[sea-dp] Reading Response #6 – (On data farms and decentralization) Does a utopian digital world exist?

As environmental crisis exacerbates all around the globe, I have noticed companies starting incentives to go paperless for environmental considerations; but the physical reality of digital data is rarely addressed. This week’s readings provided much new information and perspectives on the relationships between digital technology and physical reality. I was especially impacted by James Glanz’s New York Times article about how much energy digital farms are wasting every waking moment, and how much of these machines are eating up energy to be left idle, untouched, prepared, just so that they’re prepared for a sudden surge of incoming data. It’s horrible that despite the massive environmental impact, many of those operations remain anonymous and unregulated.

Usually I like to bash on capitalism and blame it for all our problems, but I don’t think this is what Hobbes envisioned the market would be like 400 years ago, or even what the “tech industry” believed what they were doing several decades ago. The techno-optimism of y2k no longer fuels our relationships with digital technology. “A field born of cleverness and audacity is now ruled by something else: fear of failure”, Glanz wrote. In the age of mass production, the “fail-safe” measures are only in place because of the pursuit for efficiency, fast response time, competition, which eventually resulted in exclusivity: guarded, protected, secretive.

I’m also thinking about how we’re losing the ownership of our own data. It’s quite obvious that one should be able to access and manage what they “have”. In the old days like we all like to say, if we were to purchase a hat from a hat-maker, as long as we both agree to this purchase, even if our medium of transaction (e.g. hat shop) gets destroyed, there should still be ways we complete the transaction in discrete places. Then we get access to that hat for as long as we like, and are able to alter, destroy, display and archive as we wish. The reality of the Internet we have now is that not only our transactions are completely controlled by their mediums, we aren’t able to own what we bought or what we made. The data we created through purchasing, downloading, using and creating within the App is forever stored in huge warehouses in Arizona even the government doesn’t know about; and if Apple Store decides to take down an App, neither users nor developers have alternative ways to use it, because Apple Store is the only way. 

Every week we talk about the cautious tales of our digital “tools” (in quotes because I no longer think of them as tools because of the lack of ownership we have of them), and I’d like to think about what’s the digital world I’d like to see. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web created the web to be decentralized (it’s a web, duh), and he believes that the centralization is a societal issue rather than technological. The issue at large, I think, is that “users” don’t know what happens when they process data, due to tech companies’ intentional obfuscation of information. The unacknowledgement of means of production, and the complete loss of control of the ends, both need to be addressed. 

In chapter 4 of Radical Technologies, the author proposes digital fabrication tools such as 3D printers as a means to self-produce. But just as how the chapter opens in a prestigious university in London, I am also lucky to be in an educational institution where these machines are made accessible, and that dismantling, assembling and fabrication are taught as skills and encouraged as production tools. Not only are there financial and intellectual barriers in accessibility, the context of these conversations are still in “art” rather than in “life”. I often think about the intention behind using these tools — are we using emerging technology for them being shiny and “cool”? Are we willing to disregard its prestigiousness, sacrifice design and functions, and adapt it for accessibility? I’d like to envision communities controlling their own means of production, which feels a bit like some sort of off-grid communism societies.

I don’t expect the industry to be better without policy and societal change, but it’s hopeful knowing how many people are working to decentralize the small portion of digital lives they have access to via open source softwares and projects. While it’s hard to push large, systemic change, just like the physical reality we’re in right now, we’re at least able to understand, practice, reject, and reinvent, while encouraging others to do the same. I’ve also been reading a bit about Dark Webs, and how some people think it’s the solution for decentralizing the internet — I will share my thoughts when I know more.

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