Everything is IRL
This text is inspired by writings on technology and society that contest the virtual and disembodied, ethereal imagery of digital technologies. Digital technologies are “nothing if not entirely physical, material, and organic”, writes Mullaney (2020). As he powerfully continues: “Every single thing that “happens online,” “virtually,” and “autonomously” happens offline first […]. Everything is IRL. Nothing is virtual” (ibid.). The “nothing is virtual” should be understood here as signaling the social, political, biological and geological material processes that coproduce “the virtual,” and its consequences. Moreover, literature that highlights the materiality of digital technologies is also interested in their often-ignored repercussions in ecosystems. Not only technology and society, but also technology and ecosystems are relational and co-constitutive, though the latter relationality remains under the radar. The last part of the text explores where this unearthing of the intertwining of digital technology with planetary ecosystems could take in research on the digitalization of education.
The modern settlement
Following Latour’s notion of the “modern constitution”, Edwards (2003) claims that our collective imagery of technology rests on the sharp division between ‘nature’ and ‘society’, and the practices that seek to hold them apart (purification) while implicitly holding them together (mediation). Large vital technological infrastructures (electricity, railways, roads) have functioned as a means to control the vulnerabilities imposed by nature, but also to extract natural resources more efficiently in the name of progress. Infrastructures promise to overcome the limitations imposed by natural conditions, taming time and space, thus making humans presumably more “modern”.
In this way technology both relies on and reinforces an understanding of ecosystems as a passive background of human-made progress and as an extractable and controllable resource. This view obfuscates the critical reliance of technologies on ecosystems and how they might refuse to agree to the modernist settlement (Edwards, 2003). Ecosystems are the infrastructures on which other infrastructures and technologies depend, making modernity, now and then, a condition of systemic vulnerability, for instance, dependent on the metabolic connections between technology and nature through fuel and waste (221; also Haff 2014). Similarly Latour (2018) writes that under the earth that is grabbable and exploitable, lies another earth that stirs, that quakes and that moves.
The ensuing analysis understands ecosystems as an agent shaping what becomes of technologies and as an object deeply affected by technological expansion and refinement.
Technology shapes how we understand ecosystems
The technological systems register and represent aspects of the environment as data and ultimately as knowledge (Agar 2018). Scientists, policy-makers, environmentalists, and citizens know their resultant natural (or rather technonatural) environments in specific ways, sometimes helping to stabilize particular orderings, sometimes opening them up to contestation and change (Blok et al. 2016). At the same time parts of the environment unmapped by or untangled with technologies remain out of sight or unvalued (but this is not to say that they remain untouched by technosocial processes). For instance, the first emerging big infrastructures of motorways or railways shaped where people would travel (Edwards, 2003). Places that would not be possible to reach by modern transport would be visited less frequently and would be considered as beyond the urban landscape, as being “in nature”. In other words, if nature is perceived as something pre-modern, that is, removed from the technology saturated modern life, then the presence or absence of recognisable technologies define the cultural meaning of nature and mediate the boundary between, for instance, natural and artificial or human and non-human.
Technology is damaging ecosystems
The evidence of the digital technology’s environmental impact is vast and robust, and it is perhaps the most common approach to the relation between technology and ecosystems at this point in time. Digital technologies are largely based on unsustainable principles that have seriously damaged the ecosystems. As Ring (2020) explains in her chapter on “Complicity”, new technologies are energy hungry because they stay switched on perpetually and require massive energy-intensive servers as data archives. A telling comparison is offered by Kaminska (2019) arguing that the ICT sector is already using 50 per cent more energy than the entire global aviation, though global aviation is frequently seen as a protagonist of environmental degradation. Crawford’s “Atlas of AI” (2021) importantly reminds us of the historical legacies of ICT extractivism. Insulation for the transatlantic undersea telegraph cables built in the 19th century depended entirely on newly discovered protective qualities of the gutta-percha tree causing its extinction in a matter of some decades. Thus the extractive dimensions of digitalization and datafication are not limited to cheap or unpaid (and often unnoticed) human labour and continuous data scraping, but also scarce energy resources, water, and earthy minerals. The environmental costs arise from the immediate usage of devices and software, but also from the short- and long-term consequences of mining and waste storage. Moreover, as computational systems expand to new domains while also seeking to increase their computational powers, their impact on the environment is likely to expand.
Yet, as Selwyn (2021) writes, “if educational technology is considered at all in terms of its environmental impact, then this has tended to be in beneficial terms” (p. 500).
The materiality of educational technology and the material consequences of their creation, use, maintenance and disposal are hard to estimate because of their planetary, distributed and unequal scale and temporality. Technology’s geophysical temporality extends backwards and onwards: the minerals or water basins took billions of years to form, and the consequences of building and using technology today will bear consequences for many generations yet to be born. As Crawford writes, to understand the harms requires both “a global sweep” and “a sensibility to the ways in which histories and specific harms are different from place to place and yet are deeply interconnected by the multiple forces of extraction” (2021, 38).
Technology is dependent on ecosystems
In a conversation with Bruno Latour, German atmospheric physicist and climatologist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber has reminded that the industrial revolution was not born of the ingenuity of humans only, but also crucially of the ingenuity of the ecosystems – e.g. the fossil fuels found in the Earth crust that took millenia to form. As natural resources powering technologies are limited and unequally distributed, ecosystems also set limits on where and how technologies are temporarily settled and how they may run. They also contribute to the geopolitics of technological development. This view calls for an understanding of digital end products as distributed infrastructures whose nodes are variously imbricated in and depend on ecosystems. Consider, for instance, mining for lithium or tin for smartphone or wiring components, or massive water reserves needed to cool down data servers or produce semiconductors.
The basic infrastructures of technology, that is, the functioning Internet and energy supplies, are vital but vulnerable to weather conditions and the intensifying climate change; for instance, even minor rises in sea levels will have a critical impact on Internet cables. The ongoing chip shortage that has massively affected the industry has multiple reasons with the COVID pandemic as the main cause of both increased demand for technological products and shortages in supply due to closures of factories and restrictions on face-to-face work. Non-pandemic reasons include a winter storm in Texas shutting factories, and the worst droughts in Taiwan in the past 50 years that diminished water supplies vital for the industry. At the same time, some semiconductor companies are expanding to the water dire Arizona due particularly to its seismic stability, rarity of wildfires or hurricanes, and ample energy supplies.
Beyond the acute crisis, towards decentering
What do these analyses offer to education in general and the ongoing discussion on the need for data literacy and critical education technology research and pedagogy in particular? Both the everyday life in schools, and the governance of education systems at large, are increasingly entangled with digital technology from using student’s devices as learning tools to the application of large-scale information management systems for data collection and decision-making. The use of digital technologies, platforms and software make the education sector complicit in producing planetary damage. The technosolutionist discourses (Mullaney, Peters, Hicks, and Phili, 2021) also prevalent in the education sector contribute to persistent ignorance of the dark side of expanding digitalization. At the same time education is increasingly seen as one of the vital solutions to the anthropogenic causes of climate disaster. Thus environmental education and education systems at large should consider the role of digital technologies beyond their use as supposedly neutral teaching aids.
Challenging existing “data safety” and “data science” approaches, critical data literacy education and research have moved beyond understanding data literacy as developing technical, computational and statistical competencies to work with data. They engage with the implications of e.g. data profiling and data recirculation by examining the three intertwined dimensions of the technical, the social and the ethical (Pangrazio & Selwyn 2019, 427; also Gray et al. 2018.). This is a much needed corrective that removes the facade of neutrality from technology. Yet critical data literacy must consider what criticality means from a more-than-human perspective, that is, beyond the consequences of surveillance and datafication or the structural inequalities and power imbalances of technologies for humans.
Some concrete questions to start with might be, for instance, what processes, human and more-than-human are sustained by our current and past education technologies and data generation systems, including research on these processes (cf. Walker & Starosielski, 2016); how materialities, such as earthly elements and embeddedness of technologies in ecosystems shape what becomes of technologies and what they carry into the future; how is future imagined in and through these technologies, including the futures of human and more-than-human coexistence; how children and youth understand technology’s imbrications in the economies of extraction and the anthropogenic causes of the eco crisis, and the possibilities of sustainable technology use in education, social media etc. Returning to the notion of the modernist sentiment, we can ask a more fundamental question of how the boundary between the categories of nature, society and technology is produced and maintained, how it shifts, and how education affects and is affected by their mutual constitution. Moreover there are many tensions, controversies and even absurdities (technical, political, ethical, pedagogical etc.) of calls and claims for environmental sustainability and the sustainability of education and educational technologies. The question then is how they are given meaning to and dealt with by various actors in policy or practice.
Selwyn has recently issued an important call to “reimagine ed-tech for times of environmental crisis” (2021, 502). The success of this re-imagination project depends on how we will unlock the modernist sentiment. Thus this blog text is an invitation to explore and move beyond the human-centrism of critical research and teaching on digital technology. It offers glimpses into the possible risks and vulnerabilities of technologies to remind of their dependencies. Moreover, the text has troubled the presentist and anticipatory debates on the connection between technology and ecosystems that focus particularly on the ongoing, acute crisis of the planet. This paves the way for a difficult task ahead of decentering technologies and humans to understand their deep relationality with ecosystems historically, now and in the future.
A warm thank you to Antti Saari, Felicitas Macgilchrist and Petar Jandric for comments and critical questions at different stages of preparing this text.
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Photos by Ravi Kumar (Header), Caique Silva (first), Todd Trapani (second) and Janke Laskowsi (third)