Nina Elder are practitioners who run the PLAND cooperative, an off-grid residency programme based in New Mexico that supports open-ended projects that facilitate collaboration, experimentation, and hyper-local engagement. Erin presented PLAND’s work, a living breathing exploration that collectively pools resources, knowledge and creative trial and error that span the ages of technological innovation within the context of daily existence. Water, shelter, food, friendship, time, weather and the seasons become the basic materials of the residencies they offer, demonstrating that difficult situations inspire ingenious solutions while challenging our concept of technology and its built-in obsolescence through up-cycling and open source culture.

Ironically, the Internet and computers – in addition to digital platforms such as the one provided by Media-N Journal – allow for the dissemination of this presentation, beyond those who could physically attend, with much of the research undertaken online. Social media and VOIP communications such as Skype were an important factor in the development of the panel and certainly enabled the panellists to connect in advance of the symposium. Such paradoxes highlight the need for awareness and consideration when weighing up The Matter of Technology and how we use it – or not.

References:

1. A virtual world estimated to have 12,500 avatars ‘living’ per hour requiring 4000 servers to maintain them.
2. See video link for more details including references of statistics and research.
3. 3. “Rare Earth Metals in the cleantech industry,” Navigant Research, http://www.navigantresearch.com/research/rare-earth-metals-in-the-cleantech-industry (accessed May 30, 2013).
4. Andre Diederen, “Mineral Scarcity: A call for managed austerity and the elements of hope,” The Oil Drum: Europe blog, May 4, 2009, http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5239 (accessed November 4, 2013).
5. G. Haxel, J. Hedrick, J. Orris, Rare earth elements critical resources for high technology, Reston (VA): United States Geological Survey. USGS Fact Sheet: 087‐02 2006.
6. David. Cohen. “Earth’s natural wealth: an audit,” in New Scientist, May 23, 2007, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19426051.200-earths-natural-wealth-an-audit.html (accessed May 30 2013).
7. There are further references to statistics and reports included in the video.
8. Nick Carr, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2008).

Bio

Anita McKeown is an interdisciplinary artist, producer and researcher working in the public domain with research interests in open source culture and the impact of technology. As Co-founder and Creative Director of Art Services Unincorporated she continues to exhibit and to perform nationally and internationally, having won the prestigious Bravo Award, for a digital public art project in Memphis, Tennessee.

She was elected by invitation to the Royal Society of Arts and recently invited to the inaugural Placemaking Leadership Council convened by Project for Public Spaces, in Detroit, Michigan, in 2013.

Anita was Director of the new CATALYST initiative www.smartlab-ie.com managing a team of the artists and technologists in residence, from CATALYST’s University College Dublin base. She is currently on sabbatical to focus on her PhD and is the first artist in residence in the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, New Mexico, hosted by BLM Taos Field Office and LEAP.