UC Davis Center for Science and Innovation Studies

February 05, 2017    

This past Monday I had the privilege of participating in the workshop series at the UC Davis Center for Science and Innovation Studies. Stephanie Boluk, Patrick Lemieux, and Bill Maurer served as commentators on a paper I circulated on Bitcoin and the Environment, and as a result the paper has been improved significantly. Thanks to Stephanie, Patrick, and Bill (and Gerardo Con Diaz, who organized the event)!

Currently Reading

November 21, 2016     #readings

Here is what I am currently reading. You can find the complete archive here.

A major part of my Dirty Bits project involves following the supply chain of materials that make possible virtual goods and digital devices, from their origins in places like Petosi, Bolivia to their eventual disposal in places like Agbogbloshie, Ghana. We can follow this component materials around the globe and across the periodic table, from arsenic to zinc. There is a growing body of literature on specific elements; my task is to pull these individual stories together into a coherent environmental history.

Veronese, K. (2015). Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth. Prometheus Books.

Fletcher, S. (2011). Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy (First Edition edition). Hill and Wang.

Sheller, M. (2014). Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity. The MIT Press.

Robins, N. A. (2011). Mercury, Mining, and Empire the Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes. Indiana University Press.

Ingulstad, M., Perchard, A., & Storli, E. (2014). Tin and Global Capitalism, 1850-2000: A History of "the Devil’s Metal". Routledge.

Computers as Poison

June 21, 2016     #related

While wrapping up my review of Ron Kline’s The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age, I fell down the rabbit-hole of his fascinating footnotes and somehow ended up landing on the January 1985 issue of the Whole Earth Review. As Fred Turner has described in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, the Whole Earth Review was designed to “do for computing what the original [Whole Earth Catalog] had done for the counterculture.” Kevin Kelly, one of the editors of Whole Earth Review, famously went on to become the founding editor of Wired Magazine.

I am not sure how representative it is of the whole, but this particular issue is astonishing. The title and theme is “Computers as Poison,” and the contributors include Langdon Winner, E.M. Forster, and R. Crumb! The Winner article is an early version of his now-classic essay “Mythinformation”. The E.M. Forster is his similarly classic 1909 short-story “The Machine Stops”. The R. Crumb cartoons illustrate a remarkably prescient article “Six Grave Doubts about Computers” by the advertising executive-turned-environmental activist Jerry Mander. Of direct relevance to my Dirty Bits project is his questioning of whether or not computers are “clean,” but his discussion of a host of concerns about computing, from its influence on occupational health and safety to its centralizing affects on economic and political power, are part of a larger conversation about the social implications of the computer revolution that has not yet been well-documented by historians of computing.

Currently Reading

June 05, 2016     #readings

Here is what I am currently reading. You can find the complete archive here.

One way of thinking about the role of geography in the environmental history of computing is to think about information technology as a form of infrastructure. The key idea here is that infrastructures are critical enabling technologies; their primary purpose is to make other technological and commercial activities possible. As a result, as Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder have reminded us, infrastructures are intended not to be seen. Technologies become infrastructure only after they are perfected to the point of being routine. We notice them only when they fail.

The global Internet is in that respect the perfect infrastructure: it is omnipresent and invisible; everywhere and nowhere. Using it we can connect to anyone, anywhere, from anywhere, but it does not otherwise intrude on our material reality.

One of the aspects of the Dirty Bits project that has received the most attention is the section that challenges this notion of an “immaterial” infrastructure.

When we look closely at the flows of material that make the virtual possible, we discover that many of most significant social and economic nodes of the Information Society sit at the intersection of traditional, material infrastructures like railroads, power grids, and river systems. The Information Infrastructure of the 21st Century is built around the bones of the 19th century transportation and communication network. These were in turn constructed along river beds and mountain passes. Geography shapes technology, and vice versa.

There is a large and growing literature on infrastructure. Here is what I have been grappling with lately:

Starosielski, N. (2015). The Undersea Network. Duke University Press.

Hecht, J. (2004). City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics. Oxford University Press.

Jackson, S. J., Edwards, P. N., Bowker, G. C., & Knobel, C. P. (2007). Understanding Infrastructure: History, Heuristics and Cyberinfrastructure Policy. First Monday, 12(6).

Edwards, P. N. (2010). A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. MIT Press.

(missing reference)

Jones, C. F. (2014). Routes of Power. Harvard University Press.

Preda, A. (2009). Framing Finance: The Boundaries of Markets and Modern Capitalism. University of Chicago Press.

As you can see from the inclusion of books like the Preda, I am adopting a very broad understanding of what constitutes infrastructure.

Currently Reading

March 21, 2016     #readings

Here is what I am currently reading. You can find the complete archive here.

This month I have mostly been reading about Bitcoin and other virtual currencies, as well as some larger economic history for context.

Popper, N. (2015). Digital Gold. HarperCollins.

Castronova, E. (2014). Wildcat Currency. Yale University Press.

Golumbia, D. (2015). Bitcoin as Politics: Distributed Right-Wing Extremism. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Malone, D., & O’Dwyer, K. J. (2014). Bitcoin Mining and Its Energy Footprint. In Irish Signals & Systems Conference 2014 (pp. 280–285). Institution of Engineering and Technology.

Talking. So much talking …

March 01, 2016    

I have doing a lot of travel giving talks about the Dirty Bits project lately: University of Michigan, Yale, Stanford, University of Nevada Reno. I have gotten some stellar feedback, and look forward to incorporating it. Right now, however, I am just tired.

© 2015 Nathan Ensmenger