Silicon Forest and Server Farms

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Levenda, Anthony and Dillon Mahmoudi. 2019. “Silicon Forest and Server Farms: The (Urban) Nature of Digital Capitalism in the Pacific Northwest.” Culture Machine 18: 1-14. ScholarWorks@UMBC

Summary

We trace some of connections, displacements, and inequalities that are found along data infrastructures. If we follow from data centers in rural communities to smart cities produced in the image of large corporations, we find extractive logics all along the way. Choosing data centers and infrastructures as the site for investigation of the relationship between digital capitalism and nature is strategic. It reveals a complex relationship between urbanization as a planetary scale process linking urban and rural communities, facilitating flows of nature (energy, water, food, waste, etc.) in circulations and metabolisms that reproduce digital capitalism. In the first section, we showed how nature is constructed as both a resource and a greenwashing strategy for data centers. Then, we turned towards the metaphor of layering to understand how data infrastructures are a specific expression of digital capitalism’s secondary circuit at this historical-geographical moment. Growth in data infrastructures, as an expression of digital capitalism’s secondary circuit of fixed capital, is driven by the logic of exploitation of social production through digital means. Everyday life, subjectivity, and social knowledge become reduced to data resources for extraction by digital capitalists. This is the basis of third-wave urbanization, which we discussed in the third section, highlighting how this mode of capital accumulation is leading to new fractures and inequalities in cities like Seattle.

But there is still so much more to do. What inequities are arising in the uneven development of data infrastructures within and beyond cities? How might we extend analyses of data centers and data infrastructures to understand the relationship between computing and socio-natural change? And how might these mappings elucidate new areas for contestation and resistance? What are the possibilities for more sustainable and equitable alternatives in digital economies? This essay perhaps raises more questions than it answers, but our goal here is to provoke critical reflection on the interconnections between nature, urbanization, and computation. After all, paraphrasing Marx, nature builds no data centers.

Data Colonialism Through Accumulation by Dispossession

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Thatcher, Jim, David O’Sullivan, and Dillon Mahmoudi. 2016. “Data Colonialism through Accumulation by Dispossession: New metaphors for daily data.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34 (6): 990-1006. doi:10.1080/01944363.2015.1135072

Summary

In recent years, much has been written on ‘big data’ in both the popular and academic press. After the hubristic declaration of the ‘end of theory’ more nuanced arguments have emerged,
suggesting that increasingly pervasive data collection and quantification may have significant
implications for the social sciences, even if the social, scientific, political, and economic agendas behind big data are less new than they are often portrayed. Compared to the boosterish tone of much of its press, academic critiques of big data have been relatively muted, often focusing on the continued importance of more traditional forms of domain knowledge and expertise. Indeed, many academic responses to big data enthusiastically celebrate the availability of new data sources and the potential for new insights and perspectives they may enable. Undermining many of these critiques is a lack of attention to the role of technology in society, particularly with respect to the labor process, the continued extension of labor relations into previously private times and places, and the commoditization of more and more aspects of everyday life. In this article, we parse a variety of big data definitions to argue that it is only when individual datums by the million, billion, or more are linked together algorithmically that ‘big data’ emerges as a commodity. Such decisions do not occur in a vacuum but as part of an asymmetric power relationship in which individuals are dispossessed of the data they generate in their day-to-day lives. We argue that the asymmetry of this data capture process is a means of capitalist ‘accumulation by dispossession’ that colonizes and commodifies everyday life in ways previously impossible. Situating the promises of ‘big data’ within the utopian imaginaries of digital frontierism, we suggest processes of data colonialism are actually unfolding behind these utopic promises. Amid private corporate and academic excitement over new forms of data analysis and visualization, situating big data as a form of capitalist expropriation and dispossession stresses the urgent need for critical, theoretical understandings of data and society.

Beyond the Screen

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Beyond the Screen: Uneven Geographies, Digital Labour, and the City of Cognitive-Cultural Capitalism. 2016. tripleC: Communication, Capital and Critique 14 (1): 99-120. With Anthony M Levenda. doi:10.31269/triplec.v14i1.699

Summary

In this paper, we demonstrate that an examination of the socio-environmental impacts of digital Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) remains a fruitless enterprise without “materializing” digital labour. We suggest a two-part approach to materializing digital labour: first, connecting political economic analyses of digital ICTs to the co-evolution and geography of planetary urbanization and technological change, and second, examining the relationships between immaterial, digital labour and the material industrial production system. In the context of broad changes in technology, social life, and urbanization, many scholars have theorized a shift towards a third phase of capitalism, beyond mercantilism and industrialism, based in immaterial, digital, and cognitive labour. We introduce the literature on cognitive-cultural capitalism and third-wave urbanization as markers of contemporary capitalism, producing uneven socio-spatial arrangements across the global-urban system. Synthesis of media and communication studies and political economies of urbanization suggests that both capital accumulation and the social lives of (planetary) urban residents are increasingly mediated and structured by online, digital ICT platforms.

We show that digital ICTs are sophisticated manipulations of nature that require and illuminate new ways of thinking about digital labour, and more broadly, of immaterial labour. We suggest that the immaterial labour associated with digital ICTs is actually material labour responsible for increasing the velocity of capital circulation, as a moment of production and an appendage of the growing complexity of third-phase capitalist industry and urbanization. The materiality of cognitive, cultural, and symbolic labour reaches beyond the city, invades the lifeworlds of a planet of urban residents, and excretes concrete, silicon, bits, servers, and energy waste producing an urban landscape beyond the city. Through an examination of data centres, we show the necessary relationship between the third-wave urbanization and its planetary reach into rural, pristine Oregon. Data centres in Oregon and the broader Pacific Northwest highlight the uneven geography of “clean” digital labour focused in large urban technopoles; the potentially harmful, material, and socioenvironmental impacts of data centres in rural areas; and the necessary and dialectic relationship between the two for cognitive-cultural capitalism. We argue that third-wave urbanization, and the concurrent and co-produced technological advancement in digital ICTs and digital ICT infrastructure, creates the conditions for capital’s subsumption of cognitive and cultural labour.

The Neoliberal Politics of “Smart”

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Levenda, Anthony M., Dillon Mahmoudi, and Gerald Sussman. “The Neoliberal Politics of ‘Smart’: Electricity Consumption, Data Analytics, and Ubiquitous Financialization.” Canadian Journal of Communication 40 (4) (November): 615-636. doi:10.22230/cjc.2015v40n4a2928

Summary

This article investigates how digital technologies in the energy sector are enabling increased value extraction in the cycle of capital accumulation through surveillant processes of everyday energy consumption. We offer critical theory (Gramsci, Foucault) and critical political economy (Marx) as a guide for critical understanding of value creation in ICT through quotidian processes and practices of social reproduction. In this regard, the concept of the “prosumer” is extended beyond notions of voluntary participation in Web 2.0 to the political economy of energy use. Within this broad framework we investigate national and local level “smart grid” campaigns and projects. The “smartening” of the energy grid, we find, is both an ideological construct and a technological rationalization for facilitating capital accumulation through data collection, analysis, segmentation of consumers, and variable electricity pricing schemes to standardize social practices within and outside the home. We look at BC Hydro as one illustration of where such practices are being instituted.

Note: Feature image by Loudmouth Printhouse an Ottawa based, artist run, printing cooperative. The image is the cover image for the print edition of the Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 40, No 4 and is used here with permission.