Hope for the best, prepare for the worst: Reclaiming agency in datafied times

Eleni Maragkou

10 min readMar 13, 2024

During the autumn of 2023, FIBER hosted Part 5 of its Reassemble Lab: Practising Permacomputing, a concept and a nascent community of practice oriented around issues of resilience and regenerativity in computer and network technology that is derived, among others, from permaculture principles. In this essay, Eleni Maragkou reflects on data anxiety, the role of metaphors in obfuscating material realities, and the loss (and reclamation) of agency.

Data Anxiety (Or, Piet Parra’s Anxiety Rabbit in front of the Amsterdam Data Tower). Photo courtesy of the author.

Care for life
Care for the chips
Keep it small
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst
Keep it flexible
Build on solid ground
Amplify awareness
Expose everything
Respond to changes
Everything has a place

— Principles of permacomputing

In lieu of an introduction: Data anxiety is a walk in the park

Walking around Flevopark, in the east of Amsterdam, we find an anxious rabbit.

The rabbit, which is actually a sculpture by Piet Parra, is crouching on the ground, clutching its head in its arms; its snout is a beak. This absurdist image reflects the oxymoron of Amsterdam itself, a city that is seemingly exponentially expanding, yet which does so through displacement. Flevopark itself sits beside Science Park, a man-made “hub for digital innovation and sustainability”, which is also one of the most densely cabled locations in Europe.

No wonder this rabbit is anxious.

Against the encroachment of digital ecosystems upon our natural environment and life itself, Flevopark represents a site of resistance. This is the thread running through the second FIBER Reassemble Lab of 2023, titled “Practising Permacomputing”, during which participants learned how to reuse “obsolete” computers and devices, explored what lies behind (and beyond) the walls of a data centre, and built networks of care between plants and electronics.

Before participating in the Lab, I was somewhat familiar with practices related to permaculture; in the past, I’d written about a group of makers who create furniture from scraps and the owner of a barbershop that turns her clients’ hair into compost. But I’d never considered the applications of permaculture in computing. If anything, permaculture seems like the antithesis to computer and network technology.

It becomes more and more difficult to imagine a scenario in which computing is harnessed for our collective wellbeing, and that of our planet. Computation by default requires resources, and the daily digital activities of the average person generally rely on the servers of Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. The ability to “rent out” more storage on the cloud is a convenience that betrays a sign of our technofeudal times. [1]

Black lesbian feminist poet, Audre Lorde, wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. [2] And in our makeshift, often clumsy attempts to harness some of these tools in the name of resistance, many of us are confronted with this fact anew.

What if there was a way to practise resilience, regeneration, and sustainability in our digital world? What if there was a way to “rewild” computation?

Existing in dialogue with other approaches, like low-tech, feminist technologies, and working with e-waste, permacomputing (a portmanteau of permaculture and computing) is a “nascent concept and a community of practice centred around design principles that embrace limits and constraints as a positive thing in computational culture, and on creativity with scarce computational resources”. [3]

Grounded in resilience and regenerativity, permacomputing involves the reusing and repurposing of existing technologies and informs the development of new software and hardware when former are not feasible.

“But I’m neither a designer nor a programmer, and I am not sure how this applies to me,” one might ask. “How can I make permacomputing relevant to my practice and daily life?”

Engagement with permacomputing requires a pre-existing foundation of knowledge, computer literacy, and time, which isn’t easily accessible to everyone. Yet, we must remember that the accessibility and “user-friendliness” of much of the software we use in our daily lives, from iCloud to Google Drive, come at a great cost.

Although I’m not sure I am qualified to give the definitive answer on the above question, I hope that my reflections will prompt you to engage more critically with your own tech habits, look beyond the smooth interface, and question what we are willing to sacrifice for the bounty of momentary convenience.

What on earth is a cloud?

On October 13 and 14, 2023, the first iteration of the workshop The Cloud is Just my old Computer [4] took place, during which participants created a server (on which to host a rudimentary website) out of, literally, an old computer. The workshop’s quirky name comes from a digital proverb that goes as follows: “the cloud is just somebody else’s computer”. This rough simplification hints at the extensive network of digital and physical infrastructure that underpin the internet. These infrastructures not only provide products and services which we often take for granted, but also alienate us from our everyday technologies.

Many of us rely on the cloud, yet we are not aware of this infrastructure. After all, there is a cognitive disparity between the name we gave the “cloud”, the ideas it evokes, and what it materially is — which, according to author Tung-Hui Hu in the book A Prehistory of the Cloud, is a rich site for analysis. The digital cloud is just as blurry and evasive as real clouds, a metaphor so shrouded in abstract imaginaries that its actual material properties are overlooked.

Metaphors have long served as a heuristic, helping us untangle and make sense of convoluted tech-y concepts: material metaphors, like windows, pages, platforms, buttons, desktops; or conceptual metaphors, like the information highway or the global village.

Such metaphors influence the ways we understand and talk about ourselves. But these are not neutral vehicles: as Marianne van den Boomen wrote, “To use a metaphor for a metaphor: metaphors are keys, able to lock, but also able to unlock.” [6]

Already, the connotations of this word, the cloud, produce a vision “of ownerless machines in the sky, maintained by angels, freely available for human social use”. [7] Yet when we say that data is stored in the cloud, we actually mean that it is stored in data centres, in “miniature cities of computer servers and hard disks” [8], which have an insatiable hunger for resources to keep them cool and running.

How did these infrastructures come to be? What is our relationship with them? What does their presence mean for the local landscapes and the communities that inhabit them? Can we imagine an alternative in their place?

“[T]he trick of a dominant cultural affect is that it functions as a kind of open secret,” argues AI researcher Kate Crawford, “everyone knows it, but nobody talks about it. In order to work against it, we first have to recognize the condition and trace its contours.” [9]

The Equinix Data Centre polluting Nieuwe Diep (left) and the Amsterdam Data Tower, giving off Dune vibes. Photos courtesy of the author.

Opening the “black box”

I recently came across a video essay which discusses a strange generational factoid: Gen-Z is apparently “technologically illiterate”. Generalisations aside, the ubiquity of seamless interfaces removes certain aptitudes which could once only be cultivated through having to tinker with clunky hardware. What might have been advertised as “democratisation” of technology in the past is actually part of a complex process which involves gnawing away at our agency, pilfering control, rendering us strangers to the technologies that shape our lives.

Looking back on my own adolescent self, I used to be way more self-reliant, able to tamper with the HTML code of my primitive social media profiles and procure all the movies and songs and TV shows I wanted to consume. Over time, those skills withered. Over time, I became reliant on company-sanctioned ways of navigating the web: pay for this or that streaming service, pay for storage on the cloud, et cetera. Untethered from the material limitations of the past, I was finally able to save all those thousands of screenshots I will never think about again, alienated from my digital footprint, from my own data, and from the material conditions which enable their circulation, capture, and storage.

The lithium-ion batteries, alloys, and magnets which form the components of our devices, do not merely spawn, fully-formed from the ground and without any sticky ideological implications or histories and presents of violence. [10]

And if you, reader, presumably residing in the West, think you are safe from the monocultural, extractivist machinations of this system, I have some potentially disconcerting news for you. New ways of extracting and appropriating are emerging, and no one’s safe.

Think about the ongoing subordination of our senses, of life itself, to logics of quantification and optimisation. If you don’t drink enough water, there is an app that will help optimise your daily liquid intake; if your menstruation cycle is unpredictable, there are ways to monitor it. The quantified self is our digital double, perfectly legible, ripe for the taking.

As Nick Couldry and Ulises Meijas argue “this new colonialism’s mode of operation involves producing the materials from which information, and ultimately knowledge, are made”. Therefore it’s impossible to separate it “from our social imagination and even our politics”. [11]

Look at the primary technology of our time: the screen, which, according to van den Boomen “is the most imperialist interface metaphor of contemporary digital devices.” [12] From our smartphones to our first and second and third monitors to the screen-based cities many of us inhabit. “Typically the urban interface,” writes Shannon Mattern, “is imagined as a screen”. [13] Or many screens, for that matter, embedded in the fabric of our urban lives. Behind these screens “is a flood of data”, which is streamlined into simple indicators and engaging graphics, relieving us from the burden of doing the interpretative heavy lifting ourselves.

I am reminded here of the Donna Haraway quote: “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.” [14] Frighteningly inert and stripped of agency before our smart homes and our internets (sic) of things and all the terms and conditions that would take several lifetimes to read and formulate informed consent over.

Why do our technologies improve, while our experience remains fragmented, lagging, subpar? In spite of our terabytes of storage and our lifelike graphics and our optic fibres, we find ourselves in an endless loop of “[a]lways taking photos but never having time to look at them, files that can’t be found or placed on devices or in cloud storage, losing the password to the password manager, stifling productivity apps…” [16] We witness “disaster in high definition”, but feel powerless to react.

Networking with nature. Photo courtesy of the author.

In lieu of an epilogue: Overcoming data anxiety

There is no denying that changing our habits, abandoning convenience, growing self-sufficient require a certain degree of discomfort, discomfort that many of us may not be able to afford. During the second workshop of the Lab, which was hosted by Ola Bonati, activist and storyteller Anas Alhalabi, speaking about his experience as a refugee traversing the treacherous route to Europe, mentioned the significance of Facebook as a source of vital, life-saving information.

It is not arbitrary that the least ethical options are the most convenient. Our overwhelming reliance on mainstream platforms and the marginalisation of alternative options are not bugs; they are key features of the system.

To return to my original question, “How can I make permacomputing relevant to my practice and daily life?” If you’ve ever stored any of your memories on the Cloud; or if you’ve ever paused to consider the complex processes and unequal divisions of labour that power the device on which you are reading this very essay — this is already relevant to you.

Just like permacomputing itself, this essay is not a universal remedy for the ills wrought by profit-driven extractivist rationalities, nor a call for a return to an idealised past. Rather, it offers a small toolbox through which to reconfigure our collective relationship to computational technology and build alternative pathways toward resilience.

Permacomputing is not a luddite call to abandon technology altogether. It is a call to reject seamless interfaces, if only for a moment. To become familiar with the messy code, the tangled cables. To delete those screenshots. To un-optimise. To embrace constraints. To care for life — human and non-human alike. It is a radical gesture toward articulating agency.


[1] Borrowing from feudalism, the dominant social system in medieval times, technofeudalism is the notion our contemporary overlords are big tech companies, which we serve by handing over our data in exchange for storage space on the cloud. This term was recently popularised by economist Yanis Varoufakis, in his 2023 book Technofeudalism: What Killed Capitalism. The book’s central thesis, that the emergence of cloud technology has transformed capitalism into, well, something worse was previously explored by McKenzie Wark in Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse?

[2] Audre Lorde. 1984. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press.

[3] Aymeric Mansoux, Brendan Howell, Dušan Barok, and Ville-Matias Heikkilä. 2023. “Permacomputing Aesthetics: Potential and Limits of Constraints in Computational Art, Design and Culture.” Ninth Computing within Limits 2023. LIMITS, p. 1. https://doi.org/10.21428/bf6fb269.6690fc2e

[4] This very website is hosted on an old iMac5,2 running debian, located in the FIBER office.

[5] Marianne van den Boomen. 2014. Transcoding the Digital: How Metaphors Matter in New Media. Institute of Network Cultures, p. 26.

[6] Transcoding the Digital, p. 193.

[7] Tung-Hui Hu. 2015. A Prehistory of the Cloud. MIT Press, p. 79.

[8] Kate Crawford. 2014. “The Anxieties of Big Data.” The New Inquiry. https://thenewinquiry.com/the-anxieties-of-big-data/

[9] Jussi Parikka. 2015. A Geology of Media. University of Minnesota Press. See also: Amnesty International. 2023. DRC: Powering Change or Business as Usual? https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/AFR62/7009/2023/en/

[10] Nick Couldry and Ulises Meijas. 2019. The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Stanford University Press.

[11] Transcoding the Digital, p. 190.

[12] Shannon Mattern. 2014. “Interfacing Urban Intelligence”. Places Journal. https://placesjournal.org/article/interfacing-urban-intelligence/

[13] Donna Haraway. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, p. 152. Routledge.

[14] “Permacomputing Aesthetics”, p. 2.

Eleni Maragkou is a Greek writer, editor, and researcher, thinking often and writing about our relationship to the media that shape our everyday lives. Sometimes she lectures about this topic too. She holds a Research MA in new media and digital culture from the University of Amsterdam.




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