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Lecture by Adi Kuntsman (Manchester Metropolitan University) | Organized by Alexander Etkind (EUI - Department of History and Civilization) and Ellen Rutten (University of Amsterdam).

Event details of Digital environmental dreams and their dirty material politics
Date 11 June 2021
Time 16:00 -18:00

At the heart of this talk lies a troubling, yet crucial question for the field of digital media to consider: how to reconcile the usefulness of digital media and communication and more specifically, their rapid and expansive adoption into environmental initiatives and sustainability projects, with the extensive environmental damages, brought on by the digitisation itself? In a recently completed investigation of a large corpus of academic work dedicated to the relations between environmental sustainability and the digital, my colleague and I point to the staggering prevalence of techno optimism with regards to digital communication technologies and their role in supporting the environment (Kuntsman and Rattle 2019). And that, paradoxically, despite the fact that digital communication – however immaterial we might imagine it – in fact inflicts substantial environmental damage.

The ever-growing extraction of resources needed to produce digital devices; the toxicity of their production process and of the e-waste left behind after their short lives, made disposable by design; the rapidly increasing energy demands and heat impact of data farms, needed to sustain every click, every website, every tweet, every Big Data database, every smart network, and every bitcoin. Yet, even when warning against the environmental costs of manufacturing and operating digital devices and platforms; or when cautioning against improper disposal resulting in toxic e-waste, most research into environmental sustainability is not advocating to reduce the use, or shift away from digital technologies altogether. It is not that sustainability studies as a field lacks critical voices; and it is not that digital damages are ignored or not considered, on the contrary. However, when concerns about the environmental damages of digital communication are raised, the responses that are put forward still follow the circular logic of techno optimism: the tools merely need to be improved; the users merely need to be educated to use them correctly; more research or monitoring needs to take place – and those solutions, too, often require even more digital devices, platforms and networks. I call this phenomenon digital solutionism and argue that it sustains a paradigmatic myopia towards digital harms, a powerful and powerfully enforced blindness that persists in spite of a wealth of existing scholarly critique. The same blindness characterises mainstream western media studies, with its long history of privileging the disembodied and the deterritorialised – read the immaterial – and glorifying the digital sublime (Chen 2016).

The notion of paradigmatic myopia is crucial, for it is not the absence of evidence of environmental digital harms that is at stake (the fields of geography, environmental studies, human health, and more have an abundance of empirical studies and resulting publications on the subject). Despite all the above, the subject of environmental harms of the digital still remains on the margins of media studies as a whole (not to mention the industry which, while acknowledging them, usually follows the solutionist approach and its circular logic). Today, when global digital media studies keep its attention on global political participation, media censorship and Internet governance on one hand, and Big Data, digital humanities and algorithmic politics, on the other, the materiality – and the environmental toxicity – of the digital is in further danger of being overlooked or side-lined.


Speaker's Bio 

Adi Kuntsman is Reader in Digital Politics at the Department of History, Politics and Philosophy, the coordinator of Digital Politics PhD Pathway, and the co-coordinator of DISC. Adi’s past research explored Internet cultures in Russia, Eastern Europe and Russian-speaking diasporas; digital emotions, digital memory and social media militarism in settler-colonial Israel/Palestine. Adi’s current work focuses on selfies between political activism and biometric governance; the politics of ‘opting out’ of digital communication; and environmental impacts of digital technologies. Adi is the author of Figurations of Violence and Belonging: Queerness, Mingranthood and Nationalism in Cyberspace and Beyond (Peter Lang 2009), Digital Militarism: Israeli Occupation in the Social Media Age (co-authored with Rebecca L. Stein, Stanford UP 2014); and Paradoxes of Digital Disengagement: In search of the Opt-out Button (co-authored with Esperanza Miyake, Westminster University Press, forthcoming).