The Real Future of the Media

Richard Maxwell, Toby Miller


When George Orwell encountered ideas of a technological utopia sixty-five years ago, he acted the grumpy middle-aged man

Reading recently a batch of rather shallowly optimistic “progressive” books, I was struck by the automatic way in which people go on repeating certain phrases which were fashionable before 1914. Two great favourites are “the abolition of distance” and “the disappearance of frontiers”. I do not know how often I have met with the statements that “the aeroplane and the radio have abolished distance” and “all parts of the world are now interdependent” (1944).

It is worth revisiting the old boy’s grumpiness, because the rhetoric he so niftily skewers continues in our own time. Facebook features “Peace on Facebook” and even claims that it can “decrease world conflict” through inter-cultural communication. Twitter has announced itself as “a triumph of humanity” (“A Cyber-House” 61). Queue George.

In between Orwell and latter-day hoody cybertarians, a whole host of excitable public intellectuals announced the impending end of materiality through emergent media forms. Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Daniel Bell, Ithiel de Sola Pool, George Gilder, Alvin Toffler—the list of 1960s futurists goes on and on. And this wasn’t just a matter of punditry: the OECD decreed the coming of the “information society” in 1975 and the European Union (EU) followed suit in 1979, while IBM merrily declared an “information age” in 1977. Bell theorized this technological utopia as post-ideological, because class would cease to matter (Mattelart). Polluting industries seemingly no longer represented the dynamic core of industrial capitalism; instead, market dynamism radiated from a networked, intellectual core of creative and informational activities. The new information and knowledge-based economies would rescue First World hegemony from an “insurgent world” that lurked within as well as beyond itself (Schiller).

Orwell’s others and the Cold-War futurists propagated one of the most destructive myths shaping both public debate and scholarly studies of the media, culture, and communication. They convinced generations of analysts, activists, and arrivistes that the promises and problems of the media could be understood via metaphors of the environment, and that the media were weightless and virtual. The famous medium they wished us to see as the message —a substance as vital to our wellbeing as air, water, and soil—turned out to be no such thing. Today’s cybertarians inherit their anti-Marxist, anti-materialist positions, as a casual glance at any new media journal, culture-industry magazine, or bourgeois press outlet discloses.

The media are undoubtedly important instruments of social cohesion and fragmentation, political power and dissent, democracy and demagoguery, and other fraught extensions of human consciousness. But talk of media systems as equivalent to physical ecosystems—fashionable among marketers and media scholars alike—is predicated on the notion that they are environmentally benign technologies. This has never been true, from the beginnings of print to today’s cloud-covered computing.

Our new book Greening the Media focuses on the environmental impact of the media—the myriad ways that media technology consumes, despoils, and wastes natural resources. We introduce ideas, stories, and facts that have been marginal or absent from popular, academic, and professional histories of media technology. Throughout, ecological issues have been at the core of our work and we immodestly think the same should apply to media communications, and cultural studies more generally.

We recognize that those fields have contributed valuable research and teaching that address environmental questions. For instance, there is an abundant literature on representations of the environment in cinema, how to communicate environmental messages successfully, and press coverage of climate change.

That’s not enough.

You may already know that media technologies contain toxic substances. You may have signed an on-line petition protesting the hazardous and oppressive conditions under which workers assemble cell phones and computers. But you may be startled, as we were, by the scale and pervasiveness of these environmental risks. They are present in and around every site where electronic and electric devices are manufactured, used, and thrown away, poisoning humans, animals, vegetation, soil, air and water.

We are using the term “media” as a portmanteau word to cover a multitude of cultural and communications machines and processes—print, film, radio, television, information and communications technologies (ICT), and consumer electronics (CE). This is not only for analytical convenience, but because there is increasing overlap between the sectors. CE connect to ICT and vice versa; televisions resemble computers; books are read on telephones; newspapers are written through clouds; and so on. Cultural forms and gadgets that were once separate are now linked. The currently fashionable notion of convergence doesn’t quite capture the vastness of this integration, which includes any object with a circuit board, scores of accessories that plug into it, and a global nexus of labor and environmental inputs and effects that produce and flow from it.

In 2007, a combination of ICT/CE and media production accounted for between 2 and 3 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted around the world (“Gartner Estimates,”; International Telecommunication Union; Malmodin et al.). Between twenty and fifty million tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) are generated annually, much of it via discarded cell phones and computers, which affluent populations throw out regularly in order to buy replacements. (Presumably this fits the narcissism of small differences that distinguishes them from their own past.) E-waste is historically produced in the Global North—Australasia, Western Europe, Japan, and the US—and dumped in the Global South—Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Southern and Southeast Asia, and China. It takes the form of a thousand different, often deadly, materials for each electrical and electronic gadget. This trend is changing as India and China generate their own media detritus (Robinson; Herat).

Enclosed hard drives, backlit screens, cathode ray tubes, wiring, capacitors, and heavy metals pose few risks while these materials remain encased. But once discarded and dismantled, ICT/CE have the potential to expose workers and ecosystems to a morass of toxic components. Theoretically, “outmoded” parts could be reused or swapped for newer parts to refurbish devices. But items that are defined as waste undergo further destruction in order to collect remaining parts and valuable metals, such as gold, silver, copper, and rare-earth elements. This process causes serious health risks to bones, brains, stomachs, lungs, and other vital organs, in addition to birth defects and disrupted biological development in children. Medical catastrophes can result from lead, cadmium, mercury, other heavy metals, poisonous fumes emitted in search of precious metals, and such carcinogenic compounds as polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxin, polyvinyl chloride, and flame retardants (Maxwell and Miller 13).

The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by 2007 US residents owned approximately three billion electronic devices, with an annual turnover rate of 400 million units, and well over half such purchases made by women. Overall CE ownership varied with age—adults under 45 typically boasted four gadgets; those over 65 made do with one. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) says US$145 billion was expended in the sector in 2006 in the US alone, up 13% on the previous year. The CEA refers joyously to a “consumer love affair with technology continuing at a healthy clip.” In the midst of a recession, 2009 saw $165 billion in sales, and households owned between fifteen and twenty-four gadgets on average. By 2010, US$233 billion was spent on electronic products, three-quarters of the population owned a computer, nearly half of all US adults owned an MP3 player, and 85% had a cell phone. By all measures, the amount of ICT/CE on the planet is staggering. As investigative science journalist, Elizabeth Grossman put it: “no industry pushes products into the global market on the scale that high-tech electronics does” (Maxwell and Miller 2).

In 2007, “of the 2.25 million tons of TVs, cell phones and computer products ready for end-of-life management, 18% (414,000 tons) was collected for recycling and 82% (1.84 million tons) was disposed of, primarily in landfill” (Environmental Protection Agency 1). Twenty million computers fell obsolete across the US in 1998, and the rate was 130,000 a day by 2005. It has been estimated that the five hundred million personal computers discarded in the US between 1997 and 2007 contained 6.32 billion pounds of plastics, 1.58 billion pounds of lead, three million pounds of cadmium, 1.9 million pounds of chromium, and 632000 pounds of mercury (Environmental Protection Agency; Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition 6). The European Union is expected to generate upwards of twelve million tons annually by 2020 (Commission of the European Communities 17). While refrigerators and dangerous refrigerants account for the bulk of EU e-waste, about 44% of the most toxic e-waste measured in 2005 came from medium-to-small ICT/CE: computer monitors, TVs, printers, ink cartridges, telecommunications equipment, toys, tools, and anything with a circuit board (Commission of the European Communities 31-34).

Understanding the enormity of the environmental problems caused by making, using, and disposing of media technologies should arrest our enthusiasm for them. But intellectual correctives to the “love affair” with technology, or technophilia, have come and gone without establishing much of a foothold against the breathtaking flood of gadgets and the propaganda that proclaims their awe-inspiring capabilities.[i] There is a peculiar enchantment with the seeming magic of wireless communication, touch-screen phones and tablets, flat-screen high-definition televisions, 3-D IMAX cinema, mobile computing, and so on—a totemic, quasi-sacred power that the historian of technology David Nye has named the technological sublime (Nye Technological Sublime 297).[ii] We demonstrate in our book why there is no place for the technological sublime in projects to green the media. But first we should explain why such symbolic power does not accrue to more mundane technologies; after all, for the time-strapped cook, a pressure cooker does truly magical things.

Three important qualities endow ICT/CE with unique symbolic potency—virtuality, volume, and novelty. The technological sublime of media technology is reinforced by the “virtual nature of much of the industry’s content,” which “tends to obscure their responsibility for a vast proliferation of hardware, all with high levels of built-in obsolescence and decreasing levels of efficiency” (Boyce and Lewis 5). Planned obsolescence entered the lexicon as a new “ethics” for electrical engineering in the 1920s and ’30s, when marketers, eager to “habituate people to buying new products,” called for designs to become quickly obsolete “in efficiency, economy, style, or taste” (Grossman 7-8).[iii] This defines the short lifespan deliberately constructed for computer systems (drives, interfaces, operating systems, batteries, etc.) by making tiny improvements incompatible with existing hardware (Science and Technology Council of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 33-50; Boyce and Lewis). With planned obsolescence leading to “dizzying new heights” of product replacement (Rogers 202), there is an overstated sense of the novelty and preeminence of “new” media—a “cult of the present” is particularly dazzled by the spread of electronic gadgets through globalization (Mattelart and Constantinou 22). References to the symbolic power of media technology can be found in hymnals across the internet and the halls of academe: technologies change us, the media will solve social problems or create new ones, ICTs transform work, monopoly ownership no longer matters, journalism is dead, social networking enables social revolution, and the media deliver a cleaner, post-industrial, capitalism. Here is a typical example from the twilight zone of the technological sublime (actually, the OECD):

A major feature of the knowledge-based economy is the impact that ICTs have had on industrial structure, with a rapid growth of services and a relative decline of manufacturing. Services are typically less energy intensive and less polluting, so among those countries with a high and increasing share of services, we often see a declining energy intensity of production … with the emergence of the Knowledge Economy ending the old linear relationship between output and energy use (i.e. partially de-coupling growth and energy use) (Houghton 1)

This statement mixes half-truths and nonsense. In reality, old-time, toxic manufacturing has moved to the Global South, where it is ascendant; pollution levels are rising worldwide; and energy consumption is accelerating in residential and institutional sectors, due almost entirely to ICT/CE usage, despite advances in energy conservation technology (a neat instance of the age-old Jevons Paradox). In our book we show how these are all outcomes of growth in ICT/CE, the foundation of the so-called knowledge-based economy. ICT/CE are misleadingly presented as having little or no material ecological impact.

In the realm of everyday life, the sublime experience of electronic machinery conceals the physical work and material resources that go into them, while the technological sublime makes the idea that more-is-better palatable, axiomatic; even sexy. In this sense, the technological sublime relates to what Marx called “the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour” once they are in the hands of the consumer, who lusts after them as if they were “independent beings” (77). There is a direct but unseen relationship between technology’s symbolic power and the scale of its environmental impact, which the economist Juliet Schor refers to as a “materiality paradox” —the greater the frenzy to buy goods for their transcendent or nonmaterial cultural meaning, the greater the use of material resources (40-41).

We wrote Greening the Media knowing that a study of the media’s effect on the environment must work especially hard to break the enchantment that inflames popular and elite passions for media technologies. We understand that the mere mention of the political-economic arrangements that make shiny gadgets possible, or the environmental consequences of their appearance and disappearance, is bad medicine. It’s an unwelcome buzz kill—not a cool way to converse about cool stuff. But we didn’t write the book expecting to win many allies among high-tech enthusiasts and ICT/CE industry leaders.

We do not dispute the importance of information and communication media in our lives and modern social systems. We are media people by profession and personal choice, and deeply immersed in the study and use of emerging media technologies. But we think it’s time for a balanced assessment with less hype and more practical understanding of the relationship of media technologies to the biosphere they inhabit. Media consumers, designers, producers, activists, researchers, and policy makers must find new and effective ways to move ICT/CE production and consumption toward ecologically sound practices.

In the course of this project, we found in casual conversation, lecture halls, classroom discussions, and correspondence, consistent and increasing concern with the environmental impact of media technology, especially the deleterious effects of e-waste toxins on workers, air, water, and soil. We have learned that the grip of the technological sublime is not ironclad. Its instability provides a point of departure for investigating and criticizing the relationship between the media and the environment.

The media are, and have been for a long time, intimate environmental participants. Media technologies are yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s news, but rarely in the way they should be. The prevailing myth is that the printing press, telegraph, phonograph, photograph, cinema, telephone, wireless radio, television, and internet changed the world without changing the Earth. In reality, each technology has emerged by despoiling ecosystems and exposing workers to harmful environments, a truth obscured by symbolic power and the power of moguls to set the terms by which such technologies are designed and deployed. Those who benefit from ideas of growth, progress, and convergence, who profit from high-tech innovation, monopoly, and state collusion—the military-industrial-entertainment-academic complex and multinational commandants of labor—have for too long ripped off the Earth and workers.

As the current celebration of media technology inevitably winds down, perhaps it will become easier to comprehend that digital wonders come at the expense of employees and ecosystems. This will return us to Max Weber’s insistence that we understand technology in a mundane way as a “mode of processing material goods” (27). Further to understanding that ordinariness, we can turn to the pioneering conversation analyst Harvey Sacks, who noted three decades ago “the failures of technocratic dreams [:] that if only we introduced some fantastic new communication machine the world will be transformed.” Such fantasies derived from the very banality of these introductions—that every time they took place, one more “technical apparatus” was simply “being made at home with the rest of our world’ (548). Media studies can join in this repetitive banality. Or it can withdraw the welcome mat for media technologies that despoil the Earth and wreck the lives of those who make them. In our view, it’s time to green the media by greening media studies.


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[i] The global recession that began in 2007 has been the main reason for some declines in Global North energy consumption, slower turnover in gadget upgrades, and longer periods of consumer maintenance of electronic goods (Richtel).

[ii] The emergence of the technological sublime has been attributed to the Western triumphs in the post-Second World War period, when technological power supposedly supplanted the power of nature to inspire fear and astonishment (Nye Technology Matters 28). Historian Mario Biagioli explains how the sublime permeates everyday life through technoscience: "If around 1950 the popular imaginary placed science close to the military and away from the home, today’s technoscience frames our everyday life at all levels, down to our notion of the self" (818).

[iii] This compulsory repetition is seemingly undertaken each time as a novelty, governed by what German cultural critic Walter Benjamin called, in his awkward but occasionally illuminating prose, "the ever-always-the-same" of "mass-production" cloaked in "a hitherto unheard-of significance" (48).



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