No Tech Reader #47: Digital Technology

The “smartification of cycling”. [Journal of Urban Technology]. “In cities worldwide, cycling is increasingly upgraded with smart technology and is included in smart cities’ visions and projects. This process has not been problematized in public discourse, as smart innovation is seen as a potential booster of the known benefits of cycling. Drawing on critical literatures on smart cities, smart mobility, and degrowth and using the case studies of Copenhagen and Amsterdam, this article opens up a more critical conversation on the subject, discussing the role of “technosolutionism,” technology push, and pro-innovation bias in the process of “smartification” of cycling.”

Distinction and alternative tech: Exploring the technocritical disposition. [New Media & Society] “How should we understand alternative social media and open-source technologies that seek to challenge the dominance of Big Tech? Are these ethical substitutes for monopolistic platforms and technological infrastructures, or “alternative” in the sense we might talk of alternative forms of culture?”

Things Used to Work in This Country. [The New Atlantis] “Personal technology used to be a machine. Now it’s a bureaucracy.”

“Wherever you get your podcasts” is a radical statement. [Anil Dash] “Podcasting as a technology grew out of the early era of the social web, when the norms of technology creators were that they were expected to create open systems, which interoperated with tools by other creators and even other companies.”

The Loss of Things I Took for Granted. [Slate] “Ten years into my college teaching career, students stopped being able to read effectively.”

Center for Technological Pain. [website] “DIY solutions to health problems caused by digital technologies.”

B C, Before Computers. On Information Technology from Writing to the Age of Digital Data. [Open Book Publishers] “Computer developments rely on a long history of humans creating technologies for increasingly sophisticated methods of manipulating information.”

Life Cycle Assessment of 2022 Laptop

Laptop manufacturer Framework commissioned Fraunhofer IZM to do a detailed life cycle analysis on their Framework Laptop 13, which is designed to be upgradeable, repairable, and customizable. The functional unit used in the study is the use of this notebook over 5 years. Although the laptop is modular and repairable, no product failure and thus no repair was assumed. The configuration was assumed to include 16 GB of memory, 256 GB of storage, and two expansion cards with USB-A and USB-C connectors.

Unfortunately, the researchers only calculate the environmental footprint of the laptop in terms of global warming potential and resource depletion, not energy consumption. Nevertheless, the study is interesting for its detailed breakdown of components, with the display and the electronic circuits responsible for the largest environmental damage. The total impact for the Framework Laptop is estimated to be 200 kg CO2e. Almost 70% of this is due to the production phase.

Read more:


No Tech Reader #32: Sustainable Computing

The Galaksija: Socialism’s DIY Computer

The Galaksija computer was a craze in 1980s Yugoslavia, inspiring thousands of people to build versions in their own homes. The idea behind them was simple – to make technology available to everyone. Free play was implicitly encouraged: the sharing, collaboration, manipulation, and proliferation of software was built into Galaksija’s very operation.

A computing enthusiast since 1979, Zoran Modli caught wind of Galaksija after the publication of Computers in Your Home. As host and DJ of Ventilator 202—a renowned New Wave radio show on Serbia’s Radio Beograd 202—Modli was something of a minor celebrity in Yugoslavia. Because all the day’s computers, including Galaksija, ran their programs on cassette, Regasek thought Modli might broadcast programs over the airwaves as audio during his show. The idea was that listeners could tape the programs off their receivers as they were broadcast, then load them into their personal machines.

An overnight sensation, this DJing practice quickly became a staple on Modli’s show. In the ensuing months, Ventilator 202 broadcast hundreds of computer programs. During the hour, Modli would announce when the segment was approaching, signaling to his listeners that it was time for them to fetch their equipment, cue up a tape, and get ready to hit record. In the case of games, users would “download” the programs off the radio and alter them—inserting their own levels, challenges, and characters—then send them back to Modli for retransmission. In effect, this was file transfer well before the advent of the World Wide Web, a pre-internet pirating protocol.

Read more: Socialism’s DIY Computer, Michael Eby, Tribune, July 2020. Thanks to m.

To Decarbonize We Must Decomputerize: Why We Need a Luddite Revolution

Confronting the climate crisis will require something more radical than just making data greener. That’s why we should put another tactic on the table: making less data. We should reject the assumption that our built environment must become one big computer. We should erect barriers against the spread of “smartness” into all of the spaces of our lives. To decarbonize, we need to decomputerize.

Decomputerization doesn’t mean no computers. It means that not all spheres of life should be rendered into data and computed upon. Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.

The zero-carbon commonwealth of the future must empower people to decide not just how technologies are built and implemented, but whether they’re built and implemented.

Read more: To Decarbonize, We Need to Decomputerize: Why We Need a Luddite Revolution. Via Roel Roscam Abbing.

The Anatomy of Artificial Intelligence

In 1770, Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen constructed a chess-playing machine known as the Mechanical Turk. His goal, in part, was to impress Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. This device was capable of playing chess against a human opponent and had spectacular success winning most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for almost nine decades. But the Mechanical Turk was an illusion that allowed a human chess master to hide inside the machine and operate it.

Some 160 years later, branded its micropayment based crowdsourcing platform with the same name. According to Ayhan Aytes, Amazon’s initial motivation to build Mechanical Turk emerged after the failure of its artificial intelligence programs in the task of finding duplicate product pages on its retail website. After a series of futile and expensive attempts, the project engineers turned to humans to work behind computers within a streamlined web-based system.

The spectacle of the machine

Amazon Mechanical Turk digital workshop emulates artificial intelligence systems by checking, assessing and correcting machine learning processes with human brainpower. With Amazon Mechanical Turk, it may seem to users that an application is using advanced artificial intelligence to accomplish tasks. But it is closer to a form of ‘artificial artificial intelligence’, driven by a remote, dispersed and poorly paid clickworker workforce that helps a client achieve their business objectives. As observed by Aytes, “in both cases the performance of the workers who animate the artifice is obscured by the spectacle of the machine.”

This kind of invisible, hidden labor, outsourced or crowdsourced, hidden behind interfaces and camouflaged within algorithmic processes is now commonplace, particularly in the process of tagging and labeling thousands of hours of digital archives for the sake of feeding the neural networks…  As we see repeated throughout the system, contemporary forms of artificial intelligence are not so artificial after all… At every level contemporary technology is deeply rooted in and running on the exploitation of human bodies.

Quoted from Anatomy of an AI System, Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, 2018.

Via: The exploitation, injustice, and waste powering our AI, Katharine Schwab, 2018.