Embedded Metaphors of the Digital: In Conversation with Mick Jongeling

Shattering the hyper-object of the internet

The first part of Reassemble Lab, took place (online) from 14 June to 27 July 2021. Under the title Weaving With Worlds, we collectively investigated the possibilities and potential of worldbuilding to give imagination to much needed planetary transformations. Our sessions ranged from crafting stories through worldbuilding eco-fiction, applying non-human ways of story development with machine learning and exploring scanning and simulation technologies used to construct characters and environments. There are many prototypes still being developed by collaborators from the lab, some of which will be presented at the upcoming FIBER Festival October 28–30.

The Cloud Decoded, Mick Jongeling, 2016

This interview was conducted during FIBER’s Reassemble Lab Part 1: Weaving With Worlds, where Mick Jongeling participated in ‘Under the Surface’ with a talk on the emissions of digital media. In this talk Mick shed light on the intangible impact of our interaction with the Internet, since this is a field that is rarely addressed or discussed when talking about global emissions of our society. There is a dichotomy within the digital-physical worlds, one that refers to the digitally embedded process of creation and preservation as more sustainable. Having always been taught that you need to think before you print emails, that it is better to use the Undo command rather than using paper and that files are safe in the cloud, Mick’s research opens up this discussion and looks into the impact that the digital revolution has brought us. When we talk about the Internet, it is hard to describe the rhizome it encompasses. However, there is a global infrastructure designed to make our daily interactions possible and the algorithmic violence that renders our images requires power. Mick researches where this power comes from, the emissions it brings and why this is obscured for the consumers. Currently Mick works as a lecturer in Marketing, which is the perfect position to develop techniques and classes that work towards untangling the metaphors that make us dissonant with our own behaviour.

In an interview we spoke to Mick about how we can begin to comprehend the ecological footprint of internet usage, and how worldbuilding can offer an alternate view on this hyper-object.

Jarl Schulp: What does worldbuilding mean to you and your practice? And to what extent is it possible to foster ecological and social awareness through worldbuilding?

Mick Jongeling: It is important to start with a bit of idealism and optimism when imagining desired futures. This allows you to embed not only local contexts, but also preferences and concepts you are tinkering with. I like to use this technique to envision scenarios where the issues I encounter do not exist, backcast and work on the first small step to make it a reality. So I am using world building to set out an ideal and go back to answer my question: Why are things the way they are? While working on the ecological footprint of the digital, design ethics and visual language I discovered that working towards solutions might seem redundant. Every brief seeks to design a product that makes living with our problems better, but I decided to focus on the cause of that problem instead. There are so many naturalised behaviours and technologies in our world that require a bit more investigation and at least some debate on their longevity with today’s shifting values on sustainability and ethics. When looking into the hows and whys of our society, there needs to be space to embed local contexts and values. For me, that centers around responsible ecological design of our digital world. It is important for me that holistic worlds invite multiple perspectives, welcome debate and offer collaboration among peers.

JS: What can we learn or perceive differently when we create or interact with fictional and virtual worlds?

MJ: Know that everything in our physical world has been altered, regulated or conditioned. In a way, everything has been done before or it has been thought of. But you are exploring your way of seeing the world and it is common that you do not have the necessary experience to make all the right choices. The pressure to do it right the first time was paralyzing to me early in my career. The benefit of fictional and virtual worlds is their promise for time travelling. Lines, materials and light can be changed instantly, free of charge, and can bring back past versions of days, weeks or years ago. All our actions can be interchanged and nothing is permanent. The obscured feeling of restlessness is something to be noted and embraced. There are limitless opportunities to explore and there is always a different reality that can be created. If you centre your practice around curiosity and finding questions, worldbuilding is a very rewarding process.

JS: The ways in which technological developments shape a multitude of different futures can be liberating for some and dehumanizing for others. They are forces of extraction, exclusion and division, while they simultaneously offer the possibility to give form and imagination to new, necessary realities. What possibilities are there for artistic practices to adapt their use, or even reassemble them to accommodate representation and inclusion?

MJ: Design is a practice that involves and impacts all. Where I have been working towards innovative solutions in my work, I prefer to distill questions from the same problem area for my artistic practice. Every industry has their traits or secrets that only the initiated are in on. Looking at my work, the Marketing sector has been dominated by the Western view on consumerism. It seems inevitable as we are transforming into a more open and diverse audience, the language and processes need to adapt. What I specifically notice is that there is a critical enquiry of the infrastructures that have made exponential growth possible and their importance to a shift to more ecocentric and less anthropocentric worlds. The Global North is responsible for the majority (if not, all) emissions and issues that are happening today. But the Global South is the region that is impacted the most by this. It seems absurd that the decisions that are being made about green infrastructures do not include those who will not only have to deal with the repercussions, but also will have to evolve with them. The Global North had the time and resources to develop this world, yet there seems to be no time to negotiate other strategies. The blatant extrapolation that is rooting in solutionism and (white) saviorism brings new dynamics and challenges that increase complexity.

Image showing the development of the interent, taken from Mick’s presentation during ‘Under the Surface’

JS: When we use technologies like cloud-based machine learning services or softwares like Unreal Engine, Unity or any other software package, how can we find out what our impact and/or footprint is?

MJ: There are some reports about the footprint of digital services and I am happy to see that companies are becoming more transparent about their electricity consumption. The investment to make technology more energy efficient outpace the efforts of communities to reduce their footprint. The individual user is a disruptive, but small singularity within a broader global total. Apple calculated that the carbon footprint of the MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2020, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports) with 256GB storage is roughly 212 kg CO2e. The average footprint of a plastic bottle is around 3.5 kg C02e, which makes the lifespan of that Macbook the same as that of 60 plastic bottles. However, the higher the requirements from users for the hard- and software, the less durable these products become. These emissions are under researched and the best users can do now is try to reduce our footprint by compensating in other areas. Take a look at the product’s specifications and look for their energy consumption. These are mostly set by Energystar, a US platform that labels the energy efficiency of electronic products. It is actually quite fun.

Screenshot from Mick’s talk during ‘Under the Surface’. Image shows all the undersea cables which make up the internet.

JS: What can we already do as artists or cultural organisations to make our practice more sustainable? Are there any things we could start today with?

MJ: One of the most overlooked areas where we can improve (a lot) is how we use digital communications and the relationship it has to archival work. If we go just a little bit back before IaaS and SaaS, most archives consisted of printed documents and papers that were given priority to conserve. They manifested themselves as large cabinets or stacks of paper, which gave consumers limits. If your shelves are full, you make space. With IaaS delivering us indefinite storage space, we often don’t look at the amount of data we accumulate and most of all, the physical space it takes. A standard email emits around 4g of CO2e, however, these emissions can go up to as much as 50g when attachments are enclosed. It is estimated that a single user’s yearly email traffic is similar to driving a car for around 320 km. A quick way to reduce this footprint is by signing out for newsletters, notifications and other spam formats. Another solution is to regularly clean up your email. The forgotten impact of a mailbox is that it accumulates data, giving the companies that host emails a false indicator that there is a big storage need. This false indicator has made the transition to online working seamless, but there will be downtime where these data centers do not operate on full capacity anymore. There is a responsibility from consumers to give accurate user data to the companies that facilitate internet traffic. The main thing you can do as an artist or organisation is to compensate for the emissions caused through your practice. We have to prototype, build and share information. We can not be carbon negative, but we can at least attempt to become more carbon neutral.

Screenshot from Mick’s presentation during ‘Under the Surface’; a public event which took place as part of Weaving With Worlds.

JS: What are some great and accessible websites and articles which could support us with making our own scan of the things we use and make?

MJ: https://www.websitecarbon.com is a platform where you can calculate the emissions of a single visit to your webpage.

https://www.wholegraindigital.com is a studio that is behind websitecarbon.com and has multiple tips and tricks on their blog to make websites cleaner.

https://gauthierroussilhe.com/ The work of Gauthier Roussilhe is very in depth and teaches about the energy demands of various internet traffic.

https://branch.climateaction.tech/issues/issue-1/foreword/ this article written by Maddie Stone has tips and links to relevant platforms. I would recommend following Maddie Stone’s work as well.

https://www.lowtechmagazine.com shares a lot of experiments and lessons through their blog. They have a book for sale too, which I would recommend buying.

The Cloud Decoded is an interactive installation that visualizes the Cloud. The installation reacts to the three hashtags used during the WDKA finals #CreatingPioneers #WDKA and #Finals2016. Every online post gets processed by the computers, those represent the data centers that house, compress and upload the content.This process is polluting, emitting around 300 million metric tonnes of Carbon-Dioxide a year. That is the equivalent of 4000 households in the Netherlands.The physical Cloud is contrasted by the Metaphorical Cloud, a floating, light image above our heads. Every time the computers have processed 300 images, it emits smoke into the metaphorical Cloud, making it polluting and dangerous. (The Cloud Decoded, Mick Jongeling, 2016)

JS: Where do you see the development of the ecological internet going? Are we still able to continue to use all these great technologies, or is the demand for energy simply too big to continue the development rate?

MJ: In my opinion, this is where the crux is for artists and organisations. New ways of producing art accelerate information sharing and reveal undiscovered executions of truth. What I have struggled with in the past few years since beginning to research this, is that none of my ideas are worth the emissions they cause. As everybody started prototyping with machine learning, augmented reality and haptic interactions, I was busy running the calculations. However, the data centre market in the Netherlands shares their reports each year on their efforts to become more sustainable. The technology we use becomes more and more effective with every production cycle. There is no need to feel guilt or reluctance to work with technology. On the contrary, the growth of the Internet is an ideal coming from capitalist intentions. The ecological damage of the oceanic cables, the lack of (technological) investments in green energy are all troubling. As we demand faster internet and therefore more processing power, we will eventually fall back to relying on the established infrastructures. There needs to be a feeling of responsibility to keep your (digital) footprint as little as possible. There needs to be a stop to the offering of excess and at the same time, a realization that the demand for more is not based on a need, but a desire.

Interview conducted by: Jarl Schulp

Edited by: Rhian Morris

Amsterdam based platform and festival for audiovisual art, digital culture and electronic music. Upcoming events: FIBER Festival 2020, September 24–27.