Media Matters

Silicon Valley’s rhetoric of magical innovation relies on a hidden abode of rare earth mining and hydro-cooled server farms

BEFORE you continue reading this review, sit for a minute. Take stock of the device you are using to read these words. Are you reading on a laptop, on a smartphone, or a tablet? How did this particular device arrive in your life? Can you visualize the supply chains that carried it along? Whose hands fashioned it before it arrived in yours? Do you know what chemicals, minerals, and raw materials were involved in making it? Can you imagine the ways that such a labor process lingers on in workers’ bodies and in the effects it has on environments? Our devices have become part and parcel of our everyday, intimate lives, and the more that they become data sensors for an increasingly hungry digital capitalism the more they know about us. Yet what do we know about the lives (and afterlives) of our devices?

These are the questions that media scholar Jussi Parikka would like you to ask while reading his new book, A Geology of Media. Parikka’s invaluable book will prompt a myriad of important conversations within his discipline over the nature of media and technology. But A Geology of Media should be read widely outside media studies as it speaks directly to the material conditions of contemporary life and to the current belief that digital technologies are somehow less encumbered by the weight of human labor. The book makes undeniably clear the deep implication of bodies, environments, and the earth itself in the production and consumption of precisely the kind of media that is often presumed to be “immaterial,” to be “cost-cutting,” “efficient,” “disruptive,” or even more “democratic,” “accessible” or “transparent” than existing social institutions.

Parikka’s work simply starts in a different place than most accounts of the social life of media: with the raw material components that make a specific technology possible. Here we find an interest in dirt and dust, in the very chemicals, minerals, and metals that each make a technological object, like a smartphone or laptop, possible. “Instead of networking,” he writes, “we need to remember the importance of copper or optical fiber for such forms of communication; instead of a blunt discussion of ‘the digital,’ we need to pick it apart and remember that also mineral durations are essential to it being such a crucial feature that penetrates our academic, social, and economic interests.”

In a time when we hear so much about the economic potential of “disruptive” technologies and media platforms—such as educational technologies that are going to bring “access” to the masses or platforms like Uber or Airbnb that claim to give customers greater power and convenience, Parikka’s book is a necessary reminder that there is no such thing as free, cheap, or easy media. While venture capital may seem to be the prime mover, technological innovations are dependent on raw materials, resource extraction, environmental exploitation, and often obscured forms of human labor.  Our “wireless” society is dependent on ocean cables. Google servers require chilled-water cooling coils. The smartphone that enables the notion of an “on-demand economy” is actually the end of a supply chain that has its roots in rare earth minerals. In A Geology of Media, Parikka pushes the notion of the supply chain even a step further—to supplies of energy. Minerals, chemical processes, and human labor are not only stops along the way in the chain, but they become, as they are assembled together, the fuel that gives life to their larger technological system. As he writes, “the microchipped world burns in intensity like millions of tiny suns.“ Whatever device you’re reading this on or calling your Uber from entails a whole universe—and Parikka’s analysis shows how that is not a glib overstatement.

While it is true that a digital capitalism is growing in and through the exploitation of human cognitive abilities and emotional and affective capacities, Parikka asks for a much broader view of what is fueling the developments of techno-capitalism. That view is both cosmological and geological, looking both to solar energies and to nonhuman materials and their temporalities of renewal and decay. Yet it is also a view fully shot through with human labor. This double movement is what makes A Geology of Media necessary reading beyond media studies, particularly for social scientists and humanities scholars. The book will encourage you to dismantle your devices to better understand their components, circuitry, and assemblage—and in the process, think broadly about those very real, material supply chains.

A Geology of Media also prompts a concept of labor that is open to a complex materiality. Machines, for example, according to Parikka are best thought of not as mere assemblages of raw materials, nor simply as human inventions, but rather “vectors across the geopolitics of labor, resources, planetary excavations, energy production, natural processes from photosynthesis to mineralization, and the aftereffects of electronic waste.” While Parikka refers to his perspective as “neo-materialist,” this is a fundamentally entangled perspective that begins from the geophysical and moves quickly between layers of earthly strata, elemental forces, nonhuman entities, and human actors.

While Parikka’s goal is not necessarily to develop a new theory of technology per se, he is adamant that we have overlooked the fundamental role that the geological plays in the very conception and production of technology. It matters where we begin in our theorization of technology, media, and data. Relocating media theory in the material and environments that come before media, Parikka puts the lie to any debased versions of “immaterial labor” that might be mobilized in the service of digital theorizing. While notions of data are currently threatening to upend almost every social institution (often with the explicit goal of “restructuring” labor processes in those institutions), for Parikka there is no easy conceptualization of data apart from the material conditions that make such data possible.

“Data demand their ecology,” he writes, “one that is not merely a metaphorical technoecology, but demonstrates dependence on climate, the ground, and the energies circulating in the environment. Data feeds off the environment both through geology and the energy-demand… Data mining is not only about the metaphorical big data repositories of social media.” Yet while the phrase “big data” seems to be capable of whirling research funds into being and setting institutional agendas, rarely are those funds or agendas linked to understanding the effects of server requirements on local lands, ecologies, or labor markets.

These concerns are secondary to the purportedly infinite potentials of the data set. Yet, data do not emerge out of thin air; rather, as Parikka puts it, “data need air.” This fundamental condition of dependence is a complex web of social relations, environmental conditions, and labor arrangements. That data emerge from both material and legal “territories” is largely (and conveniently) obscured, particularly in the gold rush to capitalize on the promise of free-flowing data. What might it mean for corporations to have to account for such territories before grabbing hold of data’s presumed value? For starters, I would suspect it would mean the end of the overblown language of disruption, but it would also force corporations to include the local environments, ecologies, and communities who they depend upon for their wealth in their balance sheets.

Parikka doesn’t quite push his analysis toward answering that question. Instead, the book offers a number of useful concepts. The first is a notion of “medianatures,” which draws from Donna Haraway’s concept of “naturecultures.” Here, Parikka intends to maintain Haraway’s commitment to nonbinary thinking and to working with entanglement, but he also wants to move us toward a theory of media that can account for nonhuman actors—chemicals, minerals, and micro-organisms. The notion of a medianature is meant to encourage us to not only think in terms of entanglement of the human and nonhuman, but to become very specific about what materials have been assembled and why.

For an example, we can look at aluminum dust, which is a byproduct of the process of polishing iPad cases. As Parikka writes, “the minuscule dust particles already carry with them a double danger: they are highly inflammable and, more importantly, they can cause a variety of lung diseases among workers. Here, dust entangles any sense of media not only in the process of labor, but in the very labor of the biological body to withstand or metabolize such a process.” Riffing on Franco Berardi’s work, Parikka rightfully asks if we “should we speak of the exploitation of the soul through the contamination of the lung.” Such a perspective brings a vital attention to the materiality of bodies that have been fundamental to the development of supposedly “cognitive” capitalism. What you experience as the glow of your screen is for the worker who assembled it a carcinogen that can cause leukemia or nerve damage.

Parikka’s medianature concept not only brings the human body into the theorization of media, but it also inserts geography and locality. Taking up the computation of data, Parikka writes that if data demand the “cool air” of the North to be computed, they also simultaneously demand the cheap, flexible, and nonunionized labors of the proverbial South to be brought into being. Additionally, his notion of the “underground” helps further articulate links between the geological, the geographic, the human, and the nonhuman. By working with this concept, which is both a space of hidden labor as well as a geological repository of potential energy and minerals, Parikka is able to bring us close to some of the hell that has been so far removed (both spatially and conceptually) from the development and analysis of a digital capitalism.

While much of the talk of techno-solutions and the abundance of data is often underwritten with the claim that such infrastructures will liberate us from the messiness of labor, A Geology of Media disabuses us of such notions. Any thought of a post-labor technotopia of on-demand and flexible services is willfully in denial of the hidden abodes of production required to even give life to the fantasy. For Parikka, there is something radically obscene about the time that we live in, in part because such fantasies of light-weight or ethereal media and technology rely on just such a denial. Coining the phrase the “anthrobscene,” Parikka links theories of the anthropocene with the obscenities of contemporary capitalism—the sulfuric hellishness of the underground environmental crisis and seeming economic and political inability to confront either in any meaningful way.

While the entire book is worth reading, the fourth chapter, entitled “Dust and the Exhausted Life,” is an almost stand-alone chapter that could be taught in a wide range of classrooms or read in a range of contexts. Without falling into the trap of preciousness, Parikka writes “there is something poetic about dust.” Dust is serious business, particularly when we think of the dust of pollution, as chemical residue, or the “tons and tons of cosmic dust” that reminds us “we breathe in the otherworldly, the outer planetary.” Here, he makes clear how the physical body (of both human and animals), the geological, and labor are bound up together by a trace element.

While we might simply think of dust in terms of health risks, what Parikka points us towards transcends any sort of risk analysis. Dust is our kinship with both the cosmic and the earthly. What seems like something to be merely blown away could actually be a grounds from which to begin what Parikka calls a “trajectory for theory,” or a way to work with traces themselves. Faced with the obscene techno-­solutionist theories of data without its underground, of media without a sense of complex materiality or medianature, this other trajectory appeals because it would mean that theory would, from the start, imbricate us in labor, economies, and ecologies. It means we would learn to work with and through the traces that connect each of those elements.

Yet, it is also with such a trajectory that I would caution readers of A Geology of Media. As Parrika writes, “we need to be able to find concepts that help the nonhuman elements contributing to capital to become more visible, grasped and understood—as part of surplus creation as well as the related practices of exploitation.” I am simply not convinced that such visibility, grasping, or understanding leads us where we want to go.  Making visible is not the same as refusing to be absorbed into the surplus or exploited. While material and local analyses of labor are fundamental work that must be done, there is a sense in which A Geology of Media never quite affords the notion that some things (both human and nonhuman) may simply refuse or be outside mediation. Without that perspective, one must wonder where all our tracings will lead. Will we simply provide better maps for capital’s designs? If anything, neo-­materialist turns must ask what we are offering up our research to, our deep and slow tracings of hidden abodes. If we can’t answer, we’re going to have to go even slower, or maybe beyond our comfort zones of reading.

For a work that is interested in the deep strata of geological time and the ways in which temporalities animate media beyond death, A Geology of Media is a book that is a bit haunted by its own ancestors, or the work that has come before it. That work is feminist labor theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and eco-feminism—work that might be more comfortable with outright refusal or with a rejection of the idea that all can or should be absorbed into media. While the book does not aim to be a labor analysis, it leads us so closely to one and then refuses the specifics, often simply using the term “bodies.” Yet, as Parikka has so aptly told us, it does matter where you start and it does indeed matter to be specific, particularly about which bodies, and when and where and why. Here we have a book that leads us so close to the edge of asking these questions, but then shies away. Nonetheless, this is also the strength of the work, as it will inspire conversation, adaption, and a critical response. Read the book in tandem with everything else you are reading, including this essay, and let us begin to have a much more honest, transparent, and critical conversation about what the language of disruption really means.