Vibrant PostCarbon role for ICT

Posted on April 7, 2008


Over on empyre, there’s a month of discussion about sustainability and new media: “wired sustainability“.

Henry Warwick posted this sketch of a paper he’s working on. I think it extreme and I disagree with most of it, but it’s had me thinking all weekend, so I’ve copied it here if just to anchor one end of the computing for sustainability debate (I’m responding here as my comments don’t really fit under emprye’s scope).

What I’m struggling with most, is the circular argument in the first section: “ICT will be maintained long after it has ceased to even be vaguely viable”. Presumably Henry doesn’t mean economically viable, if he does then its a nonsensical argument – surely if something is used then its use by definition makes it viable – unless of course there is no longer a use for ICT because its been replaced by something different (eg the experience of the wainwright industry) in which case Henry’s argument doesn’t apply. Rather I assume he means materially viable (ie environmentally) as he goes on to give reasons why ICT will not survive in a post apopolyptic world. He states (with no evidence) that:

Some technologies are decidedly more “sustainable” than others, and some, like ICT, may very well be deeply unsustainable, but will be supported and demanded long after they are even vaguely viable.

I must be missing the point. I simply don’t understand what thermodynamics and how much hay a horse can eat have got to do with the viability of computing. No one is denying that plentiful oil will slow but only the extremists argue it will suddenly stop, unless there’s a single event (ie major war that destroys all technology) we’re not ever going to be in a position of reinventing from the middle ages. I’m not one who thinks that technology will solve everything but I do believe that computing technology will adapt to the available resources and will continue to help improve how we live. I only have to look as far as the flat screen solid state machine in front of me to know that per machine, computing’s footprint is rapidly declining while its beneficial impact in efficiency of human systems is increasing.

So, in my nutshell: Post carbon will have a vibrant and exciting role for information and for communication and for technology to support that. ICT may look different but it’ll still be there.

Original post:

The topic of my discussion is “PostCarbon ICT”.

I’m still researching parts of my discussion, so I am *very* interested in what happens here. FWIW in the “Reader’s Digest” version, frankly: in a very strict notion, there is no postCarbon ICT. However, the benefits of light speed data transmission are so enormous, that ICT will be maintained long after it has ceased to even be vaguely viable.

The basic problems are thermodynamics, energy density, energy quality, infrastructure, and cultural preferences.

In a nutshell: thermodynamics: it is impossible to live outside the second law of thermodynamics. Like light speed (c) you can bend the context in different ways (like the way they’ve “frozen light”), but you can’t beat it (there is no v > c, and you can’t get something for nothing). Civilisations that try to do so will fail. (Carnot, Diamond)

energy density: presently, petroleum and nuclear power have the greatest energy densities. Petroleum is presently at or neat peak extraction. Nuclear Power has a number of close associated “issues” that make it less than tenable. (dangerous waste materials, limited resource of which 1/3 was mined decades ago, decomissioning energy costs, etc.) One gallon of gasoline is equal to a month ofEdit labour by a human in peak physical condition. The amount of wheat/energy a horse can cart is limited to well within 200 miles, as the rider and horse will eat that much wheat/energy in the time it takes to move it. More
on this later.) (Heinberg, Youngquist)

energy quality: you can’t put a nuclear power plant in a laptop. You’re foolish to develop a kick start diesel powered toothbrush. Energy quality matters. (Odum, Heinberg)

infrastructure: peak oil == peak asphalt. No oil: no asphalt no roads no food delivery nothing. Game over. Not instantly, of course – people will depave suburban (soon to be slum?) boulevards to melt the macadam to keep the highways paved. Oil is worth more as a plastic and material than a fuel, but when not used as a fuel, alternative fuels are basically either not available, don’t have the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) that oil does, or are based in heinously immoral bargains (viz grain based ethanol). (Pementhal, Campbell, Lahaerre, Heinberg, Youngquist, others)

cultural preferences: our civilisation has a great deal of sunken cost in an unsustainable lifestyle, and is loathe to abandon the investment. The results of the flood of energy released by the vast number of quads of ancient sunlight energy expended since 1860 from petroleum has resulted in massive overshoot of population over local carrying capacities, resulting in the necessity of long distance travel and shipping, and the sunken cost in the infrastructure that supports it. Our civilisation has a cultural preference to support itself, and therefore desires said infrastructure, even as it and the population it
supports is unsustainable. (Hardin, Diamond, Heinberg, others.)

This is where ICT comes in, and technological art that deals with these questions is directly on the very cutting edge of these deeply critical questions.

As mentioned by one of our guests, “guilt” is of little value: we’re all utterly guilty, so throwing blame around or going on about how horrible the world is is of absolutely no consequence. Example: an ambulance screams by. It’s running on a mix of gasoline and alcohol made of corn. Over the past week, thousands of people have been engaged in food riots around the world due to high food prices that are , in part, due to the cost caused by biofuels. So: people riot for foot, while others are rushed to hospital. Guilt and blame have no place in that particular equation – it’s all of a part.

That said, some technologies are decidedly more “sustainable” than others, and some, like ICT, may very well be deeply unsustainable, but will be supported and demanded long after they are even vaguely viable.