The Mineral Perspective On Digital Ubiquity

I was fortunate enough to catch the performances which concluded the recent Decrystallization workshop helmed by Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan. The workshop itself was a fascinating two day exploration of the mineral basis of the digital culture which underlies an increasing spectrum of our reality: participants fortunate enough to enrol in the workshop used a variety of chemical to extract gold and silver (amongst other metals) from motherboards and CPUs.

The workshop was another classic instance of how important the process is to Kemp’s work. Whether it’s the ‘life coding’ of Piksel’s “Code Dreams” (see Beatrice Fazi’s write up here) or the, at times manic, proceedings of last year’s Pyschogeophysics summit (I have it on good authority that another workshop will take place in Suffolk later this year) its the space that Kemp at. al move you through which is often the most powerful aspect of their work. They crack open a really interesting perspective on reality through their temporally specific investigations and then that crack heals back over as our perceptual habituations manage to creolize back into what they previously were.

And as with any Kemp helmed workshop there was a HELL of a lot of interesting conceptual material to get your teeth into (see the volume of last year’s psychogeophysics reader or the head spinning xxxxx reader for further insight to the conceptual heights both Kemp and Martin Howse, his long standing co-excavator of computational culture, aim towards). Concepts around the workshop were inflected with Italian theorisations of how capitalism can be considered crystalline in structure, endlessly repetitive in a dirge towards destruction. In keeping with Kemp’s long standing interest in random intrusions (hence the powerful focus upon noise in his interests) there was an implicit counterpoint of Schrodinger’s Aperiodic crystal. In a gesture which is really close to my heart participants were encouraged to drink water swimming with gold particles extracted from CPU’s: this harked back to Alchemical practices in the empowering potential of drinking gold in water, a belief which has enjoyed a new age resurgence.

Amid these delightful conceptual dalliances there were other pertinent elements at play. One couldn’t avoid the fact that the sort of computational mineral extraction the workshop attendees were practising is practiced on a near industrial scale and such recycling accounts for a large amount of the Earths mineral needs. At to acknowledge that one would have to note that in addition to American refinery’s doing this work there are several similar outputs in China and India, countries sadly not noted for transparency of health and safety data regarding workers operating in such environments.

But to return once more to the engaging theoretical terrain this workshop explored. The workshop shared resonances with Thomas Thwaite’s  mission to assemble a toaster from scratch, in particular his attempts to manufacture his own steel. That project was great due to the spotlight it shone on the immense labour required to build an Argos toaster, labour (and international labour flows) completely occluded beneath the facade (or interface) of cheap, does what it says on the tin, consumerism. I also like to think that Thwaites work was completely in the Latourian spirit of opening a black box, in this case the aforementioned box being disposable/throw away culture. The workshop also shared conceptual ground with BLDGBLOG’s recent entry on Forensic Geology. Therein he eloquently digressed on the mineral basis of computers, and how the sources of the silicon (another element at the core of the CPU relaying digital culture to you) represent a curious blank spot on global maps: there exists little data on their locations. Ironic given the digital drive to map everything in exhaustive detail. All three of these works nicely presage a little thought experiment to deprivilege anthropocentrism. Graham Harwood’s Coal Fired Computers set my train of thought going on this one.

You can use all these projects to imagine a different temporal adjustment to the world, one in which the minerals are the prime actor. They move out of the mines (be that coal, gold or otherwise) into other machinic bodies (steam engine, cloud computing server or toaster) and act upon us. Those who doubt the agency of minerals would do well to consider the locomotive and violent power of coltan when it enlists globalised ICT’s to itself as an ally. To indulge in this exercise is not to disavow human culpability but is instead an exercise intended at allowing us to acknowledge the power of forces to act upon us, in a comparable manner to how we permit natural disasters a level of agency over entire populations. Those disasters immediacy makes us more willing to concede their power over us. But even those elements of the reality we move through which it seems at first glance that we have total control of, from extraction to refinement to end user, still act upon us, it’s just that their movment through us works over a different timescale hence their power is more difficult to discern given our temporal alignment to reality


~ by Stephen Fortune on May 31, 2011.

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