Issue 3/2021

Digital Ecology


Climate catastrophe and digitalization. Leaving aside the pandemic, which continues to shape all realms of life, these two issues are probably among the most pressing topics today. The recently published report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) demonstrates clearly – and scientifically – that there is no longer any way to avoid the climate emergency. The question is simply what can still be done effectively by whom to avert the worst-case scenario. For some time now there have been a wealth of artistic proposals on that front – in fact, it almost appears that the climate catastrophe has also irrevocably hit contemporary art over the past year.
However thematic trends are often short-lived – or shaped by the periods in which they unfold, as a look at digitalization and its influence on the art scene reveals. While the digital realm was once the disruptive new factor that sparked invention of its own specific artistic genres (electronic art, post-internet art, etc.), it has now become a kind of latent backdrop to art production. Hard as it is to imagine contemporary creation without it, its cutting-edge character has been almost entirely eroded when it comes to tackling artistic concerns per se. Nowadays, the technological aspect often appears more progressive than art itself, and on many fronts one finds oneself longing for a corrective to this skewed relationship.
But let’s return to the digital and ecological dimensions: on the one hand, an advanced technology whose environmentally detrimental downside was long underexamined; on the other, discourse about an object that is far too large by human standards (the “hyper-object” of the climate), which might perhaps be better managed with the help of the digital sphere. In other words: on one side, a powerful cultural force that until recently had scant interest in ideas of sustainability and securing survival; on the other hand, an often technology-skeptical struggle to convey the big picture – the more-than-just-human interconnection between all life-forms, irrespective of their environments. In that struggle the digital, as the spawn of the beautiful, smart immaterial dimension, was always a little suspect. Ecology and big tech? That sounds a bit like trying to force two long-standing antipodes to come together.
It long seemed that there was scarcely any connection between the increasingly technological thrust of information and communication media and the question of how long a stable ecological balance can be maintained. It was likewise also long the case that barely any attention was paid to the connection between artistic means of production (and reception) and consumption of natural resources. That is currently beginning to change, thanks at least in part to the many artists who consciously and reflectively incorporate ecological questions into their work. In addition, in the worlds of business and culture, the more profound and/or longer term ramifications of day-to-day utilization of the digital sphere are also becoming increasingly apparent in environmental terms. In addition, speculation has now emerged as to whether artificial intelligence, if judiciously deployed, might possibly generate greater ecological sustainability than solutions dreamt up by human beings (that are usually immediately abandoned or impossible to implement).
In his essay, Roberto Simanowski speculates along precisely those lines and asks whether in this respect the idea of a “benevolent dictator” would not logically need to gain ground – with all the contradictions and anticipated objections this implies. An “eco-AI” that would need to adopt a superhuman perspective to save the world is also the premise explored in James Lovelock’s latest book about the Novacene. The inventor of the Gaia theory takes the view that only the hyperintelligence currently emerging would be capable of keeping the planet habitable – more than good grounds to consider sketching out a digital ecology through the prism of this approach.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes engage more closely with the current art scene. Their essay surveys the field of ecologically motivated art to detect visions and points of critique vis-à-vis the digital high-tech world. A key question that is also one of the central points of reference in other essays is whether artistic “decodings” of today’s promises for the future can actually also transmit decolonial or democratizing impetuses. Diedrich Diederichsen, for example, takes a novel by Thomas Pynchon as the starting point for an examination of the transformational potential inherent in cybernetics-critical approaches since the 1960s. With reference to the artistic present, Daphne Dragona looks into the ethical dimension of art that critiques ecology and digitalization – in order to focus, inter alia, on new forms of the kind of “extractivism” that has long characterized Western conquest and exploitation of the world.
Waste production is the flipside of relentless exploitation of commodities. Olga Goriunova and Matthew Fuller address this aspect in their essay, which – against the backdrop of digital culture – relates not only to the mountains of scrap that grow higher by the day, but also the general waste of time, work and energy inexorably associated with this phenomenon.
So how do digitization and sustainability actually fit together? How to reconcile, on the one hand, production that is increasingly outsourced to the digital world or is inherently rooted in that context and, on the other hand, concerns about resource scarcity, environmental issues and humankind’s inexorably expanding CO2 footprint? The “Digital Ecology” issue examines the tangible potentials and implications of this nexus. Will electric sheep find themselves dealing with androids that are less environmentally destructive and will post-human subjects even have dreams about the future? This more than timely thematic issue ponders all these questions.