In current occupations, dealing with material questions concerning our technical infrastructures is often accompanied by a change or expansion of our human-centred perspective. Under the aspect of “upscaling”, tendencies are gathered that place human beings in relation to a larger planetary scale condition, like Benjamin Bratton’s proposal of a planetary scale computation as the foundational theme for the Stack.1 We also put our conceptions and ideas of the Earth itself, like the proposed geologic era of the Anthropocene, to the test. John Tresch, for example, shows how cultural techniques and artefacts in the sense of his notion of cosmograms have worked as means to project world views and forms of a visual culture that seeks to understand the planetary condition.2 On a similar note, Rosi Braidotti and her posthuman conceptualisation help to understand that ecological complexities cannot be understood from a traditional humanistic idea of the subject and, thus, advocates for a Non-Anthropocentrism.3 At the end we face the overarching question “for what Earth do we design?”, to quote from Lukáš Likavčan’s introduction to comparative planetology.4
By stones that calculate, we mean the assemblage of all information processing devices or infrastructures and their socio-political impact on our automated society. This website is an online collection of resources that maps academic as well as artistic perspectives which reflect digital conditions within materialist discourses. We have examined the research field on the basis of three topics from which we later derived sixteen aspects.
This archive is an evolving exercise to provide an entry point and simplified overview for inspiration and further explorations.
Last updated to version 1.1.
What is the stone?
The focus here is particularly on the material consequences of digitisation. In contrast to supposed dematerialisation narratives (cyberspace, cloud, wireless), we are interested in the extended cycles of digital ecologies. In the sense of opening the black box, this focus looks at the resources needed to keep a planetary-scale computation going. In addition to new spatial orders, altered temporal relations become apparent. By combining these enhanced ideas of scale, we are also dealing with different notions of the Earth itself.
Where is the stone?
A second pillar focuses specifically on geopolitical arrangements in the post-digital space. Post is meant in the sense of beyond the digital mystifications and naturalisations. Hence, the often hidden infrastructures of digital systems are revealed and tried to order them into an overall complex. We are interested in new emerging data landscapes, but also in perspectives from genuine data law issues, with useful suggestions coming from the discussions around the technosphere.
Who holds the stone?
The third pillar combines approaches concerning the conditions of production and consumption rendered by platforms and services of our daily usage. The focus is on the concept of labour and the exploitation of the human body. The discussion is nourished, for example, by notions of embodiment and feminist theories. The complex relationship of dependence between human self-perception and technical devices in the sense of techno-intimacy or moments of identification are also examined.
For a long time, we only knew spatiality as a performative instrument in the context of political order, embodied by the emergence and strengthening of the nation-state. At the end of the 20th century, the further development of economic globalisation, migration movements and new transport and communication media gave rise to fantasies of deterritorialisation through a focus on new virtual spaces and according imagery, as analysed by Ursula Heise.1 The depoliticised cyberspaces failed in the end, however, due to reterritorialised structures of geopolitical realities after 9/11 and the actual political relevance of the Internet and its simulated spaces. Already in 1991, Vilem Flusser described the more complex interactions between actual living space and virtually simulated space.2 In this new simultaneity of a strengthening nation-state and the influence of virtual spaces controlled by tech monopolists, new geopolitical systems of order which also include perspectives on developments in Asia Pacific and the Global South are needed. One prominent example is Benjamin Bratton’s Stack theory that frames the multiple layers of its accidental megastructure as a result of a planetary-scale computation complex.3 In a similar manner, Kenneth White asks for less entrenched geodeterminism, but suggests more geopoesis instead.4
The appreciation for the materialistic aspects of technological infrastructures goes hand in hand with the discovery of temporal dimensions beyond anthropomorphic and anthropocentric reductions. Whereas we cannot get rid of the former, as we always conceptualise time from our bodily perception, we can at least expand our temporal notion to the geological realities of our environment, following Rosi Braidotti.1 In view of the unimaginable millions and billions of years of the geological time scale, captured by John McPhee’s concept of deep time, human history seems to be in the blink of an eye.2 However, the aim is not to negate the human dimension of temporality, but to perceive the simultaneously dominant levels of time in our devices, from rare-earth elements to idealistic concepts, to the actual use, as Michel Serres, among others, showed us.3 Thus, it is not only important to get a feeling for the accelerated time spans of our media consumption (between March and April 2020, over 1.645 billion hours of live-streams were watched on Twitch.tv), but also for the rather slow environmental temporalities in socio-political contexts, as Jussi Parikka suggests.4
The idea of the Anthropocene as the new geological era assigns humanity a special role in the Earth’s ecosystem. This insight is undoubtedly important, but humanity is not the measure of all things. On the contrary, a view directed solely at humanity is blinding for larger systemic connections. Some theoretical streams, one might gather under the cluster of posthumanism, have been propagating this counter-perspective for some time now and are once again being actively recited in the face of contemporary discourse. The aim is to overcome traditional humanistic dichotomies, such as nature/culture and subject/object, and to open them up to new views of the world.1 2 For this purpose, non-human worlds of experience and knowledge are embraced (see also the concept of tacit knowledge) or epistemic potentials are sought in non-organic structures.3 4 Such perspectives make it possible to develop perspectives of non-human and non-organic entities in relation to an anthropocentric framing.5 6
Stones and Resources
The most basic approach when dealing with materiality in the digital world is probably the rock-hard realities behind our information systems. The creation as well as the maintenance of devices but also the large-scale infrastructures behind them consume natural resources in quantities that are beyond human conceptions but above all beyond the human eye. In this aspect, we collect voices that examine the ecological and historical background of these resources in more detail. In addition to rocks itself, which Jeffrey Cohen considers in relation to humanity, Richard Rhodes is concerned with the cultural history of energy.1 2 The complex interaction of environment and technology is becoming more and more pervasive, as it is becoming increasingly evident on the surface of the Earth.
This aspect tries to expand the ordinary notion of media by thoughts that are rooted in Donna Haraway’s notion of naturecultures.1 The aim is to overcome a simplistic nature and culture dichotomy by emphasising their historical continuity. When read in a medium-specific way we can even talk about medianatures, as also emphasised by Jussi Parikka.2 By expanding the scope of media, we can thereby include concepts of materiality that point at non-human mediations, like natural elements. John Durham Peters, for example, advocates for environments as media and looks at the long media history of clouds.3 On another note, with this perspective, we can also look at our cultural infrastructures differently. Instead of particular objects and rather as media ecologies, we can appreciate the full cycle of media realities. With this thinking in mind, Shannon Mattern introduces us to 5000 years of urban media.4 This materialistic reading of a mediatic nature also implies a conception of a full material life cycle that also includes the afterlife of most electronic media as e-waste. Hence, Jennifer Gabrys describes the full stack and cycles of technologies.5
The provision of digital networking, cloud computing and streaming requires an enormous planetary-scale infrastructure, the complexity of which deliberately eludes the eye of the human user. While Tung-Hui Hu draws our attention to the military past and the development of network technologies, artists like Ingrid Burrington show us why these infrastructures are hidden and how we can make them visible again via traces.1 Armin Linke has also been photographically documenting the visual phenomena of this networking through communication technologies for decades.2 The new technologies culminate in the urban centers of the world, and smart cities have long since ceased to be visions of the future and have become political reality. Rem Koolhaas’s research project Countryside, however, draws our attention to the fact that the critical infrastructures that provide them are and will be located outside the cities in the countryside. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the deep interaction between software and city, but not to forget that urban intelligence is more than pure data processing.3 4
There are many models and ways of thinking to understand the ecological crises of our time. The keyword “cycles” aims at systemic and network oriented abstractions. While Tega Brain still warns us that the environment cannot be fully understood in terms of cybernetic reductions and decided in sorts of policies, Keller Easterling proposes an updated version of systemic thinking with her idea of the medium design.1 Another approach comes from Bruno Latour, who finds a mapping of a new conception of the Earth in the critical zones coming from Earth System Sciences and introduces it in depth with the recently launched exhibition at the ZKM.2 Furthermore, Timothy Morton helps us to understand how a rigid image of nature can block ecological lines of sight and, in a similarly productive way, T.J. Demos points to the bridge between environmental processes and artistic approaches.3 4 We have listed some artistic voices that deal with such problems in depth.
Mediated vision has a long cultural and technological history.1 Facing the post-digital reality, we have to admit that the human “meat” vision has become an exception. In our current visual culture, most images are actually produced for machines or by machines that are completely inaccessible to a human gaze due to their digital structure. The dominant vision of vision machines, firstly defined by Paul Virilio, is a different kind of vision by human standards.2 On a structural level, it has a fundamentally different representative mode of operation, if above all data structures are compared with each other. Later Harun Farocki, building on that legacy, introduced the notion of operational images.3 A type of images that dropped their representational dimension and rather became part of a (technical) process itself – thinking machines. Still today, the conception of the “digital image” between the visible surface and the invisible mostly technological subface remains a theoretical challenge. Contemporary attempts to this problem can be found in approaches to understand the inner working mechanisms of so called black boxes, artistic counter-practices or conceptual re-framings.4
Modern surveillance as
dominant organising practice is (not exclusively) facilitated by digital information technology. Bentham’s panopticon1 is no longer sufficient to describe the current large-scale, invisible data-gathering and resulting self-censorship. All enthusiastically or resignedly accepted for profit, security or entertainment. Surveillance studies2 emerged in the need to bring together the myriad aspects involved, also with a particular focus on Blackness3 and from a feminist perspective4.
The revelations by Edward Snowden revealed a superior counter-player which popularised the privacy movement. The development of tools and education around importance and practises to protect yourself (online) established itself as answer to the tardy political process. One popular aspect that is discussed even among the general public is the usage of facial recognition, which also triggered artistic (speculative) counter proposals.
The research and design studio Metahaven created a seminal work by contemplating on the
involuntary transparency through disclosures (in particular by WikiLeaks), its aesthetics, character and geopolitics.5
Platforms form new economic entities by providing infrastructures. These intermediate position profits from network effects, which strives for monopolies.1 This phenomenon is often described as platform feudalism as it concentrates power in private hands.2 This is especially alarming as few (ever-expanding) companies control critical technologies and services such as AI, social networks and shopping. For example, by controlling both the search and browser market, Google is dictating standards that benefit themself and also consolidate dominant interests, and player.3 Zuboff examines these
concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power in the context of capitalism. She describes how these actors create a
ubiquitous computational architecture through
means of behavioral modification of their users.4 This asymmetrical relationship between user and platforms that are shaping the worlds they only purport to represent is described by Bucher.5
While consumer-facing services gain attention, significant infrastructural parts of the internet rely on Amazon’s AWS or Cloudflare’s servers. Their political role as a provider (of what is accessible) is often opposed through (technological) means such as decentralised networks and digital commons.
The increasing use of algorithms is often not only justified by its higher efficiency, but its results are also attributed to be more just than its human-generated counterparts. O’Neil describes how the underlying models are embedded opinions and historical practices.1 Benjamin takes this further and enables counteraction by revealing how racism and technology are entangled and led to pattern discrimination.2 In a similar approach, with a focus on AI and its underlying labour, the Nooscope manifest maps out the functioning of such systems to demystify and thus reveal errors, biases and limitations.3
D’Ignazio and Klein have a focus on the input data sets: How can the paradigm »
What get countered counts« and the purported scientific nature be questioned.4 Similarly, Loukissas puts a focus on the context of the creation of dataset and rebuts the
myth of digital universalism.5
In the digital society, human ideas and technology mix within complex connections. There is an obvious clash of human and computational models how to abstract the world. Katherine Hayles, for example, researches this digital subject, the cultural effects of code, and asks whether human consciousness itself might be computational.1 Wendy Chun operates in a similar mode, using the term homophily to show how the entry of the digital into society favours a greater convergence of the ever-same.2 Patricia Reed responds to this with the concept of xenophily as an alternative to anthropocentric conceptions, which makes it possible to denaturalize human habits.3 On another ethical level, Louise Amoore arranges algorithms as ethicopolitical instances and opens up what she frames as cloud ethics.4 Many of the so-called post-internet artists also work their way through the emotional worlds that are only just emerging through and despite algorithms. It is precisely in moments of intimacy that fractures become apparent, at which Lee Mackinnon also works her way through.5
The beautiful and smooth surfaces of our devices as constant everyday companions influence our emotional worlds in particular. This aspect looks at the different relationships and dependencies of the body-machine relation. Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, first of all, reflect the idea that “good design” should create an undisturbed functionality that clouds the view of the underlying infrastructures or numbs any friction. Both therefore speak of design as anesthetic.1 On the other hand, Geert Lovink describes how emotions do take place within social media applications and how they are planned and economised. He offers an analysis of rather melancholic phenomena within digital platforms ranging from void after data abundance, toxic memes and addiction.2 The last point of addiction is also approached by Natasha Dow Schüll.3 She examines the origin and effects of addiction processes using the example of machine gambling. Furthermore, the whole interdisciplinary field of research of “Affective Computing”, originally coined by Rosalind Picard, is concerned with how human affects can be made processible.4
The natural resources needed for our devices and planetary infrastructures are extracted from various places on the Earth to be traded around the world. However, the artificial process of commodification of raw material and the resulting political and humanitarian issues in these areas of the world are the focus of this aspect. While we cannot cover the whole extensive discourse around extractivism here, we decided to list contemporary voices that show the range of perspectives on this topic. Anna Tsing, for example, shows the complexity of globalised commodity chains that exist shown on the example of the matsutake mushrooms.1 Macarena Gómez-Barris and Kathryn Yusoff make us aware of the political dimensions of geology by pointing at the long and deep history of colonial, racial and Indigenous pitfalls as a major aspect of extractivism.2 3 Similarly, the upcoming book of Denise Ferreira da Silva extends this research by a black feminist voice.4
The climate crisis and its events show us the dimensions of anthropogenic destruction. The patterns of Earth revealing itself in environmental disasters can be read as a massive planetary diagram. However, we cannot just witness climate complexities with bare eyes, but instead we started to model and capture them by various sensing technology that contributes to the emergence of climate emergency as a stand-alone epistemic object. The human-made apparatus of modelling the Earth and its entanglement is, for example, conceptualised by Ursula Heise, Jennifer Gabrys, and Paul Edwards.1 2 3 Another research approach analyses the material affordances of these sensing infrastructures to examine what evidence of violence can be derived from their traces as a form of situated knowledge. As a research hub for this approach, we name the Centre for Research Architecture based at Goldsmiths in London with director Susan Schuppli and her research practice but also the research agency Forensic Architecture that developed within this centre.4 5 There is also a new wave of young researchers tackling this issue by combining it with aesthetic frameworks, like the project Geocinema which re-frames the planetary sensing infrastructure as a form of cinematic thinking.6