Materialising the internet (of things)

Back in 2019 I attended a three-week program at the University of Amsterdam, the central theme of which was circular economy and urban environmental management. During the program, we listened to a talk describing the ways in which smart technology and the Internet of Things could be used to give people a deeper understanding of their local environment. One of the ideas the speaker was particularly proud of was implanting data sensors and smart tech into some local trees. The prime benefit would be the sensors’ ability to provide information about the tree and its surroundings: soil quality, access to sunlight, people nearby, etc. A side benefit, the speaker argued, would be that theoretically the tree could have something like a social media account and free wi-fi. In a course ostensibly about technology, environmentalism, and material flow analysis, there was no consideration of where the materials for these sensors and Internet-of-Things tech might come from.

We can see the same disregard for materiality in a recent article in The Age celebrating the recent launch of a ‘smart bench’ in Carlton, the latest in a series such benches installed around inner-city Melbourne—and to the same kind of lavish praise.

The website explaining how these benches work tells you everything about them except what goes into making them. The air pressure around the bench, the humidity, the temperature, the number of pages viewed with the bench’s free wi-fi, and on and on it goes. The bench can seemingly do anything except provide enough space for a person to lie down comfortably—a conspicuous design choice if there ever was one.

There are all kinds of questions worth raising about the Internet of Things and the underlying obsession with gathering data. Will this data actually improve anyone’s life? Will it be sold on to private companies and used for targeted advertising? Can it be accessed by people wishing to reveal private information? Will it be used as evidence to convict someone in a criminal court?

These are all good questions, and each of them highlights the ways in which data can have material consequences. But I’m less interested in them than I am the questions about the material origins of internet and data technologies. What rare metals are necessary for their manufacture? Which countries are those metals found in? What kinds of work are done to mine them? And lastly, most importantly: why don’t we hear more about all that?

A paper published last year in Environmental Science and Technology summarises the issue:

despite … our increasing reliance on functions carried out by IoT-connected devices, there has not been, to date, a comprehensive study of the mineral demands of IoT-connected devices or a public debate about the benefits versus costs of the IoT.

This public debate can only occur once we begin seeing the internet, and the Internet of Things, not only as a series of disembodied images or data points, but as material technologies requiring material resources. Bitcoin’s massive environmental impact has been a topic of some interest for the last few years. It’s time we take this same critical lens and apply it to the internet itself.

In 2006, US Senator Ted Stevens infamously described the internet as ‘a series of tubes’ in a speech about net neutrality, and was mocked mercilessly for it. (To be fair, in the intervening years his statement has been revealed to be close enough to the truth.) Also in 2006, historian of technology Paul E Ceruzzi lamented that the technology of the internet doesn’t have an immediately identifiable physicality in the same manner as cars, hydroelectric dams, or even early computers. He asked rhetorically, ‘should we expect a modern-day artist or folk singer to compose a work of art or song about the Internet?’ Despite the deluge of art about the culture or the consequences of the internet, very little art exists exploring the internet as a material object. Although there have been attempts.

In 2017, an exhibition ran in the Netherlands called Materialising the Internet, but even the name gives the game away. Rather than presenting what is always-already material about the internet, the artists used material media to express or represent that which is immaterial.

A piece by Jeroen van Loon called An Internet, for instance, comprised a series of glass pipes, with smoke bursting out at random intervals. These were supposed to represent the undersea fibre-optic cables used to carry the internet from South Africa to Portugal, or from the US to the UK, or from Australia to Guam. While this may seem pertinent to this essay, the central thrust of van Loon’s piece was to speculate about a future internet, where data is ephemeral and can’t be stored in perpetuity—hence the smoke dissipating into the air.

A second noteworthy piece was Web Spaces by Jip de Beer. The project consisted of 3D architectural objects made of gold that, when looked at from the side, resembled a cityscape. However, when looked at from above, these cityscapes resembled the homepages of websites like Google and Facebook.

What neither of these art pieces do—what I wish they did—is illuminate the material infrastructure the internet relies upon: the sensors, the silicon chips, the routers, the modems, the beryllium mines, the cooling towers, the data centres, the lakes of toxic runoff from mineral processing plants. In short, I want something about the fibre-optic cables, and not just glass representations. In showing these cables exist, An Internet at least got halfway. But no further.

‘The problem with digital culture,’ writes LM Sacasas for Comment magazine, ‘is not that it is, in fact, immaterial and disembodied, but that we have come to think of it is as such.’ The language of ‘virtual reality’ and ‘cyberspace’ gives us all the impression that the internet is a series of pictures and data points with nothing material required to support it. Classic tech dystopias like Neuromancer and Snow Crash revel in the tech-driven decay of US libertarianism, but rarely do these dystopias show the material results of their hi-tech societies’ virtual worlds, like local communities protesting against the construction of new data centres, or freelance cobalt miners buried alive by landslides in the Congo. These examples are emblematic of our own tech dystopia occurring just out of view.

Smart technology is captivating—in the literal sense of the word. The hype surrounding every innovation in IoT technology holds us captive, rendering us unable to think about where the resources of which they necessitate come from, or the kinds of work required to mine those resources and put them together. All critical analysis gets drowned out by a chorus of ‘you can boil your kettle with your phone.’

At this point it’s a cliché to bring up commodity fetishism, but just because it’s a cliché it doesn’t mean it’s not valid. The way in which commodities seem to ‘transcend sensuousness’, and the fact that ‘there is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things’ was just as true a statement when it related to Marx’s linen coats and tea as it is today when we speak about our laptops and ‘smart benches’.

Christian Fuchs’ book Digital Labour and Karl Marx is a valuable text in this regard, revealing the natural resources and labour conditions behind the technologies we have no choice but to use every day. Fuchs’ book tracks the supply chain of labour necessary for the production and maintenance of internet and communications technologies, moving from the slave labour in Congolese coltan mines, to brutal working conditions in Chinese megafactories like FoxConn, all the way to the strange combination of Taylorist micromanagement and emotional labour required by call centres everywhere. Books like Fuchs’ should be equally as well-known as Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism—but I doubt Digital Labour and Karl Marx would end up on Barack Obama’s end-of-year list.

The issue isn’t just that presenting the internet as a dematerialised and dematerialising force is incorrect. It’s that this (mis)understanding leads us to the conclusion that the impact of both the internet and the Internet of Things is only felt in the politics of data and information.

The debate about how our data is used is a valuable one, but a more substantial one can only be had once we stop seeing the internet as an immaterial flow of information and begin to see it as a vast material infrastructure, with equally vast resources demands and its own environmental impacts. In the same way that we regard paper as coming from trees, we need to understand the construction of smart technology and the Internet of Things as coming from mines running on slave labour, lakes of toxic sludge, data centres with militarised security, and will possibly result in a second scramble for Africa. We need to resist being swept up by the relentless hype that surround these technologies, and turn our attention to their consequences for the environment and workers in the Global South.

Bill Peel

Bill writes from regional New South Wales. His writing has appeared in Astral Noize and Overland, and his debut book Tonight It's a World We Bury: Black Metal, Red Politics was recently published by Repeater Books.

More by Bill Peel ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays