Issue 3/2021 - Digital Ecology
The supremacy of the high-tech vision of the future is taken for granted to such an extent that the voicing of alternative scenarios arrives with the force of an epistemological breakthrough. The premise of Thirza Cuthand’s film Reclamation (2018), which shows a post-digital world in which the settler colonialists have abandoned Earth and relocated to Mars, leaving behind Indigenous communities to fend for themselves on a polluted planet, directly challenges the dominant technocratic rule. The schemes circulating in techno-futurist circles to terraform Mars by detonating nuclear bombs to melt its icecaps and create a breathable atmosphere are revealed as privileged white fantasies for escaping climate disaster. At the same time, the tables are turned by imagining another path to the future in which two-spirit people take the lead in detoxifying the air, rehabilitating the land, and restoring communities. Breaking the futurological monopoly of the colonial extractivist project crystallizes as an essential first step toward ecological reworlding. As the film suggests, once the structures and habits of domination are relinquished, the restorative energy of natural healing and radical care has the potential to bring about a terrestrial recovery, with its protagonists’ fearing only that “one day the colonisers might return.”1
Could there be, however, indications that the hold of digital technology over the future is beginning to slip? When approached not as a succession of technological milestones but rather as inseparable from the gearing up of economic globalization and acceleration of climate change starting in the mid-1980s, the short history of the digital era is disclosed as contingent and circumscribed by larger forces. Distinctions made between the virtual realms of digital reality and the materiality of the offline world no longer appear viable in light of the ecological and decolonial critique of the Cartesian divide between nature and culture. The reluctance of technophiles to admit the complete dependence of the virtual on terrestrial materiality has also been shaken by the growing threat to the physical infrastructures of digital networks posed by extreme weather events. Although critical accounts of networked information technology remain in awe of its power and promises, there is new awareness of how digital culture “inhibits our ability to think meaningfully about the future,” by reducing our options to a technical choice between platforms.2 Explored here is how in contemporary art a far-reaching critique of so-called digital space is emerging, revealing the dependence of techno-futurism on fossil fuel energy and the mining of rare earth minerals, as well as making visible the interconnections of technological modernity with histories of colonialism and extractivism.
The universalizing belief in the neutrality of digital technology is challenged in Tabita Rezaire’s film Deep Down Tidal (2017) to expose how the internet functions as a tool to maintain and reinforce global structures of colonial power. Observing that the internet is as much “an oppressive space as real life,”3 and rejecting the framing of discussions of the relationship between the African continent and new technologies in terms of narrow technocratic questions around internet access and the digital divide, the artist set out to challenge Western domination of cyberspace. The fiber optic cables on the seafloor are disclosed as not just a technical mechanism for the transfer of data across the globe but also as a conduit for the transmission of “exploitation, exclusion and eco-system disruptions.”4 The fact that these cables mostly follow the underwater paths of copper telegraph lines laid in the nineteenth century along colonial shipping routes established in the slave trade era provides further grounds for regarding them as the infrastructure of electronic colonialism. The operations of this “twenty-first century form of colonisation” have been described by Michael Kwet in terms of the “centralised ownership and control of the three core pillars of the digital ecosystem: software, hardware, and network connectivity.”5 The artist however goes further, by demonstrating that the decolonization of the internet is not simply a matter of decentralizing ownership of the hardware and taking control of the software but also entails a process of digital healing to address the Anthropocene histories of ecological destructiveness and racial violence from which digital technologies emerged.
The ecological queering of the abstract purity of digital realms is tangible in debates around cryptocurrency, where the ideal of a purely digital currency based on solving computational puzzles and existing independently of financial institutions collides with the environmental realities of its huge carbon footprint. As Adam Greenfield noted in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, the economics of bitcoin mining depend on “treating the atmosphere as a giant heatsink, and the global climate as the biggest externality of all time.”6 The significance of the fact that many such energy-intensive virtual mining operations are located in southwestern China, in an area that is rich in hydropower and also inhabited by ethnic minority groups, has been explored by artist Liu Chuang in the three-channel video installation Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (2018). Aerial footage of the river valleys and dam infrastructures is combined in the films with images of bitcoins, abstract technological representations, and anthropological recordings of the lives of the Indigenous peoples of the region. The film makes visible the discrepancy between the illusory claims of immateriality of virtual realms and the relentless “harvesting” of electricity to power the digital mining rigs required to validate the blockchain, a massive operation consuming around seventy percent of the world’s computational power. A further tension emerges between the imagery of so-called high technology and the traditional technologies of the ethnic minorities, whose futures are narrowed and consumed by the forceful integration of their lands and rivers into the energy matrix of industrial modernity. In a moment when all three screens converge on the image of a spider painstakingly weaving its web, it becomes clear that the acts of colonial and extractivist intervention that make digital worlds possible are also carried out at the expense of non-human terrestrials.
The myriad interdependencies in the development of digital technology and the exploitation of energetic resources have been investigated in a post-Soviet context by artist Oleksiy Radynski in Is Data the New Gas? (2020). His research essay begins by analyzing current controversies over German–Russian collaboration in building the Nord Stream II (NSII) gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea, a project that not only bolsters authoritarian politics and oligarchic control of mineral wealth but also, by delaying the switch from fossil fuels, threatens the future prospects of life on Earth. Equally significant from the point of view of unmeshing the imbrication of digital and carbon histories is uncovering the role of Soviet cybernetician Viktor Glushkov in computerizing the Druzhba (friendship) oil pipeline network in the 1970s and his vision of Soviet society as “one gigantic cybernetic organism running on feedback loops and socialist self-regulation.”7 While publicly maintaining that cybernetics would enable a balance to be struck between the economic interests of Soviet society and the preservation of the natural environment, behind closed doors the scientist warned that by accelerating extraction the pipeline would hasten the inevitable exhaustion of the country’s finite oil reserves.8 Technological utopias, whether socialist or capitalist, that willfully turn a blind eye to the environmental impact of the physical infrastructures they mobilize, are untenable in light of the hard truths of ecological crisis and climate breakdown, while to ignore the ecological impact of high-tech worlds, whether cybernetic or digital, could be considered a form of climate change denial.
The sense of the Anthropocene moment of planetary peril and the resultant spread of ecological consciousness heighten the potential for ecological uncodings. As artist Janek Simon recalled in a recent interview, the “first crack” in his “technological optimism appeared sometime around 2007,” when he found out about the “economics of electronic waste.”9 His sculptural installation Alaba International: Selection of Objects from Alaba, Nigeria (2019) dealt with the trade in second-hand electronics or tokunbo in Africa’s largest open-air market in Lagos, which also serves as a station for disassembling dysfunctional items into parts for recycling. This form of toxic urban mining, in which gold and other precious metals are separated out for reuse, is revealed as a continuation by other means of the exploitative practices of colonial economics. The irreducible detritus of electronic waste also turns into technofossils, the geologically novel phenomenon of the material remains of the technosphere in the stratigraphy of the planet. The techno-futurism of China’s largest industrial hub and global electronics manufacturing center is the focus of the paired installation Huaqiangbei Commercial Street: A Selection of Objects from Shenzhen (2019). The recycled raw materials, as well as tons of newly extracted precious metals and rare earth minerals, converge on this digital megalopolis, where the main factory of Foxconn, producer of electronic goods for companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Huawei, is located. Responsibility for the socially and environmentally destructive practices hiding in open sight in the circulation of digital products in the technosphere is, in that sense, both systemic and personal.
Nevertheless, the most entrenched resistance to ecological transition lies not with individuals but in the rear-guard actions of extractivist corporations. At a moment when the spiraling effects of climate change are more and more tangible in the everyday lives of people across the planet, oil companies have changed strategy and are now advocating for the generalized adoption of technological procedures that would allow them to continue extracting oil while claiming to be sustainable. Oliver Ressler’s film Carbon and Captivity (2020) takes as its focus the world’s largest facility for testing carbon capture technologies on an industrial scale at the Technology Centre Mongstad in Norway. The techno-futurist vision of relying on technology to solve environmental problems is voiced by an official guide to the refinery complex, who gives an optimistic assessment of the prospects of carbon sequestration and storage on the seafloor. Exposing the way such ideas are deployed to maintain the dominance of the extractivist system, the film points to the environmental hazards posed by risky procedures to sink carbon into the Earth and the nonsensical subsidies paid to the oil industry to develop a technology that would perpetuate global dependence on fossil fuel extractivism. “Captivity” in the title stands therefore not only for the technological system of carbon capture but also for the lack of freedom to change in societies imprisoned by an oil industry determined to postpone the post-fossil future indefinitely.
The techno-futurist belief in the viability of using technology to terraform the planet to ensure it continues to be a viable host for biological life is necessarily accompanied by high expectations about the potential of artificial intelligence.10 Fascinated by the confidence of futurologists in the imminent emergence of a new kind of living being that “will be 10,000 times more intelligent than we are,” artist Anne Duk Hee Jordan set out to create a truer and more differentiated portrayal of the interaction of machines, nature, and humankind.11 Her evolving series of dysfunctional robotic sculptures entitled Artificial Stupidity (since 2016), as a pun on artificial intelligence, investigates the possibility of unsmart technology, including a Water Crab (2017) whose ineffectual attempts at cleaning allude to the failure of high-tech schemes to solve environmental problems. Playing with organic and non-organic materials and forms and confronting the myth of technocratic superiority, another series of enlarged oceanic creatures entitled Critters (2018) was similarly designed to “remind us of what we do not know about the marine world.”12 The larger issue to which the work alludes is that relying on terraforming, automation, and artificial intelligence to mitigate the effects of climate change constitutes a huge distraction, when an effective solution is immediately available by restoring natural processes and allowing Indigenous and traditional technologies and practices of more-than-human co-existence to thrive.
Taking the digitalization of the material world and the automation of formerly natural processes using artificial intelligence to their logical conclusion, Jakob Kudsk Steensen has repurposed virtual reality as a tool of de-extinction. For Re-animated (2018–19) he used VR technology to create a digital reconstruction of the Kaua’i ʻōʻō bird that went extinct in 1987 on Hawaii but whose memory has been kept alive on social media through the popularity of archival recordings of the lonely mating call of the last of its species. By drawing on the holdings of the American Museum of Natural History, interviews with scientists, and 3D scans of flora and fauna, the artist used computer algorithms and his skills as a “digital gardener” to develop a hyperreal ecosystem for the biologically extinct bird. The work references the gulf between computerized simulations used by climate scientists to model future scenarios on a planet that is two, four, or six degrees warmer than it was before the Anthropocene and our everyday understanding of the physical conditions of the natural world. However, it could be observed that in moving toward the upper end of the scale of global warming, even digital gardens would dry up and their virtual inhabitants perish when the infrastructures on which electronic worlds depend also go down.
In his exploration of the notion of cosmotechnics, theorist Yuk Hui has identified a gap in the anthropological discussion of ontological pluralism around the question of technology, arguing that different world cultures may not only have their own ways of relating to the natural world but also their own attitude towards technology.13 Disputing the Western assumption that technology is anthropologically universal, he has argued that, in order to refuse the “homogenous technological future that is presented to us as the only option,” every non-European culture “must systematize its own cosmotechnics.”14 The rise of a “mono-technological culture” in which the universalizing aspirations of modern technology determine the “relation between human and non-human beings, human and cosmos, and nature and culture,” was made possible “by the history of colonization, modernization and globalization,” and led directly to the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene.15 Hui’s preliminary definition of cosmotechnics as the “unification between the cosmic order and the moral order through technical activities,” was deliberately formulated to resist the tendency to detach technology from the broader realities that enable and constrain it.16 Attempts in contemporary art to dispute the digital realm’s universalism, immateriality, and separation from offline realities and to locate it within the historical and environmental contexts that drove and now constrain its development are implicitly aligned with this understanding of cosmotechnics.
The complex interplay between globalized cultures, non-Western ontologies, ecological realities, and technological developments, as well as the evolution of human subjectivity in the Anthropocene, were problematized in Korakrit Arunanondchai’s multifaceted installation Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 3 (2015). The information overload of a saturated global culture was addressed in a chaotic environment consisting of paint-splashed mannequins, expressive canvases mounted on scaffolding, and the technological paraphernalia of a TV studio. At the heart of the installation was a film in which the artist, dressed in ripped jeans to symbolize the rebelliousness of youth subcultures, engages in a conversation with a drone. Epitomizing the vertical perspective of technological mastery and the neo-colonial domination of peripheral territories—in this case views of Thailand’s scenic islands and cityscapes—the drone is a cross-cultural figure named Chantri inspired by the Garuda bird of Hindu and Buddhist mythology. The work probed the discrepancies between Eastern and Western worldviews or, to use Hui’s term cosmotechnics, those surrounding the convergence of spirituality and machines. In other words, although everyone is interconnected in the digital sphere, there are many faces of technology, depending on which culture and position one approaches it from.
The decolonization of the digital realm, by stripping away its encoding as an anthropologically universal extension of the human body and contesting its status as a virtual space that exists independently of the materiality of physical reality, has the potential to pluralize the planetary future. The techno-futurist scenario for solving the climate crisis of the Anthropocene is revealed in contemporary art and theory as irreparably white, Western, and patriarchal, as unapologetically capitalist, extractivist, and neo-colonialist, and also as essentially duplicitous, diversionary, and divisive. As the climate crisis places physical limits on the further development of Anthropocene modernity, cracks are emerging in the monolith of homogenizing technological futurity, where ruderal visions of retro-futurism, Indigenous futurism, and Afro-futurism are taking hold. The key insight of Afro-futurism has been described by theorist Frédéric Neyrat as the call to “invent the future even when there is no longer any possible future,”17 a paradoxical situation facing all attempts to imagine another cosmotechnics under the conditions of “structural futurelessness” brought by climate breakdown. Just as today it is impossible to think or speak modernity without the colonial or industrial prefix, the same will likely soon be true of the digital, with the dropping of the pretense that modern technology can be separated from its exploitative and extractivist foundations.
 See Maja and Reuben Fowkes, Art and Climate Change (London: Thames & Hudson, 2022), 268.
 Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life (London: Verso, 2018), 8.
 Interview with Tabita Rezaire, “Reclamation allowed me to glow into my blackness, womanhood and queerness,” Studio International (January 31, 2018), accessed at: https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/tabita-rezaire-interview.
 Tabita Rezaire, Deep Down Tidal (2017).
 Michael Kwet, “Digital colonialism: US empire and the new imperialism in the Global South,” Race & Class vol. 60, no. 4 (2019), accessed at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0306396818823172.
 Greenfield, Radical Technologies, 142.
 Oleksiy Radynski, “Is Data the New Gas?” E-Flux Journal no. 107 (March 2020), accessed at: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/107/322782/is-data-the-new-gas/.
 “Cultural Geographies of Privilege and Exclusion. Janek Simon in Conversation,” with Ana Teixeira Pinto and Joanna Warsza, BLOK (May 22, 2020), accessed at: https://blokmagazine.com/cultural-geographies-of-privilege-and-exclusion-janek-simon-in-
 See for example the program statement of The Strelka Institute’s terraforming initiative, accessed at: https://theterraforming.strelka.com/.
 Anne Duk Hee Jordan, “Failed Bots,” artist text on Berlin Art Week website (September 4, 2020), accessed at: https://berlinartweek.de/en/artikel/failed-bots/.
 Website of Anne Duk Hee Jordan, accessed at: https://dukhee.de/projects/2018_CRITTERS.
 See, Yuk Hui, “Cosmotechnics as Cosmopolitics,” E-Flux Journal no.86 (November 2017), accessed at: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/86/161887/cosmotechnics-as-cosmopolitics/.
 Yuk Hui, “Foreword,” ANGELAKI: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, special issue on Cosmotechnics, vol. 25, no. 4 (August 2020), accessed at: https://doi.org/10.1080/0969725X.2020.1790828.
 Frédéric Neyrat, “The Black Angel of History: Afrofuturism’s cosmic techniques,” ANGELAKI vol.25, no. 4.