Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies

Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies

by Sean Cubitt

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While digital media give us the ability to communicate with and know the world, their use comes at the expense of an immense ecological footprint and environmental degradation. In Finite Media Sean Cubitt offers a large-scale rethinking of theories of mediation by examining the environmental and human toll exacted by mining and the manufacture, use, and disposal of millions of phones, computers, and other devices. The way out is through an eco-political media aesthetics, in which people use media to shift their relationship to the environment and where public goods and spaces are available to all. Cubitt demonstrates this through case studies ranging from the 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang to an image of Saturn taken during NASA's Cassini-Huygens mission, suggesting that affective responses to images may generate a populist environmental politics that demands better ways of living and being. Only by reorienting our use of media, Cubitt contends, can we overcome the failures of political elites and the ravages of capital.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822373476
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 12/08/2016
Series: a Cultural Politics Book
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 866 KB

About the Author

Sean Cubitt is Professor of Film and Television, Goldsmiths, University of London, and the author of several books, most recently, The Practice of Light: A Genealogy of Visual Technologies from Prints to Pixels.

Read an Excerpt

Finite Media

Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies

By Sean Cubitt

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7347-6



In a poem addressed "To Those Born Later," written in exile from Nazi Germany on the eve of world war, Bertolt Brecht (1979, 318) asked, "What kind of times are they, when / A talk about trees is almost a crime." Today it is almost criminal not to talk about trees.

Ostensibly weightless and friction-free, computing had already in 2008 outstripped the carbon emissions of the airline business and was growing, at conservative estimates, by at least 15 percent a year (Climate Group 2008). Yet the dream — the marketing as well as the political quest — of a marriage between consumer capital and environmentalism keeps us looking for that perfect product that "takes only memories and leaves only footprints," in Chief Seattle's admonition. What we imagine, in short, are consumer goods that have no history: no mines, no manufacture, no freighting, and no waste. Like the myths of information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D), of sustainable development, and of endless economic growth, this chapter argues that there is a myth of immaterial media, and that it is our job to crack it open.

We speak too easily of the infinite resources of human creativity and nature's capacities. Since the publication of the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972), the idea of a finite planet has fluttered in the peripheral vision of our culture. The "green revolution" of the 1960s (Gaud 1968), that massive industrialization of agriculture and conversion to cash crops and monoculture based on global trade in fertilizers, seemed to get around such limits until the crisis of 1973. Subsequently, the expansion of computing to its current level seemed to repress any similar anxieties again by opening up vast reservoirs of business opportunities. The global financial crisis that engulfed the world in 2008 allowed the idea of finite resources to swim once more into focus. We have come to treat the infinite as our familiar: the infinite productivity of engineering or of mathematics, for example. Technically it may well be the case that we can continue to elaborate new utterances out of old tongues, but there are limits to the quantity of technical media we can employ as we do so. The world is composed of matter and energy, and though they can be converted from one form into another, they cannot be increased by a gram or a joule. We know too that in any physical process there is an informational quotient: that it takes energy to maintain a structure, and that energy and order tend to dissipate toward entropy. Any physical process will produce waste in the form of heat and noise. As we will see, some vital materials are in very short supply. We might be able to fabricate new ones, but that will take energy, and energy is also a finite resource. We might get more material and energy from asteroids, but it will take vast amounts of both to get there. This is the meaning of the term finite media.

The second theme occupying this chapter is that we are not all in this together. Indigenous people have borne the brunt of the digital boom, and gained least from it. The global poor suffer far more from pollution and environmental loss than the global rich; and much the same is true for the local poor and the local wealthy. This chapter tries to politicize outrage at environmental crime by making as plain as possible the connections between wealth and toxicity. The first of its four sections addresses energy and the inhuman or cyborg nature of the energy market and its players. The second turns to one human capability meticulously excluded from the world of mining, the experience of shame, and the resulting exclusion of the unaccounted. The third addresses a theme implicit in the first two, integral waste, as it emerges in the fabrication and manufacture of digital machines. The final section articulates the integration of degraded populations and integral waste into the consumer discipline of the new mode of destruction, most of all in the moment of disposal of superseded goods.

The question of how we are to live well rests on the question as to whether we can live at all. The purpose of the chapter is not to wag a moral finger at consumers, but to argue that the political elite has failed to respond to either global poverty or global environmental destruction, and for a single reason: the obscene dogma of profit, no longer a human vice but the sole motivation of inhuman forces now dominating what passes for global politics. Environmentalism is a materialism. It demands that we understand what things are made of, and their connectedness, but also their disconnections. At times this research has felt like a litany of disaster. The reader may share that feeling. The positive side is that no modern ecological tragedy has ever been perpetrated without resistance, and that from this resistance we can begin to acquire some sense of how to make politics matter again. It is not a question of either people or ecologies; nor is it necessarily a project of sacrifice. It is a question of how we are to live well, and therefore a question that requires not only a political answer but an aesthetic one; a question, that is, concerning both perception (the root meaning of aesthesis) and art, the techniques of mediation and communication in which we construe our relations with one another and the world. In the twenty-first century, communication implies digital media whose environmental footprint we must therefore analyze before we can ask how communication, which is the material bearer of political life, and perhaps also its goal, can contribute to living well. To find how we can properly ask the question how to live well, we must first confront how it is that we live so badly.

A power cut is an instructive event: It allows us to understand not only how much of daily life is dependent on electricity supply, but how useless so much of our equipment is without power. A future archaeologist approaching the ruins of a contemporary city might be mystified at the ubiquitous devices, from servers to handhelds, scattered amid the debris. Like Stonehenge or the caves of Lascaux, these relics would reveal that they were meaning-making machines, but in the absence of electrical power, there would be few sources to guide an understanding of what they were for and how they worked. Without electricity, the archaeologist will have no way of understanding operating systems, protocols, mark-up languages, codecs, instruction sets. The principle that things connect with one another will be as clear as it is in a woven cloth, but no more so. Even if, say, the principles of routing were decipherable from the physical properties of routers, the nature of what was routed will be lost. Optical and magnetic storage media are notoriously short lived: There will be no records other than those saved on paper. In the absence of power, the archaeologist might be the first to actually read the manuals, knowing, however, that she has no machines on which to implement their instructions. Energy is finite: It can only be changed from one form to another, but in those changes it enters history. We have a very longterm energy source in the sun, and another, lesser source in geothermal heat from the molten core of the planet: All other energy sources derive from them; most have taken geological epochs to form; and all can be squandered. Digital media are unthinkable without the energy needed to produce and run them; therefore we begin this investigation with energy. Energy is a universal principle, but it is also subject to entropy, the inexorable equilibration in which its useful form gradually diminishes. As such it embodies the principle of irreversibility, the physical foundation of history. Thus although it is a universal, energy distribution and use are also deeply historical. We begin therefore with distribution.

Energy Supply


According to the U.S. Department of Energy (2008), "Data centers used 61 billion kWh of electricity in 2006, representing 1.5% of all U.S. electricity consumption and double the amount consumed in 2000. Based on current trends, energy consumed by data centers will continue to grow by 12% per year." The same agency reported in 2011 that "information technology and telecommunications facilities account for approximately 120 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually — or 3% of all U.S. electricity use," double the figures of a scant five years earlier. The 2011 report continues, "Rapid growth in the U.S. data center industry is projected to require two new large power plants per year just to keep pace" (U.S. Department of Energy 2011). In 2008, Boccaletti, Löffler, and Oppenheim at consultants McKinsey estimated that IT manufacture and use was responsible for 2 percent of global carbon emissions — like the Climate Group (2008), noting that this was the same amount as the much-criticized airline industry — and was heading for 3 percent by 2020, when it would be responsible for the same amount of carbon as the United Kingdom produced in 2008. The authors argued that "the fastest-increasing contributor to emissions will be growth in the number and size of data centers, whose carbon footprint will rise more than fivefold between 2002 and 2020" (Boccaletti, Löffler, and Oppenheim 2008, 2).

One of the drivers in this movement is the switch from broadcast media to Internet as the preferred delivery mode for rich media like films and television, including legal transmissions, illegal file sharing, and quasi-legal forms like user-posted video on YouTube. Media corporations are increasingly using video-sharing platforms to entice purchasers of tickets or discs, or using similar technologies on their own sites and content aggregators like Apple's QuickTime trailers portal, while the games industry is moving toward free-to-play models involving millions of users in media-rich interactive network services with complex business models involving substantial record maintenance and updates. The engineering solution on offer is cloud computing, the use of remote servers to store files and the software needed to access them. Best known through consumer services like Amazon S3 and Google Docs, many companies also provide bulk storage and handling of corporate, public service, and government data (see the list of companies provided in the appendix to Carr [2009, 235–44]). The theory is that end users no longer need a complex and expensive computer with ecologically damaging hard drives and CD-DVD players, or memory- and power-hungry local software. In place of full-blown computers, for all but highly professional or necessarily secure uses, a "thin client" will be sufficient. This is the fundamental design of netbooks and tablets with little more than a flash drive for boot-up, connection, and RAM, but which can be linked instantaneously and constantly to remote data centers, also known as server farms, where all their software, documentation, and files can be securely stored and accessed.

As so often in Internet matters, it is difficult to assess how many servers are involved, since any computer can act as a server once connected to the network. However, millions of dedicated servers constitute the backbone of the Internet. They are typically robust machines that are rarely if ever switched off and rebooted, and which have no other function than to provide services to remote clients. Server numbers reflect the kinds of content they serve, the desire for redundancy in case of failure, and the cheapness of building servers. The Domain Name System for Internet addressing is controlled by 376 root servers. Multimedia files, requiring far more memory, require far larger numbers of servers. Blizzard, the company behind the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft, was already estimated to have around five hundred servers before the boost from tablet and smartphone users ( 2008). According to Wowiki, World of Warcraft has 229 recognized private servers in the United States and at least as many again worldwide running additional realms, supporting non-English-speaking players, and providing community services associated with the game's 7.7 million subscribers. Media-rich cloud services like YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and Flickr employ huge quantities of memory. Amazon has been estimated to run up to 1 percent of the Internet from its servers, with other shopping and auction sites not far behind. E-mail, ftp, World Wide Web, bulletin boards, and other remnants of the early web use far less computing power, but as they become increasingly media rich, they require more server space, or the equivalent power use associated with torrent and file-sharing technologies such as Skype. There are almost certainly millions of servers associated with the Internet. Mesh networks like BitTorrent provide one possible alternative, but many major companies like Apple are not persuaded. Cloud computing, providing bulk document storage for industry, financial services, medical records, academia, and government, is likely to remain a significant and growing part of the overall load of Internet server traffic. Cloud storage has the immense benefit of allowing service providers access to the metatags, if not the files, of users, information they constantly commodify and sell in what Vincent Mosco (2015) calls "surveillance capitalism." However, the most intense new usage will come from the expansion of dashboards, offering real-time abstracts from massive datasets (Bartlett and Tkacz 2014), the move to mobile apps that work by drawing down and interacting with cloud-based software and data (Goldsmith 2014), and the Internet of things connecting, according to one influential estimate, fifty billion smart devices by 2020 (Evans 2011), all of which will vastly expand the demand for mass server farms.

With an 82.7 percent share in June 2013 (according, Google dominates the global search market. In a post to Google's official blog, Urs Hölzle (2009) proposed a figure of 0.0003 kWh of energy per search, equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO (the post was a response to a London Sunday Times story of the same date suggesting a larger figure; Leake and Woods 2009). Multiplied by the billions of search queries entered daily, that is already a vast amount of power. But Google's activities extend far beyond search: AdSense, AdWords, and DoubleClick advertising services, Google Maps and Google Earth, Gmail, Blogger, YouTube, Google Books, Android, Chrome, and Google Docs. These services all devolve on the index Google maintains of the trillion-plus pages of the Internet, an index by their estimate of over 100 million gigabytes (Google 2015). Google has become the world's largest manufacturer of computers, albeit exclusively for use in the server farms needed to keep this empire alive.

Typically, 1,160 servers will fit into a shipping container, complete with batteries, power, cabling, water cooling, and fans. Each container draws as much as 250 kilowatts of power. The containers themselves, in one facility dating back to 2005, are stacked and networked in buildings holding forty-five containers, each drawing down 10 megawatts apiece (including additional cooling and water pumps), which now has three such buildings. The design was the subject of a patent applied for early in 2008. Since then, Google has been building server farms across the United States and globally, but does not publish the number or their locations to minimize vandalism. Each data center draws power either from the grid or from specially constructed power plants, backed up by generators and lead-acid batteries to ensure there are no interruptions to service or loss of stored data. There is also massive redundancy. The Internet root server authority ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) admits that its servers duplicate one another, all of them copying the basic logical structure of a mere thirteen servers. Other major server users like Amazon and Facebook are less forthcoming, although both Facebook and eBay have released figures on their energy efficiency, and Facebook has launched a project with industrywide ambitions (Open Compute Project,, open-sourcing its designs in an effort to share best practice and crowdsource new efficiency ideas, to which it hopes to attract the industry's main body, the Open Data Center Alliance, which specializes in security and interoperability, rather than sustainability.


Excerpted from Finite Media by Sean Cubitt. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii

Introduction. Eco-mediation  1

1. Energy  13

2. Matter  63

3. Eco-political Aesthetics  151

4. Ecological Communication as Politics  169

Coda on Saturn  193

References  201

Index  237

What People are Saying About This

The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality - Nicholas Mirzoeff

"Sean Cubitt has accomplished an astonishing feat of synthesis, reading across fields as varied as waste management, fiber-optic cable installation, semiocapitalism, and net neutrality. His wide-ranging and remarkable project extends beyond the reach of infrastructure media studies to show how global capitalism is remaking the planet in its own image. An innovative and dynamic book."

Software Takes Command - Lev Manovich

"Sean Cubitt offers the first theoretical analysis of how ecology in its original sense (and its related concerns for climate change and the environment) can not only inform media studies, but change what media we create and how we create it. Unique in its broad philosophical and social science perspective and full of fresh, original, and timely insights, Finite Media will find eager audiences in media studies, science and technology studies, and related fields."

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