Or, at least, there is an error within that logic
Long before the opening of his exhibition in Mexico City last year—the aim of which was to print out the entire internet—artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith received fierce criticism from fellow creatives. Along with exclamations about his goal being ultimately impossible, Kenneth was repeatedly accused of unethical praxis for planning to waste such vast amounts of the ever-threatened rainforests for his “self-centric” and “pseudo-artistic” act. An online petition urged Kenneth to cancel his show, some of the signatories encouraging him to simply extract an e-book out of the internet jungle instead.
The argument is well known and much employed. “Think about the environment before you print this out,” reads the footer of every third email sent today. At the heart of such politics lies the all but religious belief in the computer world’s immateriality and zero gravity—the idea that posting something online is somehow less environmentally damaging than printing it onto paper. Much like recycling, green energy, organic foods and biodegradable contraception, the digitisation of the heretofore tangible elements of an average consumer’s daily life has become a key pillar of today’s mainstream environmentalism.
The Inconvenient Materiality Of Immateriality
A few weeks ago, wunder-musician Björk (often referred to as “our Björk” by those in favour of nationalising the means of production) and her globally famed friends organised a gala benefit event for two Icelandic environmental organisations. Fair enough, one could happily exclaim, given that the spectacle—consisting of a premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ and a mega-concert featuring Patti Smith, Lykke Li, Of Monsters And Men and Björk herself—raised 35 million ISK to the struggle for the protection of Aronofsky’s set: Iceland’s wilderness. Fair enough, one could restate, as the wheels of the economy—largely fuelled by heavy industry (which in turn is driven by huge dams and geothermal power-plants)—have aggressively demanded faster spinning on that very same set ever since last year’s formation of the island’s current government (often referred to as “our government” by those in favour of nationalising sorrows).
In an interview with newspaper Morgunblaðið, Björk stated that despite her environmentalism, she remains “all for technology and progress,” stressing that it has to be realised by “21st Century means.” Fair enough, one might think. No matter the calendar numbers, however, favouring progress means just about nothing without further explanation. Eventually, the measurement of progress is a mere opinion, solely built on subjective valuations, feelings and sensations. To some living creatures—members of certain indigenous tribes being one, trees being another—the very production of paper is a violent act in itself. To others, the printing and publication of Andri Snær Magnason’s novels, the Bible, the phonebook—or, as a matter of fact, the internet as a whole—is an act of pure beauty.
Enter technology, a good example of which being Björk’s most recent artistic endeavour—the iPad-based educational system created parallel to her grandiose ode to Mother Nature, her latest album ‘Biophila’. With the help of Steve Jobs’ magical gadgets, Björk’s app allows kids of all ages to compose and perform music using simplified version of the tools employed in the production of the album based on the functions of natural wonders such as the formation of crystals and the gravity of Earth. Like many of Björk’s former adventures, the app is no doubt clever and most definitely fun to use.
But fun, unfortunately, has its limits. Leaving aside the question of technology’s alleged political neutrality—whether technology runs on an intrinsic agenda or if it’s only a matter of how it’s used, by whom and for what purposes—the online world’s environmental non-neutrality won’t be questioned. A single online search activates servers by the thousands, all of which run on excessive amounts of electricity and are composed of materials as earthly as these pages. The same applies to the computers, the smartphones, the iPads and the Kindles. At last, when the gargantuan piles of routers, antennas, cables, power-lines and tools of transportation are added to the equation, one cannot avoid walking onto the harsh material wall of the immaterial economy. And as environmental issues are directly linked to social affairs—societies are unexceptionally affected by mining, damming, fracking and other types of environmental disasters—social neutrality is also out of the game.
The Error Within
This is, of course, a topic that deserves a much wider and detailed (yet interestingly often neglected) discussion. However, one thing remains crystal-clear: there is an intrinsic error within a logic that posits today’s creative industries—especially given their gargantuan size and subsequent material dependence—against older industries as a 21st Century alternative, far removed from environmental catastrophes caused by their destructive predecessors. Just like the calls-to-arms for “recycling or dying,” publishing e-books rather than meat-books, and keeping emails locked behind the inbox’s well-guarded bars, today’s “creative alternative” blatantly turns a blind eye to the source of the problem it claims to be solving—raising false flags in defence of the human and non-human victims of past, present and future environmental disasters.
Therefore, at the end of the day, siding with the creative industry—as Björk’s collaborator Grímur Atlason called for in an interview with environmentalist website Grugg—doesn’t really mean siding against heavy industry and its even heavier consequences. While technological scepticism is absent and the environmentalist knight is armed with the hollow rhetoric of ‘progress’, the choice is simply between keeping a part of the current economy’s fundamental basis within Iceland’s borders or outsourcing them to other places. Needless to say, one would assume, those places tend to be—surprise, surprise—the so-called underdeveloped countries.
The de facto question here is not about the material grey vs. the immaterial green—it’s not a choice between struggling and sweating inside an aluminium smelter or chilling with “hope in a bottle” in front of the screen at the Plain Vanilla offices (or another creative enterprise aiming to become “the world’s most fun workplace”). Get rid of the material drive-force and then count the remaining QuizUp minutes—they might reach a number of hours for those lucky enough to charge their phones just before the shutdown.
Faced with such an existential catastrophe, mankind might undoubtedly benefit from having access to at least one well-maintained, printed copy of the internet.