Imagination above productivity: Crafting a joyful resistance with permacomputing

Ola Bonati

8 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. Ola Bonati’s text is a short recap of motivations and work that led her to permacomputing and why she chose to use it as a lens in her work. It is also written with the intention to unveil alternative perspectives for those who might struggle with the love-hate relationship with digital technology in their lives.

The author during the Practices of Digital Resilience & Permacomputing Symposium. Photo: Paulus van Dorsten.

When a few of us first got together to discuss curating a series of workshops together with FIBER, we were all connected by an interest in permacomputing principles, but there was also something more. Each of us has a different practice but the same complicated relationship with technology. Though the workshops in this series were built around our individual practice, it seems we shared similar intentions coming from a place of anxious need. We need to do differently, to do better and maybe just do. Instead of consuming technology at its sheen and sleek face value, we hoped first to root it, dig in it, play with it, then understand it, reimagine it, repurpose it, and reinterpret it.

The practice of permacomputing can mean many things. Permacomputing and its principles gave me a critical understanding of the digital ecosystem, provided a sense of solace, and gave me enough freedom to continue engaging with technology through my own interpretation. There, I also found joyfulness in resisting predetermined notions. It takes creativity, patience, and willingness to fail, all of which happens when you play outside of set boundaries. Stepping out, or even a bit off to the side, of technological affordances can, therefore, feel exhilarating though seamless interfaces with their promise of optimised user experience would have you believe otherwise.

How we talk about technology

With the omnipresent AI hype, imagining technology as something with a mind of its own and an unstoppable force is very on-trend these days and a pleasurable form of escapism. There is an unspoken language, politics, and power behind technology. Often, this allows for obscurity and ambivalence when uncomfortable facts come up to the surface.

Abstracting powerful technology and assigning a magical aura helps to cope, not only for the many business ventures now reliant on the hype but also for those who cannot escape the allure of this technology but preferably would like to avoid thinking about its environmental impact. The more we are presented with its shiny surfaces promising to reflect our true needs, the less we are able to look past them and understand their actual implications on our lives.

Whether you or your practice actually needs to be transformed by AI is a secondary issue. The point is to adopt or (I guess) die. But if the technology we are so encouraged to use is both too obscure to fully understand and at the same time, it is becoming a widely adopted standard, how can we ever keep up with it? What does it actually mean “powered by AI”? As the now widely memed phrase goes:

“Nobody knows what it means… but it’s provocative, it gets the people going”. [1]

We often talk about technology through hype without real intention to insert meaning behind the words. Knowing what we already know about the environmental impact of blind expansion, we should at least force said intention and care into our words and then, by proxy, into our actions. Once again, that requires resistance and deliberation, which can only come if you let yourself slow down.

To slow down is to act of your own agency

Slowing down can be uncomfortable at times and requires planting your feet on solid ground while experiencing a strong current pulling at you from all sides. You can do it in many ways , here is mine.

In my own experience of technology, I make a conscious choice to acknowledge its physicality. AI-powered or not, it is definitely powered by something, something physical and with physical manifestations. I like to see, touch, and learn about the network that supports me. I don’t have to know how all aspects of it work in detail, but I want to know how they were designed to work for me and make me work. And by now, the work I do is so dependent on technology that it can only be done in time and without friction if with the use of specific software and devices. Thus, productivity is implied in the technology I use, along with a promise to maintain my status in the digital ecosystem.

And here it’s worth entertaining a completely disruptive idea: If I and my precious devices are ever caught in a solar storm, or even less improbable, in times of resource scarcity where they are no longer supported or simply run out of use, would my work and my status in being able to adapt?

Is the software and hardware that I am currently using flexible enough to withstand change in circumstances or would I be forced to adapt it myself?

The further you go inspecting these disruptive scenarios, the more the duality behind the current design of technology comes to light.

In current, stable conditions, the message is that thanks to these tools I am able to continue with my daily work and ensure my role as a productive member of the digital ecosystem. It’s designed to make me feel safe and included to the point that it’s a hassle to question it. However, the same politics behind the design that gives me this peace of mind is responsible for obfuscating other people’s labor and natural resources that mark each technological components I use.

Illustration by Zoran Svilar [2]

In our exploration of work/labour we can look as far as the mines from which the minerals were dug up to then compose essential parts of my device. And while my personal quest to led me to here I don’t pretend to grasp all the detailed aspects of production, nor do I think it’s necessary to understand its impact. Here, permcomputing and its principles came in handy. Through the permacomputing lens, I hope to materialise technology for myself and others, I hope to show the extent of the production chain, its contribution in terms of human labor and natural resources as well as the design of technology up until the marketing spend — basically, what does it take for me to be able to use my device and it’s powerful software?

Once that one becomes more tangible, I propose to zoom out and turn toward our direct environment for further clues on the scale of the digital environment. And we don’t have to look far to see them. In Amsterdam alone, there are 62 data centres [3], most of which go unnoticed. Ironically, they are neither very hidden nor too small to notice but, most likely, not as immediately interesting as the content they host. Generally, we are not meant to see or interact with data centers and as made evident by Niels Schrader’s work, this is also done by design. The vast majority of them are also built in distant locations tucked away from digital worker’s eyes. But sometimes, on rare occasions, interacting with them can be as easy as “a walk in the park”. In the second workshop of our Permacomputing Lab with FIBER, I led an alternative data center tour. The tour considered the land and the area that sustains the infrastructure needed to maintain our digital connectedness. We walked through the area surrounding Science Park, an immense investment now hosting “science and business: but historically hailed as the “birthplace of the European internet”. [3]

Science Park is unique because, unlike most parks like this, it is located within the city limits and over the years, it has expanded, encroaching on the residential neighborhood of Oost Amsterdam. Its data centers mark the skyline of Indische Buurt, and one even romantically so, reflects the sunsets over the waters of Flevopark’s Nieuwe Diep.

Their presence is strong and unapologetic. Once again, it’s rather special, since most data centers are either designed to be invisible or hidden away on the outskirts of cities, almost as if to preemptively apologise or ward off any questioning. In this case, we can and did ask questions:

How did this combination of business and science manifest in relation to the Internet infrastructure? How did the two data centre towers, now looming over the adjacent Flevopark, come to be? How do the citizens of neighbouring areas relate to the architecture and activities of Science Park?

Imagination against doom

Once we understand the materiality of media and its accompanying infrastructure and how we live in relation to it, we can then ask ourselves: what’s next? What could lie beyond the current business-as-usual attitude in technology? It’s hard to ask these questions, but just like a stiff muscle needs to be stretched, we can force our imagination to stretch beyond given boundaries. The balancing act we do between wanting more from technology and also wanting it to stop ruining us and our climate is frankly exhausting. Yet we feel it’s time to move on from passive but poisonous frustration and, as I mentioned at the beginning of this text, reinstate one’s agency through joyful resistance.

“The future of humanity needs a specific Imaginary to build towards as opposed to simply preventing catastrophe.” [4]

As declared in the quote above, there is more value, and as I claim, more joy to be found in giving direction to and not away from somewhere. In my workshop, we simply scratched the surface of the problem, but we played with it in a way that made it less shiny and a bit less sleek. In one of the exercises, for example, we set out to find playfulness even in dystopian concepts like technological collapse. While obsessively thinking of dystopias is often associated with doomer behaviour, it can actually be done in a way that inspires rather than only braces us for inevitable defeat. Self-imposed boundaries, like those given in collapse scenarios, can inspire more practical changes and permacomputing principles can be helpful in this.

With this text, I hope to encourage anyone needing to re-examine their practice and relationship with technology, even on the smallest scale, to give permacomputing a chance. Ultimately, to only be passively bracing for the worst would mean we are in a crisis of imagination and as proven by workshop participants, it is simply not the case.


[1] From Blades of Glory (2007).

[2] Michael Kwet. 2021. Digital colonialism
The evolution of US empire. TNI Longreads.

[2] According to: Amsterdam Data Centers.

[3] AI & Digital Innovation at Amsterdam Science Park. Amsterdam Science Park.

[4] William Joseph Gillam. 2023. A Solarpunk Manifesto: Turning Imaginary into Reality. Philosophies 8(4), 73.

Ola Bonati is a researcher and storyteller working on topics exploring the implications of various technologies on our culture. In her work, she investigates the consequences of Web 3.0 hype, politics of design, digital monopolies, platform labor, and personal digital habits. She frequently turns to writing (ranting) about technology but remains hopeful and playful by creating critical new media pieces and interactive workshops. Her latest focus is on digital hoarding, asking: how do we crawl our way out of tech dystopia and into more kind practices both for ourselves and the planet?




Amsterdam based platform and festival for audiovisual art, digital culture and electronic music. Upcoming events: FIBER Festival 2024