Review of Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Review of Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies

Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies
by Sean Cubitt

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2016
256 pp., illus. 2 b/w. Trade, $84.95; paper, $23.95
ISBN: 0-978-0-8223-6281-4; ISBN: 978-0-8223-6292-0.

Reviewed by: 
Ana Peraica
June 2017

Media pollution is often defined by semiotic terms of a noise in a transfer of a message through a channel, technologically solvable by the enhancement of media capacity (bandwidth), or advancement of coding (programming / software).

Other senses of pollution, in terms of material by-products but also a whole wasting culture of outdated models in this speeded up usage-oriented economy, are hardly approached by media theory. Still, shocking pictures of ‘electronic graveyards’ as for example Agbogbloshie in Ghana, or some places in China, warn us that e-waste is dangerous. Moreover, only a small part e-waste is recyclable (no more than 15% of parts are re-sold to repairs shops, while as cooper and gold from cables are extracted by firing them), while the rest, predominantly the un-degradable plastic is left to land absorption. Located nearby slum neighbourhoods, having no solution even for the organic waste, e-waste dump yards are polluting natural resources, land and water, commonly in the Third World where the population indicates a large percentage of lead in their blood. Consequently, it results in high percentage of cancer.

A question may be raised: Will technological waste will outlive its creators? Duration of media, long believed to transcend humanity into more pure, digital and abstract-mathematical universe, is in the centre of Cubitt’s new book. Media discourse presented shows signs of post-utopian nature, becoming rather dystopian, as not only a pollution visibly destroys a nature, but also as energy sources, and some materials, are almost exhausted.

Chapters move from almost generally accepted environmental theories to rather complex political ones. Over four chapters, Cubitt describes various systems of pollution that are a direct result or an epiphenomenon of production of mobile phones, LED lights, screens and computers, defining the amount of weight of waste by digital media in kilo per capita. In the first two parts of the book Cubitt concentrates on energy and materials, covering electric and nuclear energy production, as well as issue of disappearance of metals and rare minerals as lithium, aluminium, tin, gallium, indium, and arsenic. In following parts, he develops the idea of material pollution as a paradigm for contaminations of the non-physical. One of the toxicities is informational pollution becoming visible in economic crises that are consequences of trading of abstract data rather than goods in “semiocapitalism”. In the last chapter, Cubitt distinguishes commons from social, where commons are communicative, “mediated by matter and energy, and so material”, contrary to society which is abstract (Cubitt, 2016: 167). Doing so, he founds political and theories in media studies claiming all media is political – not merely their messages, rather than sociology and stating as its goal – ecological communication, using media in order to save the planet.

In criticism of compulsive consumption, Cubitt relies on materialist Marxist theories of ‘accumulation of capital,’ which he reformulates for post-digital age as “ruled by cyborgs, vast biocomputer hybrids characterised by their lack of shame, their obsession with profit, their inhumanity, their suicidal tendency, and the integration of waste into their life cycle” (p. 20). Still, Cubitt’s view on by-products of commodities and compulsory consumption diverge from Marxism in terms of forecast on commons, which, according to Marxists, are to be––communist, while by Cubitt––communicative, shifting the social aspect of ideology onto material one, in which ideas such as ‘toxicity’ or a ‘waste’ gain a completely different meaning.

Filled with cases of environment changes of contemporary age, Cubitt approaches the topic with journalistic clarity and deep comparative activist source-data, uncovering various types of criminal activities that he grounds with many background theories. Discourse started with his Eco Media (2005) crossing to this new, critical approach to the development of computer industry. Similar to previous books, Finite Media is a rather short (and concentrated) reading, with an even lighter style that makes reading a very pleasurable experience.