The past few years have seen various attempts within computing, programming and hacker communities to apply ‘degrowth’ principles to their work – i.e. sketching out ways to de-couple digital technology from the growth-focused imperatives of capitalist societies. These efforts have so far progressed in a piecemeal manner, led by assorted groups with broad interests around ‘radically sustainable computing’ (Heikkilä 2021). The hope, of course, is that these initial developments might signal the beginnings of mainstream change.
One area of interest involves what has been labelled ‘Collapse Informatics’. This explores ‘preparedness’ approaches to computing – i.e. building systems in the abundant present that might later prove durable during subsequent times of scarcity. Allied to this is the notion of ‘Permacomputing’, advocating the application of permaculture principles to the digital domain. Here, interests centre on developing ways in which computing can be sustained through practices of re-use, repair, maintenance and non-waste. Crucially, permacomputing stresses the need to develop digital technologies that are drastically less reliant on artificial energy, and designed in ways that acknowledge their interdependence with natural systems.
Such efforts chime with the ‘Computing Within Limits’ (CWL) community of academics, software developers and activists. CWL sets out to reimagine the development of digital technology through principles of constraint and restraint. This stresses the need to develop forms of computing that fit with rapidly changing real-world environmental limits (Pargman & Wallsten 2017), therefore rejecting ‘cornucopian’ presumptions of limitless, replicable technology resources. Instead, CWL advocates for radically leaner and ecologically-aware approaches to developing and deploying digital technology across society.
HOW ARE DIGITAL DEGROWTH IDEAS BEING MOBILISED?
While still largely conceptual in nature, these different lines of thinking around digital degrowth are nevertheless beginning to be mobilised in a number of tangible ways.
i) Degrowth forms of hardware production
A central premise of digital degrowth is that current modes of mass computer hardware production are clearly unsustainable in terms of environmental and social impact. The ‘salvage computing’ movement picks up on this and looks toward extending the use of already available resources, and encouraging repair and reuse of existing computing technology. In its purest form, salvage computing demands an immediate halt to the production of new computing devices and, instead, redirects effort toward prolonging the life of what has already been produced. Any future production of computing hardware (if deemed absolutely necessary) must therefore embody ambitions of planned longevity rather than planned obsolescence.
In tandem with the established ‘right to repair’ movement is the emerging idea of ‘designing for disassembly’ – i.e. hardware designs for computing devices built from components that can be reclaimed and reused beyond the device’s working life. Sarah Templin (2021) describes this as “a more concrete, quantifiable approach to ecologically-sound making and consumption”. The practice of re-assembling ‘new’ devices from reclaimed components also gives rise to ‘scavenge-friendly’ designs which can be constructed from reclaimed electronic parts and assembled with low-tech tools.
Similarly, the ‘frugal computing’ movement is built on the understanding that computing resources are finite, precious, and to be used only when absolutely necessary and in the most efficient ways possible. The underpinning goal of frugal computing is to extend the shelf-life and energy efficiency of successive generations of devices until the point is eventually reached when “the world will have computing resources that last forever and hardly use any energy” (Vanderbauwhede 2021).
ii) Degrowth forms of software production
These forms of sustainable hardware production are complemented by similar moves in software development. For example, there has been a recent resurgence of minimalist programming approaches as a deliberate push back against the wasteful ‘cut-and-paste’ nature of current software development practices enabled by ever-expanding storage capacities and processing speeds. Here, some programming communities are seeking to revive the spirit of 1970s’ and 1980s’ computing, when limited memory capacity and processing speeds required parsimonious approaches to coding. This is reflected in recent calls for ‘low-level programming’, working in ways that seeks to decrease processing power, and what Compudanzas(2022) describe as ‘writing code closer to the machine’.
Such efforts mark a deliberate distancing from the current tolerance of ‘bloat-ware’ – where a continuous ‘beta’ state of software development encourages the continual addition of extraneous code and features. This is seen to lead inevitably to the production of software that is increasingly cumbersome, and reliant on advanced hardware specifications and processing power in order to function. As Andre Staltz (2021) put it:
“Degrowth in software means that it’s okay for your software to be finished and not receive new features. ‘Growth’ is just a capitalist euphemism for ‘bloat’. Nothing in nature grows endlessly, things reach a level of maturity and they stop there. Same should be true for software”.
WHAT MIGHT DIGITAL DEGROWTH LOOK LIKE? EMERGING ‘PROOFS OF CONCEPT’
To date, these principles and ideals have resulted only in small-scale applications, one-off interventions, speculative designs and similar tentative experiments. Such examples certainly offer glimpses of what might be possible, yet remain tentative ‘proofs of concepts’ rather than fully-realised solutions ready to be rolled-out on a large scale.
Nevertheless, there are already clear examples of computing forms that might flourish under degrowth conditions. In terms of digital infrastructure, for example, Wi-Fi ‘mesh’ networks have been set-up across various locations to establish alternate forms of networking that do not require corporate datacentres, satellites and cabling. Elsewhere, large communities of developers and enthusiasts have formed around basic single-board computers such as the Raspberry Pi. Accompanying these are projects such as the ‘Collapse O/S’ – a self-contained operating system that can run on ‘improvised’ computing devices.
Alongside these example are various innovations celebrated at annual ‘Computing Within Limits’ conferences. One such example are solar-powered websites that can be hosted across networks of solar-powered micro-computers set up to capture sunlight in different locations around the world (Drecker et al. 2020). Similarly-minded designs include applications that limit data traffic on smartphones to encourage moderate internet use, alongside ‘finite’ social media platforms such as ‘Minus’ – a ‘slow’ service which restricts participants to a lifetime limit of 100 posts.
Other sustainable design ideas include the notion of ‘self-obviating systems’ – software and systems that are designed to become steadily more peripheral to the social and cultural systems in which they are embedded. These include speculative designs for social networks which are intended to gradually amass sizable groups of face-to-face contacts, and therefore eventually render the online platform of little further benefit.
These examples, and the principles that underpin them, can be seen as provocations to think otherwise about the digital in an era of scarce resourcing and climate breakdown. These are challenges to imagine alternate forms of computing, and a provocation for technology professionals and anyone else interested in tech who might consider themselves to be sustainability-minded. As Bill Tomlinson (n.d) puts it, such movements seek “to bring about new kinds of computing systems that might allow us as a civilization to more effectively engage with these sets of issues”.
Indeed, pursuing ideas of permacomputing, collapse informatics and CWL fits into a degrowth ethos of self-determining the tools that we want to let into our lives – what Gualter Barbas Babtista (2020) describes as “questioning technology by commonly owning it”. By developing these alternate forms of digital technology, different groups and communities are actively testing the boundaries of what aspects of the dominant digital culture might be redeemable, and which aspects of dominant digital culture require rejecting. As Barbas Babtista (2020) contends:
“If you don’t develop your own technology, you will need to adapt to the language and patterns of the technology someone else developed – maybe in contradiction to your cultural values”.
Optimistically, these ideas of ‘radically sustainable computing’ might well inspire growing numbers of people to begin to voluntarily reimagine forms of tech use that are not growth focused and harmful. Of course, it might simply turn out that these issues are “thrust on us involuntarily, as civilization potentially begins to collapse around us over the next couple of decades” (Tomlinson, n.d). Either way, it is well worth continuing to articulate and refine such ideas in anticipation of the unknown and unforeseeable sustainability challenges that the next few decades have in store.
This piece was inspired by a February 2022 Twitter thread started by @Joanna7459 posing the question “What would degrowth computing look like?”, and subsequent recommendations from Nicolas Maigret, Kuba, Ben Grosser, Garrett Laroy Johnson, Yhancik, Sarah Friend and Nicolas Nova.
Barbas Babtista, G. (2020) Free software: re-decentralising the internet and developing commons. In Treu, N., Schmelzer, M. and Burkhart,C. (ed). Degrowth in movement(s): exploring pathways for transformation. Zero Books
Compudanzas (2022). Low-level programming. February, https://compudanzas.net/low-level.html
De Decker, K., Abbing, R. and Otsuka, M. (2020). How sustainable is a solar powered website? Low-Tech Magazine, http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2020/01/how-sustainable-is-a-solar-powered-website.html
Heikkilä, V. [aka VizNut] (2021). Permacomputing update 2021. http://viznut.fi/texts-en/permacomputing_update_2021.html
Pargman, D. and Wallsten, B. (2017). Resource scarcity and socially just internet access over time and space. in Proceedings of the 2017 Workshop on Computing Within Limits (pp. 29-36).
Staltz, A. (2021). Tweet. 3rd Sept https://twitter.com/andrestaltz/status/1433782103183872000
Tomlinson, B. (n.d). Collapse informatics. http://postgrowth.art/collapse-informatics-En.html
Tomlinson, B., Blevis, E., Nardi, B., Patterson, D., Silberman, M., Pan, Y. (2013). Collapse informatics and practice: theory, method, and design. ACM TOCHI 20(4):1–26
Vanderbauwhede, W. (2021). Low carbon and sustainable computing. http://dcs.gla.ac.uk/~wim//low-carbon-computing/
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