CYBER-WASTE : WELCOME
Welcome to Cyber-Waste.io : a digital research dossier by PostRational.
Within this digital dossier you will find an assemblage of PR’s research findings into an emergent field: the study of Cyber-Waste.
Cyber-Waste.io is an online exhibition and open platform for theorising, exploring, and discussing the discard effects brought about by digital technology.
Starting from the view that ‘the digital’ is as real and material as the fingers on your hand, it aims to shine a light on unseen and out of sight waste streams that are produced - and hidden - by our ever-increasing entanglement with the network.
Our work on Cyber-Waste has just begun.
Please read the TEXT to read our theoretical underpinning to Cyber-Waste
Please watch the FILM But the Shadows of our Heel to see where we have found Cyber-Waste at the edge of London
Please poke around in SCRAPS to see some digital detritus that has accumulated in our folders during the project so far
Please scan the TRACES to follow links to other places where Cyber-Waste may be found or may be understood
Please participate in the DUMP and throw your own Cyber-Waste into the Landfill
The site as you see it is just the tip of the huge cyberg that is Cyber-Waste. This fetid digital midden will coagulate much further over the coming months into a much deeper and expansive examination.
We hope that you come back and explore more.
Huge thanks and acknowledgements to the many people who gave their time, ideas and curiosity to this project.
In particular mentor Evgeny Morozov;
Thanks also to the amazing people who gave their time to talk through our ideas with us; Gay Hawkins, Holly Buck, Ingrid Burrington, Ken Liu, Sahil Jai Dutta, Chen Qiufan, Thea Riofrancos, Simi Freund.
Cyber-Waste : Introduction
There is a tendency to make waste invisible, pushed out of sight and out of mind. There is a tendency to see the internet as invisible: ethereal, other, a parallel universe. Neither of these tendencies happen by accident, but serve to distance us from cause and effect, production and consumption, ourselves and the natural world. But, just as waste and its effects are very visible and real, whether solid, liquid or gas, and just as the processes and pathways of waste are visible and real, politically, morally and socially, so too are the internet, its effects and its processes.
We call the environmental and social harms of the internet Cyber-Waste, a label to bring together a layer of harmful effects brought about specifically by behaviours emerging from digital technology. It is hoped that this project opens up discussion about the digital economy not as an immaterial other-world, but as an increasingly dominant governance model for economic coordination that is both an intensifier and obfuscator of its own environmental and social harms. At a time of rapidly unfolding effects of extinction and emissions, we believe Cyber-Waste warrants interrogation as the influence of digital technology - and its effects - stand to increase in the coming years.
Cyber-Waste manifests in many ways. An obvious physical example are the mountains of e-Waste, toxic and harmful trash piling up and inelegantly discarded. Another are the waste effects of the production of digital devices and infrastructures, from copper to cobalt to lithium, with extraction, exploitation and huge amounts of energy integral to the mining of rare earth resources. Yet another instance of Cyber-Waste would be the waste effects and carbon footprint that emerge from platform capitalism’s data imperative. In this instance, the generation, distribution and storage of data as a commercial necessity results in vast data centres with gargantuan electricity and water demands building up around the world to trace, coordinate and archive human and nonhuman behaviour. Last-mile, on demand delivery popularised by Amazon and emulated by retailers everywhere has seen the number of parcels shipped globally to over 100bn in 2019, more than double than in 2016 and expected to double again by 2026 .
Less obvious examples of Cyber-Waste include environmental and social externalities of relatively recent digital consumer behaviour. The algorithm that enforces the casual cruising of empty ridesharing vehicles around cities, increasing environmental and social waste in terms of labour, pollution, congestion and accidents, is a Cyber-Waste. The proliferation of digital identities across the internet, where an individual creates endless logins, profiles, avatars and manifestations with each and every digital account opened, is a Cyber-Waste. The generation, seizure and manipulation of unimaginable quantities of personal data simply to speculate and inform supposedly more effective targeted advertising to generate more behaviour to be seized and manipulated, and so on.
At the core of the Cyber-Waste thesis are three assertions.
The first is that there is no distinction between the so-called digital and the real. This unhelpful binary distances us from thinking about material effects of digital technology.
The second is that the decentralising and atomising power of the internet hides its connecting and accumulative effects. This is why we choose the term ‘cyber’ rather than digital, a nod to an unseen governing agency in the internet as an interconnected system that performs certain functions.
The third is that the cultural logic of waste production and management is exacerbated and amplified by internet behaviour. The relationship between waste and growth is a co-constitutive one, and developments in how waste is managed and monetised reveal interesting insights for a world governed by digital technology.
The rest of this text introduces provocations on themes of Cyber-Waste. They range from the theoretical to the specific, with some more fully formed thoughts, some inviting questions, some just emergent lines of thought to be traced.
They are Cyber-Waste-Streams of consciousness.
Coldharbour Belvedere: A slice of LondonCyber-Waste
Coldharbour Belvedere is in the south east London borough of Bexley, on the south side of the River Thames. Belvedere’s history is deeply connected to heavy industrial development, the site of many dangerous and dirty manufacturers in the last two hundred years. These included bitumen coated copper wires for submarine telegraphs, fertilizers made from animal waste and chemical and explosive manufacturers.
Today, sitting at the mouth of the Thames Gateway, a strategic development area (SDA) for East London, North Kent and South Essex, Coldharbour is an area which supplies and manages the waste of one of the world’s global cities. Within it are Europe’s second largest waste treatment plant, Crossness Sewage Treatment Works, the UK’s largest ‘energy from waste facility’, Cory Riverside Energy, as well as a cluster of supermarket distribution centres (Lidl, Asda, Ocado) and well as an Amazon distribution centre. Opposite, on the north bank of the Thames is Rainham Landfill site, operated by French environmental logistics firm Veolia, and Rainham Marshes (run by the RSPB), which provide sanctuary for many native and migrating birds.
This constellation of retail, grocery, infrastructure, recycling and development offers a useful cross-section of several interconnecting processes that inform this project. Cyber-Waste are the environmental and social harms of the internet, a label to bring together a layer of harmful effects brought about specifically by behaviours emerging from digital technology.
Belvedere means ‘fair view’ or ‘see well’. A belvedere also is an open-sided gallery which affords fine views of surrounding scenery. From its own vantage point, atop a pile of trash, everything outwards, London and the Thames, may look normal. That Coldharbour Belvedere is the site of the unsightly and unsighted is given by its black box warehouses and waste management centres. The waste streams of easy accessibility and convenience may not materialise in London itself but instead their pathways lead to concentrations in places like Belvedere. Much of the Cyber-Waste of London exists here, where abuses of place, effort and time are all shunted outwards, removed in service of frictionlessness.
Cyber-Waste and the so-called digital economy
There are many terms used in our cultural imagination to describe large arenas of the internet. The network. Web. Cyberspace. Social media. The matrix. Virtual. The Metaverse. They are all other realms, places to go. Whether logging on, surfing, scrolling, jacking in or simply ‘being online’, they are presented as parallel places to enter, explore, colonise. Some of these other worlds have their own economies and currencies and relationships. Cloud computing presents another ethereal label for networked computing processes. It has been well documented that the cloud is, in fact, not a cloud but a large and ever growing mass of grounded data centres. The materiality of the internet itself is well-trodden ground.
In addition to the false otherworldliness of the physical apparatus of the internet, the coordination of economic and social life through digital technology also creates a false impression of an immaterial economy. Innovation in and widening accessibility to communications technology in the latter part of the twentieth century, and the rise of the internet in particular, created new developments in ideas about economic circulation. The role of workers in corporations began to be talked of less in terms of their manual labour and more in terms of their cognitive labour. This can be broadly tracked, in the so-called developed nations at least, against a shift from a manufacturing economy to a service-led economy. The most breathless champions of this supposedly dynamic, high-tech, knowledge-driven paradigm saw it as a liberating force around the world, freeing them up from physical work to be creative, sell their services and knowledge, using the awesome connecting power of the network. Furthermore, with more people performing service-led jobs and working through the network rather than trading in physical work, reductions in pollution and other environmental benefits would follow. This paradigm is considered compatible with tackling the threats of climate change and bringing about decarbonisation. A slowing down of industrial production and shift towards a postindustrial economy would be brought about through a combination of shifting economic activity, technological innovation and rising efficiency in energy production, as renewables became cheaper and more accessible, ushering in a period of sustainable, green growth.
This is flawed on a number of levels. First, the materials required to create digital hardware, infrastructure and devices are incredibly energy intensive to extract, with waste and cheapening of nature, labour and energy throughout the processes of production. Second, the energy intensivity of data, the fundamental ingredient in this paradigm, is vast and growing rapidly. Data centers emit roughly the same amount of CO2 as the aviation industry and 2% of global electricity, and the amount of data generated globally is rising at a furious pace. Third, there is little indication that material production and consumption is diminishing, even though the world is more and more online, spending an average of 171 minutes per day online in 2019, up from 75 minutes in 2011.
Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect the internet to reduce material consumption? Perhaps time spent online does not take away from consumption offline? Perhaps there is no real difference between the two?
Waste, growth and the data imperative
Nonetheless, the study of middens and trash deposition
has always been a central part of archaeological research as discarded
items tend to comprise the basic inventories of archaeological assemblages
Typical dictionary definitions of waste are misleading, tending to see it as useless, worthless and unwanted, something discarded after its usefulness has expired. In addition to all these things, waste is a process through time, an expression of power and a relationship to nature. The existence of waste as a social process permits and fuels its own reproduction, as it separates what we use from what we leave behind.
Societies have always produced waste: how they conceive of, treat and manage it changes. The relationship between private production and public management of waste is one that has occupied modern states for reasons of public health and also of public relations. They have created vast apparatuses for managing solid and liquid waste, through removal and disposal infrastructure and sewage systems to landfill, incineration and treatment centres. Increasing urbanisation provides the impetus for many of these developments, as there is a need to remove harmful substances away from people living in close proximity to each other.
Historically, there has been at times a degree of circularity to waste management - such as urban waste bought by rural farmers for use as fertiliser, which returned to the land. In these exchanges, the price of waste was pegged to its chemical quality; people with particular diets in certain areas produced a more desirable constitution of waste than others. Waste value and waste management has always reflected power and inequalities. However, for the most part waste is what is considered unproductive, an output of the growth imperative.
Waste is a multifaceted concept. As Holly Jean Buck writes, it can be thought of as an externality, a commodity and a livelihood . Throughout its cycles of existence, it is both produced and consumed, assessed and sorted and filtered, a collection of individual artefacts and an amalgamated mass, pushed aside so as to be invisible and yet a by-product of almost everything we do. Waste can be an inchoate mass of junk (how it is often presented culturally, the dump, the landfill, the ugly and the unseemly), or a commodity to be sorted, analysed, afforded attention and accruing value to those who sort it. It has become a truism to say that one person’s waste is another’s treasure; nevertheless, throughout history, waste removal companies have profited hugely from taking away what’s discarded, being paid for it, and then selling it on as raw material to someone else with a different use for it. The processes of collection, sorting and distributing turned private and individual production of waste into sources of huge wealth accumulation. The more a society grows and produces, the more waste it produces, the more demand for waste management, with little in the way of public reflection on the cultural mechanisms that lead to the production of waste in the first place.
This century, in the face of climate breakdown and mass extinctions throughout the natural world, there is increasing momentum and support for the agendas of sustainability, recycling, and the circular economy. The promise of finding new value in the discarded appears an elegant solution to an increasing consciousness of the limits of a planet of finite resources, where reducing the use of ‘virgin materials’ is key to slowing down the devastating effects of earth extraction. However, this way of thinking inevitably shifts focus away from any critique of production in the first place, failing to question the growth imperative and instead promising to tidy up more effectively. Jevons’ paradox from 1865, which observed that technological efficiency in coal use often led to an increase in coal production, remains the case here with waste more broadly.
It is arguable that the very idea of waste gives cultural permission to continue to produce and consume while separating individual human activity from an othered non-human world.
What does this mean for Cyber-Waste? We might do well to think about the relationship between growth and waste and data production. We know that the critical ingredient of platform capitalism is the generation, production, extraction, capture and management of data. More types of data conceived of, more forms of data collected and handled. For some, data can be thought of as a commodity: in 2017, The Economist compared data’s role in the global economy of the 21st century to that of oil in the 20th . Data can be thought of as a form of capital, whereby its accrual as a commercial asset that yields and generates returns underpins and necessitates its own reproduction. Under both conceptions, platform capitalism’s data imperative is at work, whereby organisations are compelled to gather data even if they do not know what to do with it. This mindset has worked its way through the economy far beyond technology companies. Storing and archiving all this data could present a logistical challenge; libraries and archives are not cheap. Thanks to the promise of cloud computing services, small and large businesses do not need to host large server rooms on their premises but can outsource to Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Alibaba and others to manage it for them.
These companies are the most famous examples of the big powers under platform capitalism, but there are many more who generate the need for data creation. Data are not naturally occurring, but need to be imaged and generated into existence, so that they can be recorded and stored and repackaged . It is data as a record of behaviour that calls up parallels with waste: a discarded trace of something that happened, as opposed to the thing initially valued itself. However, as suggested above, the data or waste that the individual consumer or citizen discards holds huge value for whoever is tasked with its disposal or management. The clearing up of waste is considered a public issue in many parts of the world, albeit one still subject to power inequalities between regions and nations (richer countries paying poorer ones to take and absorb their waste). Those in waste management win lucrative contracts to do their jobs, thus invested in the continued production of waste. In the same way, in a data-fuelled economy, might we consider the big data technology companies the oligarchs of digital waste management?
Cheap clicks and Cyber-Waste
It has been argued by Jason Moore and Raj Patel that the history of capitalism is a history of cheapening: of nature, money, work, care, food, energy and lives. By exploiting people and their labour, through coercion, unpaid care work and poor pay and working conditions, by extracting minerals, metals and fossils from the ground, by cultivating crops and cattle, all to perpetuate further accumulation, the processes of cheapening is entangled with processes of production and growth.
This is no less apparent with Cyber-Waste. This cheapening takes place throughout the production and distribution cycles of physical technology, where the ecological and social harms of raw material extraction for smartphones and green technology in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America have been well documented. It is also visible at the discard end of the product cycle, where noxious e-Waste mountains reflect the built redundancy of much consumer technology, and the power imbalances of waste management where toxic matter can be displaced to become somewhere else’s problem (e.g. Guiyu, China).
As well as the cheapening of natural earth materials, the architectures of the internet have created infrastructures of extraction, exploitation and perceived easy abundance. Combining the notion of cheap digital abundance with the profit-motivated tendency to accumulate and archive every interaction that takes place online, the energy footprint of the surveillance model generates hugely harmful effects.
One striking example is the accumulative effect of streaming services. Individually, a click is just a click, collectively they add up: the five billion views that Justin Bieber’s Despacito music video reached on YouTube in April 2018 consumed the same amount of energy as 40,000 US homes do in a whole year.
The moral panic around the pollution of the public sphere and the harms to democracy brought about by disinformation and social media polarisation may obfuscate more pressing concerns about contemporary media and political interestings, but the rapid dispersal of emotional intensity does come with social effects. The psychological trauma and human suffering involved in human content moderation on digital platforms is a particularly troubling example of the cheapening of human energy and life brought about by the commercial imperatives of digital architectures.
One response to this might be to think of it as an incentives problem: if people were more aware of the cost of clicks, perhaps they could be nudged into doing it less. Another might be to question the advertising model of the internet, its ‘original sin’, whereby all behaviour is archived and monitored, thinking of the internet as an archive and not a conduit . Another still might be to think of the social and environmental externalities of the internet as a shared and interconnected problem. By seeing the amalgamated costs of Cyber-Waste rather than atmositing their causes, we might think differently about the harmful and cheapening pathways of digital technology.
There are many more streams of Cyber-Waste; these explorations represent a starting point for theorising their pathways and politics. For further and related reading, see the TRACES page.
1. Pitney (2020), here
2. Ball M (2020), here
3. Pearce F (2018), here
4. Hickel J (2020), here
5. Statista here
6. Viney W (2014), here
7. Buck H (2020), here
8. Buck H (2020), here
9. The Economist (2017), here
10. Sadowski J (2019), here
11. Fourcade M and Healy K (2017), here
12. Gitelman L (2013) , here
13. Moore J and Patel R (2018), here
14. The Face (2019), here
15. Zuckerman E, The Face (2014), here
BUT THE SHADOWS OF OUR HEEL
Sound and Script - Katherine Waters
Video and Editing - Justin Bean
Historically, people have separated themselves from their waste.
On the scale of the society, the material effects of continued living have been burnt, buried, compressed, repurposed, sold and even exported. Faeces carried away by rivers and rain, corpses interred in shadow lands ringing ancient settlements. Landfill and middens blazing, rotting, growing overgrown.
Unilaterally, across time, waste disappears, slipping out of, or being removed from, sight. The dump grows, ignored, until flagrancy pierces its invisibility.
Collapse the processes of material production, distribution and disposal, and time itself collapses. Materials which are fabricated, stored and used acquire an afterlife as waste. Resurrected, they take on or become new energy. Spatial, economic, temporal processes fold into each other like so many feathers on a wing.
Some attribute particular powers to the things that we shed. Our wastes are invested with us, and if not properly disposed of or safely destroyed, could be used to have power over us.
Digital wastes we shed become data. The trails we lay online become maps for others to navigate by – through those spaces, into our own desires. Alone, we have little power to control, repurpose or permanently destroy these effects and these objects, intangible though they may be.
Trapped in rare minerals, information becomes defunct in broken and obsolete hardware. Atop vast fields where their being mixes with hospital waste, food scraps and other gross material, they will never again know agency. They were too early, they were never complete.
Contemporary data mourns its living-dead elders. These vibrant siblings power the network, the organs of our attention, the tools of our consumption. Though but the shadows of our heel, they determine the placement of our feet. Cast-offs that augur the future, their galvanising spark lays a smothering fog, a suffocating mantle over the world that quiets the birds and sets the land aflame.
CYBER-WASTE HYPERLINK INDEX
Bennett J (2010), Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
Bonneuil C and Fressoz JB (2017), The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us
Bridle J (2019), New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
Daggett CN (2019), The Birth of Energy
Hawkins G (2006), The Ethics of Waste: how we relate to rubbish
Mitchell T (2009), Carbon Democracy
Moore J and Patel R (2018), A History of the world in Seven Cheap Things
Viney W (2014), Waste: A Philosophy of Things
Fischer, T + Herr C M (eds) (2019), Design Cybernetics - Navigating the New
Parikka J (2015), A Geology of Media
Short and medium reading
Brain T (2017), The Environment is not a System
Bratton B (2014), The Black Stack
Buck H (2020), Should Carbon Removal be Treated as Waste Management? Lessons from the Cultural History of Waste
Fernelius K (2019), The Global Garbage Economy Begins (and Ends) in This Senegalese Dump
Fourcade M & Healy K (2017), Seeing like a market
Haraway D (2015), Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin
Hawkins G (2019), Disposability
Hickel J (2020), A Response to McAfee: No, the "Environmental Kuznets Curve" won't save us
Langione M (2015), Will Art Save Our Descendants from Radioactive Waste?
Morozov E (2015), Silicon Valley likes to promise ‘digital socialism’ – but it is selling a fairytale
Morozov E (2015), Socialise the data centres!
Morozov E (2018), There is a leftwing way to challenge big tech for our data. Here it is
Morozov E (2019), Digital Socialism? The calculation debate in the age of big data
Perczel J (2020), Narratives of Dysfunction and Success: Stories in e-waste Recycling in India
Poggenpohl SH (2020), Waste and Agency in the Digital Era: Who’s in charge?
Riofrancos T (2019),What Green Costs
Sadowski J (2019), When data is capital
Tajima K (2007), The Marketing of Urban Human Waste in the Early Modern Edo/Tokyo Metropolitan Area
Viljoen S (2020), Data as property?, Phenomenal World
Zuckerman E (2014), The Internet’s Original Sin, The Atlantic
Laderman Ukeles M, Maintenance Art
Robert Smithson, Land Art
Martin Howse, Earth Computer
Ingrid Burrington, Maps
Holly Buck, After Geoengineering, Politics Theory Other
Oxford Human Rights Hub (2020), How Our Clicks Cost the Planet: The Internet, Climate Change, and Human Rights, with Michael Oghia
To be sorted
Gauger EM, Rieper E, Morton JJL, Benjamin SC, and Vedral V (2011), Sustained Quantum Coherence and Entanglement in the Avian Compass
Kingaby H and Kaltheuner F (2020), Ad Break for Europe: The race to regulate digital advertising and fix online spaces
Menkman R (2011), The Glitch Moment(um)
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