In early October, the New Design Congress team was invited to attend the European Forest Institute’s (EFI) Scientific Seminar, an event held as part of the Institute’s annual conference in Barcelona. This invitation, following our work together on the re-entanglement of human society with natural processes and non-human actors, was a valuable chance for NDC to contextualise the broader efforts to fight against climate change from institutional actors.
The New Design Congress’ mission remains to critically assess these spaces and to provide radical frameworks to understand both their potentials and the risks they pose – for policy shapers as well as the general public. What these 4 days highlighted for us is the need to redefine digitisation as a material, where digital infrastructure is understood to be a material similar to concrete or steel. Institutional calls to action often considered digital systems as ephemeral because their services and interactions are invisible, but the digital revolution depends on an exponential collection of computers, wires and purpose-built devices. This is a brittle network furnished by a bloody and unsustainable global supply chain whose carbon footprint, environmental impact and human cost dwarf all other materials of the built environment.
Digital societies are also brittle societies. In the rush to embrace the promise of efficiency and capability of governance and commerce through digitisation, the effects of digital fragility are routinely ignored. As a result, societies with higher degrees of digitisation are beginning to demonstrate a set of brittle side effects that are complex, potentially paralysing and deeply profound. From the information and infrastructure warfare in Ukraine and Russia, to the over-reliance on algorithms and AI for decision-making, to the loss of data from floods or other catastrophes, to the ongoing rash of public data breaches plaguing Australia, we must urgently grapple with the reality that digitisation compromises the foundations of a society’s ability to function in ways we don’t fully understand.
Common to almost all high-tech responses to the climate crisis is a desire to leverage the promise of digitisation to build the green future – from power stations to electric cars to land management to the theoretical "planetary scale computing." These proposals at their core rely on an insatiable demand for data surveillance, an appetite fueled by desires for efficiency and decision-making. Yet data and fulfillment centres – facilities vulnerable to climate change and geopolitics – are central spaces of extreme temperatures and workers’ misery. We define this as the Green Panopticon, a likely future where existing power structures remain, strengthened by policing and surveillance systems built atop the renewable supply chain and far more insidious than today’s fragile authoritarian systems.
So what now? Having spent 2022 engaging directly with a wide range of grassroots and institutional responses to climate change, it's clear that these conceptual oversights span the whole spectrum of human ingenuity, from genuine progressive and local solutions to troubling untested wisdom and profoundly egregious ideas. What we saw at the seminar was an urgent set of contradictions and tensions – conceptual blindspots and unappreciated risks that are systemic and widespread. They can be found broadly in the Western management of forests, the flawed dreams of digital democracy and the Cartesian-fueled exploitative relationship we have with all non-human inhabitants of the planet. There is much work to be done.
We are grateful to EFI for the invitation to Barcelona. The technological solutions pushed by institutional actors draws clear parallel with our past work. As 2022 ends, we look towards the new year with hope. Participating across these initiatives has helped us to validate our work and bring nuance to our forthcoming challenges to the first principles of Western technology, be they pertaining digital identity, knowledge creation and archiving, online safety, information integrity, network and economic resilience, and climate response.