For various editions of the Research Lab »Art Meets Radical Openness« – a series of labs organized by the network initiative servus.at – artists from the AMRO community explore several layers of (un)sustainability of the computational infrastructure. In the 2023 RL we research a recent, interesting concept: permacomputing. The term is developed and researched by a group of artists gathering around the permacomputing wiki (permacomputing.net), which is hosted within the servus.at Artist Run Data Center instance. This article is also a preparation for the 2024 AMRO Festival.
Most of us have a drawer, a box, a bag filled with unused cables and old pieces of tech that we feel bad about throwing away. It’s probably tucked away and rarely looked into – honestly, not often enough to keep it. Yet, it stays there for years. Something about throwing away a perfectly fine cable feels bad. What is that feeling exactly, and how can we adress it based on the ideas and principles of permacomputing?
By now, we all have been hearing about the overabundance of practically everything, and here appears the real paradox: we are seeing a constant influx of novelty and yet not being able to hold, enjoy and process the objects and experiences they provide. After all, the new one is constantly »just around the corner«. In the business of computation, this turnover has been happening for a long while, but just recently, once it started to intrude in our lives, we started to notice it.
We are perpetually wired. Dependent on constant connectivity, we lead professional and personal lives with the mediation from network providers that are desperate to keep us entrenched in their services. We attempt digital detoxes, meditations, and mindfulness courses to cope with it. I myself have an app that I pay for to minimize distractions and simplify the interface of my smartphone. It helps to direct my focus temporarily but works more like a bandaid than a cure. We can try to minimize the impact of the digital on our sanity, but the network that supports this constant connection keeps growing, reinforcing our dependency. This imbalanced relationship to technology also manifests in the material aspects of tech and its impact on our environment. Its effects stretch beyond well-being and are now affecting the entirety of our ecosystem. Whether it is by extracting insane amounts of natural resources to produce new devices or polluting the atmosphere to run the infrastructure that sustains it, we are putting pressure on the entire ecosystem. Since we are a part of it, looking away won’t ease the growing climate anxiety. Just like hiding that box of cables away from your sight does not make it disappear. Instead, by slowly untangling this mess of cables, we could reveal a whole ecosystem of dependencies, one in which your small collection of old devices is just a representative of a larger issue, dropped on us by tech giants. Sure, we are not about to solve all these issues in this article, but I want to take this opportunity to unpack some of it and introduce you to permacomputing as a »radically, slightly more sustainable« (https://permacomputing.net/) approach to computation and an alternative to regain some agency in your own digitally mediated world.
How are permacomputing and its principles an answer to this anxiety?
In 2020 Viznut a.k.a. Ville-Matias Heikkilä proposed the concept of permacomputing inspired by permaculture’s approach to the natural environment. Permaculture is creating regenerative human habitats by adopting patterns and relationships found in nature. Though we cannot directly translate that to computing, since »computation is inherently extractivist« and by design, it relies on sourcing raw materials to continue to exist, there is still an attitude change that can be inspired by permaculture. While the latter focuses on understanding already existing natural cycles and working in tune with them, in permacomputing this translates to reimagining digital practices and shifting a collective mindset to begin regarding resources needed to build, run and maintain digital infrastructure and its components as finite and, above all, precious. That also means rethinking how we design our devices in the first place. We can ensure their usefulness in the larger ecosystem by creating components that can adapt or at least be reused in new ways once their original purpose runs its course. Such approach will further minimize e-waste and ensure resilience, breaking the cycle of wastefulness.
In nature, everything is interdependent, and these interdependencies tend to strengthen the whole. In technology, however, large dependency networks and »diversity of options« often make the system more fragile. Civilization should, therefore, try to find ways of making technological dependencies work more like those in nature, as well as ways of embracing technological diversity in fruitful ways.
Where do we start, and is it going to be painful? Probably. It is, therefore, helpful to look back and examine why and how we found ourselves in this situation to begin with. As Viznut explains:
»Over the last few hundred years of human civilization, there has been a dramatic increase in the consumption of artificially produced energy. In the overarching story, this is often equated with ‘progress’.
In the computer world, this phenomenon gets multiplied by itself: ‘progress’ facilitates ever greater densities of data storage and digital logic, thus dramatically exploding the availability of computing resources. However, the abundance has also caused an equivalent explosion in wastefulness, which shows in things like mindblowingly ridiculous hardware requirements for even quite trivial tasks.«1
Having to strive for said progress while simultaneously bearing witness to the impact of wasteful practices for our environment has left us in a state that I would describe as casual dystopia. We can no longer look away from the consequences of tech overproduction manifesting in the environment we inhabit. Yet, we are expected to live healthy, productive and, above all, efficient lives – fostered by the very same technology that undermines it. If we consider this situation, this clash might seem maddening. As I mentioned, disconnecting is not an option and going back is unrealistic. So, how to remain hopeful? An alternative approach is to turn towards each other and, like Viznut suggests, rely (once again) on human ingenuity:
»What makes permacultural philosophy particularly appealing (to me) is that it does not advocate ‘going back in time’ despite advocating a dramatic decrease in use of artificial energy. Instead, it trusts in human ingenunity in finding clever hacks for turning problems into solutions, competition into co-operation, waste into resources.«2
The point and philosophy behind permacomputing is thus not to revert, unplug, or meditate on the issue but rather to actively correct the course in a collective way. This can be done in small steps, and there are some of the permacomputing principles you will find helpful to start with.3
For those who care to tinker, this might mean referring to the permacomputing principle of »Care for the Chips«, embracing repairs and maintenance of already existing technology. One can consider time-sharing devices with your neighbors, avoiding buying new ones. This principle can also manifest itself by, for example, adapting your old computer to serve as a local storage or even a server for small-scale web self-hosting. Some members of the permacomputing community held a workshop on how to adapt your old (in some cases, almost ancient) computers to start exploring the practice of self-hosting.4 But self-hosting is not for everyone. Quite a few people admitted to me that »it can be annoying and frustrating to keep your mini server alive,« and this practice sometimes requires almost monk-like patience when things go wrong – which is almost guaranteed. In contrast to large data centers, which often brag about being fail-proof almost 99.99% of the time (at the cost of insane energy use), it looks like self-hosting is most definitely less convenient. In this case, services like servus.at might provide a middle ground. As a cultural data center that operates on a small scale (in comparison to large data centers), it provides its users with an alternative to centralized services. In line with principles of permacomputing like Amplifying Awareness and Expose Everything, cultural data centers as servus.at can extend their work beyond hosting needs and provide their users with the understanding of implications and inner workings of their own network. Choosing where to host your work is one thing, but going further, you might start considering how much of your digital activity needs to be hosted to begin with. Suppose you are up for the challenge of the Keeping It Small principle. You might want to explore ways of communicating your practice without overly relying on heavily overproduced pieces of media in return, saving storage and, subsequently, energy. This also means ensuring that your work (whether code-based or not) remains explainable on a human scale, with a focus on comprehensibility first.
To Build on Solid ground means avoiding placing all your bets on software that can become obsolete in the process, stunting your practice. This also implies working towards decentralization and reliance on systems designed for a possible scenario in which access to the network is not always a given. And these are just some examples of how you can practice permacomputing in your life. Even if you are not a very technical person, you can still use permacomputing principles to review your digital habits.
Quite honestly, there is a big chance that applying all permacomputing principles will cause some frictions in your life. Choosing to step out of the mainstream software or hardware options, you will notice how uncomfortable and infuriating it can be at times. Here, it is important to recall the paradox I have mentioned before. The digital ecosystem was supposedly designed to work for us, make our lives easier, and make any tasks we encounter manageable. Instead, manufactured efficiency ended up polluting our lives with physical and mental waste, making us feel perpetually exhausted and complicit in destructive practices on an environmental scale. Either way, you will not find solace in this casual dystopia, and the burdens of our digital consumption will spill over into your life eventually. Whether it is with one or more permacomputing principles applied, facing some initial obstacles might actually be healing. Efficiency and seamlessness are the shiny packaging applied by profit-driven companies aiming to sell you yet another device. That exact strategy led us to where we are today. Untangling the box of cables, old phones and dusty laptops to appreciate and perhaps even repurpose some of them might just be the step towards the collective therapy we need today.