Digital Perspectives on a Solar Society
What can we Learn From Solarpunk and Science Fiction?
This piece was inspired by FIBER’s Natural Intelligence Lab. From March 10 to 13, FIBER organized this four-day meeting place for artists, designers, creative coders, technologists, researchers, energy experts, and policymakers who are committed to, or interested in, working towards a fossil-free and fair internet. The aim of the Lab was to fuse existing practices, skills, and knowledge, and to form new alliances. The lab explored four interdependent and sometimes overlapping research areas: Energy Literacy, Everyday Technologies, Collective Infrastructures, and Fossil-Free Imaginaries.
Our ever-expanding digital life has both a material origin and an immense ecological imprint. We all know that we should fly radically less, however we know comparingly little about the impact of our online mail, social and purchasing behavior. Meanwhile in 2020, CO2 emissions from internet use overtook the aviation sector. Under the influence of both a pandemic and the steady growth of worldwide internet users, these emissions have continued to rise exponentially. The influence of the West is indispensable in this; the endless growth in artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies and real-time graphics — which must drive a new generation of games and metaverse projects — requires staggering amounts of energy.
Where does all this energy come from? At the moment, the answer is a painful one: mostly cheap fossil fuels. Yet a transition to a ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ internet has also begun, whereby interface design, video streaming, low-carbon etiquettes and server hosting are designed from a low-carbon impact. Hosting is done via solar energy, with increasingly better solar panels. But is this enough to satisfy our ever-growing hunger for energy? Is it so simple that solar energy and modified design strategies alone will build the template for a future-proof Internet? Or are we possibly overlooking other necessary transformations?
By listening to voices outside the mainstream technology domain we can encounter other representations of the future. A growing and relatively new movement is Solarpunk, which places solar energy at the centre of its philosophy, while envisioning a deeper and radical societal transformation. It is a new artistic and cultural reality, as a counterpart to dystopian Cyberpunk (a fusion of cybernetics and punk that started in the 1980s). From the threads of collectivity, DIY and degrowth ideas, Solarpunk works towards a life with the greatest possible diversity, within the boundaries of a natural ecology. It shows us a utopian world, where post-fossil, green living environments can be realised through architecture, activism, hacker culture, a post-capitalist economy and intersectional social relations. This is also a step away from central networks, which are dominated by the big tech companies. For some, it is the way to prepare for a post-collapse world, which is getting closer and closer thanks to a warming planet.
As shown by the Solarpunk flag, it puts renewable and cyclical energy sources at its heart: water, wind and solar power. It strives to grow a green and equal society around it, while at the same time distributing and redistributing social, political and technological power. Emerging from literary origins, Solarpunk uses the power of utopian imagination to imagine this adaptive future. The question — whether this future is still feasible at all given new scientific reports and upcoming, undeniable tipping points — is pertinent, but the hope (and resistance to succumbing to doom and gloom) that speaks from this movement is an important drive for new imaginings of our cyclical relationship with energy and technology. Some Solarpunk initiatives have merged the bright optimism with a collapse-approach, like the Solarpunk Lab which is partly based in Amsterdam: “Building for the best, while preparing for the worst.”
In 2018, we invited strategist and writer Jay Springett to Amsterdam to introduce the fundamentals of Solarpunk. The movement was emerging and gaining interest in the rest of Europe as well. His presentation is a fitting introduction to more Solarpunk ideology.
Solarpunk builds on older ideas, from Science Fiction and Climate Fiction. There is a long tradition of science fiction centered on sun(s), and the natural rhythms of celestial bodies and geological processes of landscapes, which determine how the world works. Through this worldbuilding, alternative societies are described. In the work of influential science fiction writers such as Octavia E Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) and Liu Cixin, the sun plays a central role in the dynamics of life. So extreme, in fact, that the rise and fall of the sun is a matter of life and death for the existence of entire societies. KSR’s book 2312 introduces a mobile city that moves on a rail to always remain in the dark. The only solution to survive radiation and inhuman temperatures is constant migration. Liu Cixin goes even further and outlines in his book The Three Body Problem a simulation of a world with irregular and unpredictable sun patterns — some so long that the world remains in light or darkness for several years. The consequence is that a civilisation goes into a kind of hibernation mode or ends.
What’s remarkable about these conceptions is the envisioning of a truly new interaction between human life and solar cycles. These visions are adaptations of our lives and our infrastructure to the nature of cycles, where we break away from the notion of a continuous presence of electrical energy. This brings us back to a fundamental question: is the necessary transformation to a future society one in which we always have the same (or more) energy at our disposal? Or are other rhythms and relationships the basis of the design of a new world? And what does this mean for the energy needed for a future internet? Will we always need the internet, or would we also be satiated surfing on the rhythm of the sun?
To end these observations on a practical note, there are several initiatives that make cyclical design choices adaptations within the context of the internet. Yes, it is possible to continuously store solar energy with panels and batteries, but it is also possible to question whether we should always be online? Or that we should be active when we can be and 90% online also works? The demand for energy seems to drop exponentially if there is no need to be constantly online. Two research projects that experiment and work with this are Solar Protocol and Low Tech Magazine. Both adjust their functionalities, or turn them off, if the sun does not provide enough energy at that time or shines in a different place on the earth.
In conclusion, in developing new regenerative technologies with cyclical energy sources, we could also work out whole new societies based on a stronger connection between the rhythms of sun, water, wind and landscape, where fiction is a powerful lens to illuminate potentially new societies.
More About Jarl
Jarl Schulp is a curator, artistic researcher, designer and event organiser. He’s the co-founder and director of FIBER; an Amsterdam based festival and platform for digital culture, audiovisual art and experimental music culture. His practice focuses upon the ever-shifting possibilities and impact of technology on society and the environment. In his research he studies the interactions between technology and ecology, and how technological narratives and visual culture dominate our worldview. He curated and designed exhibitions, concert and performance programmes and experimental knowledge environments, like labs, masterclasses and workshops.