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Authors
  • Lawrence Abu Hamdan
  • Babak Afrassiabi
    • Babak Afrassiabi is an artist who works both in Iran and the Netherlands. Since 2004, he has collaborated with Nasrin Tabatabai on various joint projects and the publication of the bilingual magazine Pages (Farsi and English). Their work seeks to articulate the undecidable space between art and its historical conditions, including the recurring question of the place of the archive in defining the juncture between politics, history, and the practice of art. The artists’ work has been presented internationally in various solo and group exhibitions and they have been tutors at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht (2008–13), and Erg, école supérieure des arts, Brussels (2015–).
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      published contributions
  • Malin Ah-King
  • Memo Akten
    • . He is currently a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is researching artificial intelligence, machine learning, and expressive human-ma
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      published contributions
  • Jamie Allen
  • S. Ayesha Hameed
    • Dr. S. Ayesha Hameed is a Lecturer in Visual Cultures and the Joint Programme Leader in Fine Art and History of Art Research Fellow in Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths, London. She received her PhD in Social and Political Thought at York University, Canada in 2008
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      published contributions
  • Sammy Baloji
  • Subhankar Banerjee
  • On Barak
    • On Barak is a social and cultural historian of science and technology in non-Western settings. He has been a senior lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University since 2012. Prior to this, he was a member of the Princeton Society of Fellows. In 2009, Barak received a joint PhD in History and Middle Eastern Studies from New York University. His most recent book is On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt (University of California Press, 2013), and his current publication project, Coalonialism: Energy and Empire before the Age of Oil, is funded by a European Union Marie Curie Award and an Israel Science Foundation Grant.
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      published contributions
  • Anil Bawa-Cavia
    • Anil Bawa-Cavia is a computer scientist with a background in machine learning. He runs STDIO, a speculative software studio. His practice engages with algorithms, protocols, encodings, and other software artifacts and his doctoral research at the Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London was on complex networks in urbanism. He is a founding member of Call & Response, a sonic arts collective and gallery space in London, and a member of the New Centre for Research & Practice.
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      published contributions
  • Etienne Benson
  • Josh Berson
  • Jeremy Bolen
  • Paul Boshears
  • Benjamin Bratton
    • for Media, Architecture and Design, Moscow. Bratton is also Professor of Digital Design at the Eur
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      published contributions
  • Axel Braun
    • Axel Braun studied photography at the Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, and fine arts at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris. His artistic research deals with controversial infrastructure projects, tautology as an attempt to understand reality, and failed utopias in art and architecture. Currently, he is pursuing the long-term project Towards an Understanding of Anthropocene Landscapes. Recently exhibited works include Some Kind of Opposition (2016) at Galeria Centralis, Budapest, and Dragonflies drift downstream on a river (2015) at Kunstmuseum Bochum.
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      published contributions
  • Keith Breckenridge
  • François Bucher
    • s, focusing on ethical and aesthetic problems of cinema and television, and more recently on the image as an interdimensional field. His work has been exhibited at
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      published contributions
  • Lino Camprubí
  • Zachary Caple
  • Ele Carpenter
    • Dr. Ele Carpenter is a senior lecturer in curating at Goldsmiths, London. Her curatorial practice responds to interdisciplinary socio-political contexts such as the nuclear economy and the relationship between craft and code.
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      published contributions
  • Andrew Chubb
    • Andrew Chubb is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia conducting research on the relationship between Chinese public opinion and government policy in the South China Sea. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Contemporary China, Pacific Affairs, East Asia Forum, and Information, Communication & Society. His blog, South Sea Conversations (southseaconversations.wordpress.com), provides translations and analysis of Chinese discourse on the South and East China Sea issues.
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      published contributions
  • Louis Chude-Sokei
    • Louis Chude-Sokei is a writer and scholar currently teaching in the English Department at the University of Washington, Seattle. His academic interests range from West African, Caribbean, and American literary and cultural studies to a particular focus on sound, technology, and performance. His literary and public work focuses on immigration and black-on-black cultural contacts, conflicts, and exchanges. Chude-Sokei is the author of the award-winning book The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (2006) and The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics (2016).
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      published contributions
  • Amy Cimini
  • Claire Colebrook
    • Claire Colebrook is a professor of English at Penn State University. Her areas of specialization are contemporary literature, visual culture, and theory and cultural studies. She has written articles on poetry, literary theory, queer theory, and contemporary culture. Colebrook is the co-editor of the series Critical Climate Change, published by Open Humanities Press, and a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Critical Climate Change. She recently completed two books on extinction for Open Humanities Press, Death of the PostHuman and Sex after Life (both 2014), and with Tom Cohen and J. Hillis Miller co-authored Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols (2016).
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      published contributions
  • Flavio D'Abramo
  • Ana Dana Beroš
    • chitect and curator focused on creating uncertain, fragile environments that catalyze social chan
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      published contributions
  • Pietro Daniel Omodeo
  • Rana Dasgupta
  • Filip De Boeck
    • Filip De Boeck is actively involved in teaching, promoting, coordinating and supervising research in and on Africa at the Institute for Anthropological research in Africa at the U
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      published contributions
  • Seth Denizen
    • Seth Denizen is a researcher and design practitioner trained in landscape architecture and evolutionary biology. Since completing research on the sexual behavior and evolutionary ecology of small Trinidadian fish, his work has focused on the aesthetics of scientific representation, madness, and public parks, the design of t
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      published contributions
  • Rohini Devasher
  • Jonathan Donges
    • Jonathan Donges is a postdoctoral researcher who holds a joint position at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (as Stordalen Scholar) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. He studies planetary boundaries and social dynamics in the Earth system from a complex dynamical system perspective. At Potsdam, he is Co-head of the flagship COPAN (Coevolutionary Pathways) project (www.pik-potsdam.de/copan). His published research includes work on complex network theory, dynamical systems theory, and time series analysis, with a focus on their application to our understanding of past and present climate variability and its interactions with humankind on planet Earth.
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  • Design Earth
    • ollaborative architectural practice led by El Hadi Jazairy
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      published contributions
  • Keller Easterling
  • Anna Echterhölter
  • David Edgerton
    • David Edgerton is Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and a professor of modern British history at King’s College London. After teaching at the University of Manchester, he became the founding director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College London (1993–2003), and moved along with the centre to King’s College London in August 2013. He is the author of many works, including The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (2007), which argues for and exemplifies new ways of thinking about the material constitution of modernity.
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      published contributions
  • Technosphere Editorial
  • Sasha Engelmann
  • Lois Epstein
    • stein is Arctic Program Director at the Wilderness Society an American land conservation non-profit. A licensed engineer, she has served on a number of federal advisory committees, including a National Academy of Sciences committee studying oil and gas regulations, and, for twelve years, a committee focusing on oil pipeline safety. Epstein holds a Master of Civil Engineering with a specialization in environme
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  • Eberhard Faust
  • Jennifer Gabrys
    • Jennifer Gabrys is Reader in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Principal Investigator on the ERC-funded project, "Citizen Sense." Her publications include Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (University of Michigan Press, 2011); and Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming).
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      published contributions
  • Elaine Gan
  • Oliver Gantner
  • Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann
  • Florian Goldmann
    • Florian Goldmann is a Berlin-based artist and a PhD candidate at the DFG Research Training Center Visibility and Visualisation – Hybrid Forms of Pictorial Knowledge as well as at the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies, both Potsdam University. His research focus is the utilization of models as a means of both commemorating and predicting catastrophe. In 2015, he took part in the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan. Goldmann is one of the founders of the research collective STRATAGRIDS and the author of Flexible Signposts to Coded Territories (2012), an analysis of football hooligan graffiti in Athens as a system of fluid signage.
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      published contributions
  • Mark Graham
  • Jacques Grinevald
  • Johan Gärdebo
    • Johan Gärdebo is a PhD candidate at the Royal Institute of Technology affiliated to the Environmental Humanities Laboratory (EHL). H
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      published contributions
  • Orit Halpern
    • Orit Halpern is a Strategic Hire in Interactive Design and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal. Her work bridges the histories of science, computing, and cybernetics with design and art practice. She is also a co-director of the Speculative Life Research Cluster, Montreal, a laboratory situated at the intersection of art and life sciences, architecture and design, and computational media (www.speculativelife.com). Her recent monograph, Beautiful Data (2015), is a history of interactivity, data visualization, and ubiquitous computing. www.orithalpern.net
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      published contributions
  • Eva Hayward
  • Gabrielle Hecht
  • Gerda Heck
  • Florian Hecker
    • dio 3 as the broadcaster’s first ever live binaural broadcast. Recent major exhibitions
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      published contributions
  • Carola Hein
    • Carola Hein is a professor of the history of architecture and urban planning in the Architecture Department at Delft University of Technology. She has published widely on topics in contemporary and historical architectural and urban planning, notably that of Europe and Japan. Her current research interests include transmission of architectural and urban ideas along international networks, focusing specifically on port cities, and the global architecture of oil. Her books include Port Cities: Dynamic Landscapes and Global Networks (2011), Cities, Autonomy, and Decentralization in Japan (2006), and The Capital of Europe: Architecture and Urban Planning for the European Union (2004).
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      published contributions
  • Julian Henriques
    • Julian Henriques is the convener of the MA in Script Writing and Director of the Topology Research Unit in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. Prior to this, he ran the film and television department at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) at the University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica. His credits as a writer and director include the reggae musical feature film Babymother (1998) and as a sound artist, Knots & Donuts, exhibited at Tate Modern in 2011. Henriques researches street cultures and technologies and his publications include Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation, and Subjectivity (1998), Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing (2011), and Sonic Media (forthcoming).
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      published contributions
  • Hanna Husberg
    • Hanna Husberg is a Stockholm-based artist. She graduated from ENSB-A in Paris in 2007 and is currently a PhD in Practice candidate at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.
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      published contributions
  • Sabine Höhler
  • Erich Hörl
  • Timothy Johnson
  • Peter K. Haff
  • Bernd Kasparek
  • Nikos Katsikis
  • Laleh Khalili
  • Axel Kleidon
  • Alexander Klose
    • Dr. Alexander Klose studied History, Law, Philosophy, Art, and Cultural Studies. From 2005-07 he held a scholarship at Bauhaus Universität Weimar for his PhD project on standardized containers used in transport as one of the leading material media in the 20th century. Between 2009 and 2014 he worked as a research associate and programme developer at Kulturstiftung des Bundes. In 2015 in the forefront of COP 21, he co-curated Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge No. 18 – On Becoming Earthlings: 150 dialogues and exercises in shrinking and expanding the Human at Musée de l'Homme, Paris. His latest publication is: The Container Principle. How a box changes the way we think (2015).
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  • Karin Knorr Cetina
  • Scott Knowles
  • Nile Koetting
  • Nicole Koltick
    • Nicole Koltick is an assistant professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel University, Philadelphia. She is Founding Director of the Design Futures Lab at Westphal College, which is currently pursuing design research to stimulate debate on the potential implications of emerging technological and scientific developments within society. Koltick’s practice spans art, science, technology, design, and philosophy, and current work focuses on the philosophical, material, and relational implications of aesthetics as they intersect with emerging developments in computational creativity, artificially intelligent autonomous systems, robotics, and synthetic biological hybrids.
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      published contributions
  • Nik Kosmas
  • Matthijs Kouw
    • Matthijs Kouw joined the Rathenau Instituut, The Hague, in March 2016. He holds an MA in Philosophy and an MSc in Science and Technology Studies from the University of Amsterdam as well as a PhD from Maastricht University. In his PhD thesis, Kouw describes how and to what extent reliance on models can introduce vulnerabilities through the assumptions, uncertainties, and blind spots concomitant with modeling practice. He was employed as a postdoctoral researcher at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL), during which time he acted as a member of the Dutch delegation for plenary sessions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
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      published contributions
  • Matija Kralj
  • Kei Kreutler
  • Lars Kulik
    • Lars Kulik studied biology at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He received his doctorate on the development of social behavior of rhesus monkeys at the University of Leipzig and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. He lives with his family in Berlin.
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      published contributions
  • Richard L. Hindle
    • Richard L. Hindle is an assistant professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley. His current research focuses on patent innovation in landscape related technologies, from large-scale mappings of riverine and coastal systems to detailed historical studies on the antecedents of vegetated architecture. His work explores the potential of new technological narratives and material processes to reframe theory, practice, and the production of landscape. Recent works include the articles “Levees That Might Have Been” (2015), and “Infrastructures of Innovation” in Scaling Infrastructure (MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism, 2016), and the exhibition Geographies of Innovation at UC Berkeley (2015).
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      published contributions
  • Hannah Landecker
  • Brian Larkin
  • Bruno Latour
  • Manfred Laubichler
  • John Law
    • hn Law was a professor of sociology at Keele University, Lancaster, and the Open University, Milton Keynes, and a co-director of the Economic and Social Researc
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      published contributions
  • Yoneda Lemma
    • ents from one fiction to another. She has exhibited her work at V4ULT, Berlin; Le Cube, Par
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      published contributions
  • Esther Leslie
    • t theories of aesthetics and culture, with a particular focus on the work of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. It deals with the poetics of science, European literary and visual modern
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      published contributions
  • George Lewis
    • my of Arts and Letters, New York. He has been a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Chicago, since 1971. Lewis’s work as composer, electronic performer, installa
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      published contributions
  • S. Løchlann Jain
  • Donald MacKenzie
  • Stefan Maier
  • Chowra Makaremi
  • Annapurna Mamidipudi
  • Laura McLean
    • Laura McLean is a curator, artist, and writer based in London. She is a graduate of Goldsmiths College and Sydney College of the Arts, where she later lectured. She has also studied at Alberta College of Art and Design, and the Universität der Künste Berlin.
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  • Eden Medina
    • Eden Medina is an associate professor of informatics and computing, affiliated associate professor of law, and adjunct associate professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research and teaching address the social, historical, and legal dimensions of our increasingly data-driven world, including the relationship of technology to human rights and free expression, the relationship between political innovation and technological innovation, and the ways that human and political values shape technological design. Medina’s writings also use science and technology as a way to broaden understandings of Latin American history and the geography of innovation. She is the author of Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile (2011) and the co-editor of Beyond Imported Magic: Essays on Science, Technology, and Society in Latin America (2014).
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  • Anne-Sophie Milon
    • Anne-Sophie Milon is an artist and a freelance illustrator and animator working and living in Bristol, UK. After completing two Masters in Art, she has recently concluded the program of experimentation in Art and Politics at SciencesPo (SPEAP) in Paris.
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      published contributions
  • Paul N. Edwards
  • Gerald Nestler
    • Gerald Nestler is an artist and writer who combines theory and post-disciplinary conversation with video, installation, performance, text, code, graphics, sound, and speech. He explores what he calls the derivative condition of contemporary social relations and its paradigmatic financial models, operations, processes, narratives, and fictions. He is currently working on an “aesthetics of resolution” that maps counterfictions and counterimaginations for “renegade activism,” which revolves around the demonstration as a combined artistic, technological, social, and political practice. Nestler holds a practice-based PhD from the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London.
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      published contributions
  • Huiying Ng
  • Daniel Niles
    • terial, millenary and momentary—that their knowledge takes, and, finally, the significance of this experience to our understanding of t
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      published contributions
  • James P. M. Syvitski
    • James P. M. Syvitski is Executive Director of the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System (CSDMS) at the University of Colorado Boulder. From 2011 to 2016, he chaired the International Council for Science’s International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), which provides essential scientific leadership and knowledge of the Earth system to help guide society toward a sustainable pathway during rapid global change. His specialty is the global flux of water and sediment (river and ocean borne) and its trends in the Anthropocene. He works at the forefront of computational geosciences, including sediment transport, land-ocean interactions, and Earth-surface dynamics.
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      published contributions
  • Luciana Parisi
    • Luciana Parisi is Reader in Cultural Theory, Chair of the PhD program in Cultural Studies, and Co-director of the Digital Culture Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research focuses on cybernetics, information theory and computation, complexity and evolutionary theories, and the technocapitalist investment in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. Her books include Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Biotechnology and the Mutations of Desire (2004) and Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space (2013). She is currently researching the history of automation and the philosophical consequences of logical thinking in machines.
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      published contributions
  • Lisa Parks
  • Matteo Pasquinelli
  • Karen Pinkus
    • w York. She is also a faculty fellow of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Ithaca. Author of numerous publications in literary studies, Italian studies, critical theory, and environmental humanities, Pinkus is also Editor of the journal Diacritics. In her latest book, Fuel (2016), Pinkus thinks about issues crucial to climate ch
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  • Giulia Rispoli
  • Sophia Roosth
    • t when researchers are building new biological systems in order to investigate how biology works. She holds a PhD from the Massachuse
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      published contributions
  • Arno Rosemarin
  • Rafico Ruiz
    • afico Ruiz is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. He studies the relationships between mediation and social space, particularly in the Arctic and subarctic; the cultural geographies of natural resource engagements; and
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  • Kim Rygiel
    • f International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada. Her research focuses on border security, migration, and citizenship in North America and Europe. She investigates how citizens and non-citizens engage in citizenship practices and challenge notions
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      published contributions
  • Dorion Sagan
  • Isabelle Saint-Saëns
  • Birgit Schneider
  • Sever
    • SEVER was developed as a speculative design project by Francesco Sebregondi, Alexey Platonov, Inna Pokazanyeva, and Ildar Iakubov during the New Normal postgraduate program at Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, Moscow. SEVER seeks to intervene into current Arctic debates by disturbing the landscape of the region’s possible futures
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      published contributions
  • Jens Soentgen
  • C Spencer Yeh
  • Nick Srnicek
  • Lizzie Stark
    • Lizzie Stark is an author, journalist, and experience designer. She is the author of two books, Pandora’s DNA (2014), exploring so-called ‘breast cancer genes’ and her first book, Leaving Mundania (2012), which investigates the subculture of live action role play, or larp. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, the Daily Beast, The Today Show Website, io9, Fusion, the Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. She holds an MS from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has organized numerous conventions and experiences across the US. Her most recent work is as a programming coordinator for Living Games Austin, and as co-editor and contributor for the #Feminism anthology, which collects 34 nano-games written by feminists from eleven countries.
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  • Carolyn Steel
  • Benjamin Steininger
  • Lucy Suchman
    • ology of Science and Technology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lancaster, UK. Her research interests within the field of feminist science and technology studies are focused on technological imaginaries and material practices
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  • Kaushik Sunder Rajan
    • echnology studies, and postcolonial studies, holding a special interest in the global political economy of biomedicine, with a comparative focus on the Un
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      published contributions
  • Jenna Sutela
    • Jenna Sutela’s installations, texts, and sound performances seek to identify and react to precarious social and material moments, often in relation to technology. Most recently, she has been exploring exceedingly complex biological and computational systems, ultimately unknowable and always becoming something new. Her work has been presented, among other places, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and her writing has been published by Fiktion, Harvard Design Magazine, and Sternberg Press.
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  • Bronislaw Szerszynski
    • Bronislaw Szerszynski is a Reader in Sociology at Lancaster University in the UK. Szerszynski’s work has developed across several themes, including the role of Western religious history in shaping contemporary understandings of technology and the environment—typified by his book Nature, Technology and the Sacred (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005).
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  • Elisa T. Bertuzzo
    • Elisa T. Bertuzzo studied comparative literature, sociology, communication, and media studies and holds a PhD in urban studies. She was a curator and project leader with Habitat Forum Berlin, including for the project Paradigmising Karail Basti (2010–16). Bridging discourses from the fields of cultural and urban studies, her research focuses on the everyday life facets of urbanization and settlement in South Asia. On that topic, she published Fragmented Dhaka: Analysing Everyday Life with Henri Lefebvre’s Theory of Production of Space (2009) and runs her multimedia project Archives of Movement (since 2012), which deals with the everyday life of temporary labor migrants in Bangladesh and India.
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  • Gregory T. Cushman
    • Gregory T. Cushman is Associate Professor of International Environmental History at the University of Kansas.
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      published contributions
  • Nasrin Tabatabai
    • Nasrin Tabatabai is an artist who works both in Iran and the Netherlands. Since 2004, she has collaborated with Babak Afrassiabi on various joint projects and the publication of the bilingual magazine Pages (Farsi and English). Their work seeks to articulate the undecidable space between art and its historical conditions, including the recurring question of the place of the archive in defining the juncture between politics, history, and the practice of art. The artists’ work has been presented internationally in various solo and group exhibitions and they have been tutors at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht (2008–13), and Erg, école supérieure des arts, Brussels (2015–).
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      published contributions
  • Ksenia Tatarchenko
    • dies Institute, Geneva University, specializing in the history of Russian science and technology. She has held positions as a visiting Assistant Professor of History at NYU Shanghai and a post-doctoral fellow at the Harriman Institute, Columbia. Most broadly, she studies questions of knowledge circulation to situate Soviet developments in the global context. She is currently writing a book on science and innovation cultures in Siberia provisionally
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  • Katerina Teaiwa
    • Dr. Katerina Teaiwa is Associate Professor at the Department of Gender, Media and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History & Language and the president of the Australian Association for Pacific Studies. Her main area of research looks at the histories of phosphate mining in the central Pacific. Her work does not only span academic research, publications, and lectures, but also manifests itself in other formats within the arts and popular culture. Her work has inspired a permanent exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which tells the story of Pacific phosphate mining through Banaban dance. In 2015, she published „Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba“, Indiana University Press. She is currently working with visual artist Yuki Kihara on a multimedia exhibition for Carriageworks in Sydney.
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  • Terre Thaemlitz
  • Jol Thomson
  • Claire Tolan
  • John Tresch
  • Etienne Turpin
    • Etienne Turpin is a philosopher, Founding Director of anexact office, and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, where he coordinates the Humanitarian Infrastructures Group and co-directs the PetaBencana.id disaster mapping project for the Urban Risk Lab. He is the editor of Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Tim
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  • Asonseh Ukah
    • Asonzeh Ukah is a sociologist and historian of religion. He joined the University of Cape Town in 2013 and previously taught at the University of Bayreuth (2005–13), where he also earned a doctorate and habilitation in history of religions. His research interests include religious urbanism, the sociology of Pentecostalism, and religion and media. He is Director of the Research Institute on Christianity and Society in Africa (RICSA), University of Cape Town, and Affiliated Senior Fellow of Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), University of Bayreuth. He is the author of A New Paradigm of Pentecostal Power (2008) and Bourdieu in Africa (edited with Magnus Echtler, 2016).
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  • Underworlds
  • Sebastian Vehlken
    • Sebastian Vehlken is a media theorist and cultural historian at Leuphana University Lüneburg and Permanent Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study on Media Cultures of Computer Simulation (MECS). From 2013 to 2017, he worked as MECS Junior Director, and in 2015–16, he was a visiting professor at Humboldt-Universität Berlin, the University of Vienna, and Leuphana. His areas of interest include the theory and history of computer simulation and digital media, the media history of swarm intelligence, and the epistemology of think tanks. His current research project, Plutonium Worlds, explores the application of computer simulations in West German fast breeder reactor programs.
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      published contributions
  • Vladimir Vernadsky
  • Ben Vida
    • Korea, Australia ,and Europe at such institutions as the Guggenheim, New York; Centro Pecci, Prato, Italy; STUK Arts Center, Leuven
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  • Davor Vidas
    • Davor Vidas is a research professor in international law and Director of the Law of the Sea Programme at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Lysaker, Norway. He is Chair of the Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise and a member of the Anthropocene Working Group. Vidas has been involved in international law research for over thirty years, focusing since 2009 on implications of the Anthropocene for the development of international law. Among his books are The World Ocean in Globalisation (2011) and Law, Technology and Science for Oceans in Globalisation (2010). He is the editor-in-chief of the book series Anthropocene (Skolska knjiga, Zagreb), launched in 2017.
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  • Kalindi Vora
  • Jennifer Walshe
    • porary Arts, New York; DAAD Berliner Künstle
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      published contributions
  • Hannes Wiedemann
    • Hannes Wiedemann is a Berlin-based photographer. He studied at the Ostkreuz School of Photography, Berlin. For his project Grinders (2015–16), he followed the American bodyhacking community, a small group of people across the United States working out of garages and basements to become real cyborgs. Recent exhibitions include NEW PHOTOGRAPHY II (2017) at Gallery ALAN, Istanbul, and HUMAN UPGRADE, with Susanna Hertrich (2016), at Schader-Stiftung Gallery, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt. www.hanneswiedemann.com
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      published contributions
  • Elvia Wilk
  • Cary Wolfe
    • Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English and Founding Director of 3CT: Center for Critical and Cultural Theory at Rice University, Houston. He is the author of What Is Posthumanism? (2010), a book that weaves together principal concerns of his work: animal studies, system theory, pragmatism, and post-structuralism. It is part of the series Posthumanities, for which he serves as Founding Editor at the University of Minnesota Press. His most recent publication is Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in Biopolitical Frame (2013) and earlier books and edited collections include Animal Rites: American Culture, The Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003) and Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (2003).
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      published contributions
  • Andrew Yang
  • Jan Zalasiewicz
    • Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz is Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester and Chair of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. A field geologist, paleontologist, and stratigrapher, he teaches and publishes on geology and earth history, in particular on fossil ecosystems and environments that span over half a billion years of geological time.
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  • Anna Zett
  • Sander van der Leeuw
    • ionships, and complex systems theory. He investigates the preconditions for and the practices and role of invention, sustainability, and innovation in societies. He has done
    • 1
      published contributions
  • Liv Østmo
    • Liv Østmo is one of the founders and current Dean of the Sámi University of Applied Sciences, Kautokeino, Norway, where she researches and lectures on the subject of multicultural understanding. For the last eight years, Østmo has worked with traditional Sámi knowledge and she is currently working on putting the finishing touches on a methodology book about the documentation of this knowledge.
    • 1
      published contributions
Kitchen scale

Taking on the Technosphere: A Kitchen Debate

In his original writings on the technosphere from the early 2010s, Peter Haff identified its existence as a grand metabolizing system. Back in early 2016, spurred on by the preparation for HKW’s Anthropocene Campus: The Technosphere Issue, a vehement debate sprang up in the home of science and technology historians Gabrielle Hecht and Paul N. Edwards: How valid is Haff’s approach? Does it capture a reality? And what is its heuristic purpose? In this republication of their dispute, you, the reader, can engage alongside Hecht and Edwards in asking whether the concept of the technosphere is a truly useful tool, simple silverware, or merely a barren gadget for understanding the current and future condition of planet Earth.
Gabrielle Hecht: Here’s how Peter Haff defines the technosphere in his 2013 essay:Peter K. Haff, “Technology as a Geological Phenomenon: Implications for human well-being,” Geological Society, special publication, vol. 395 (2013): pp. 301–9.
the set of large-scale networked technologies that underlie and make possible rapid extraction from the Earth of large quantities of free energy and subsequent power generation, long-distance, nearly instantaneous communication, rapid long-distance energy and mass transport, the existence and operation of modern governmental and other bureaucracies, high-intensity industrial and manufacturing operations including regional, continental and global distribution of food and other goods, and a myriad additional ‘artificial’ or ‘non-natural’ processes without which modern civilization and its present 7 × 109 human constituents could not exist. If the term ‘anthroposphere’ is meant to emphasize the role of human beings as causative agents responsible for Earth transformations that define the Anthropocene, the use of ‘technosphere’ suggests a more detached view of an emerging geological process that has entrained humans as essential components that support its dynamics.
Haff usefully calls attention to dynamic technological systems. His vision of technology is expansive enough to include bureaucracy and other non-machinic components. I especially appreciate his insistence (later in the essay) that these systems are themselves, as well as in their interactions, often unpredictable and uncontrollable. Right off the bat, however, his definition also betrays some serious problems. What does “free energy” mean here—free to whom and how? And why is “a more detached view” better? Detached from what? Is this the perspective of an alien intelligence studying our planet? God’s eye? From there, the problems deepen for me. Haff conceives of the technosphere as separate from humans: there’s the human perspective, and there’s the technosphere perspective. These are two different things. Humans are inside the technosphere, and thus see it “as a purely derivative phenomenon,” something they created and can control. But, he cautions, “From the outside, that is, from its own vantage point, notwithstanding that its human parts are essential, technology appears to have boot-strapped itself into its present state.” So again: What is “its own vantage point”? How and to what does this make sense?
  • Paul N. Edwards: I guess I’m the good cop right now, but I won’t (can’t) defend everything Haff says. Still, remember he’s talking from a physics perspective, where “free energy” doesn’t mean “cost-free” but “readily available without the need to recycle or regenerate supply.” In other words, fossil fuels, uranium, all other sources that aren’t driven by the sun (in the present, at least). We don’t have to put anywhere near as much energy into getting them as it “cost” the planet to make them in the first place. Last time we taught a class together, I asked the class to guess how much energy fossil fuels represent in terms of the Earth’s net primary production (NPPNPP refers to all plant matter, including plankton, algae, etc.: in other words, the biosphere’s total uptake of energy from sunlight.
    ). If we had to make gasoline, oil, and coal ourselves in the same way they were originally created—laying down millions of years’ worth of dead plants and compressing them under thick layers of rock—how much plant matter would it take? The answer: in one year, we burn fossil fuels equivalent to over 400 years’ worth of fossil NPP. That’s the “free” energy.
  • Of course, you’re right that it costs us to do that, and it costs some people a lot more than others. Living downwind of coal-fired power plants, living in Beijing or dozens of other cities choked by coal smoke, being a West Virginia coal miner or a Namibian uranium miner or a Nigerian oil worker—all of that’s costly … not to mention the environmental damage from soot, haze, and carbon dioxide.
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Rossing uranium mine in Namibia, 2013. © Conleth Brady / IAEA. Source: Wiki Commons

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Palaces, avenues, buildings, parks, and scenery around China's Capital Forbidden City under the pollution of Beijing, 2013. © Yinan Chen. Source: Wiki Commons

  • As for the “more detached view,” I don’t think he’s saying it’s “better.” He’s saying it’s a coherent and valuable way of looking at the total combination of historically embedded infrastructure and human social forms developed to support, maintain, and extend that infrastructure. Call it a God’s-eye view if you want, but that same view has been endlessly valuable for understanding the geosphere, the biosphere, and the lithosphere. Let me riff on this for a minute. From a large-scale, long-term view, everyone is born into a world full of infrastructure. He does talk about the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies, but rightly points out that they are fast vanishing; in the encounter with “developed” world ways of life, theirs is losing. (No, I’m not happy about that, but I can’t pretend it isn’t true—nor that I, or almost anyone I’ve ever met, would happily return to a hunter-gatherer life, even though I once read that their average workday is less than four hours.) Being born into infrastructures means being pre-enrolled, from the very beginning of your life, in supporting, maintaining, and possibly extending infrastructures. You (we) pay your (our) electricity bill. You watch TV. You use a cellphone, the Internet, sewers, roads, cars, airplanes, and trains. And you pay for them. To some extent, you may even personally maintain some of those things—adding oil to your car engine, fixing your home router, cleaning out your clogged storm drain. Millions of people work full-time maintaining those things. So in some sense, we work for infrastructure as much as infrastructure works for us. And as Haff points out, if a major piece of it, such as a chunk of the power grid, goes down temporarily, a huge swarm of both human and automatic, machinic activity immediately puts it back online. It defends itself and self-repairs, as if it were autonomous.
Gabrielle: I take your point about being born into infrastructure. That’s a nice way of putting it, and more illuminating than “the technosphere.” But how can you go so swiftly from an observation that millions of people work full-time maintenance jobs to a conclusion that maintenance happens “as if it were autonomous”? What does that even mean? I don’t see any human–machine assemblage emerging to fix the potholes in our (wealthy) neighborhood, some of which have been there for years and would break our car if we hit them wrong. There’s certainly nothing automatic about repairing the water infrastructure in poverty-stricken Flint, Michigan, where thousands of people were exposed to lead contamination precisely because the state deferred maintenance and made cost-cutting choices that it would never have made for wealthier communities. And these are just examples from the US. As increasing numbers of scholars have observed, the adage about infrastructure being invisible (unless it breaks down) doesn’t help us understand places where infrastructures such as electricity might only function for two or three hours on a good day. I’m sure you remember the roads in southern Madagascar—constructed in the 1950s to haul ore away from mines, by the late 1990s they were so rough that we could barely drive 10 kilometers per hour on them! No automaticity in view there.
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A main road in the south central region of Madagaskar, taken in the mid-1970s. Source: Wiki Commons

  • Paul (rudely interrupting): Autonomous is not the same thing as automatic, especially in this context. I just meant that maintenance happens, however imperfectly, because we depend on infrastructures so much that we have to maintain them.
Gabrielle (moving right along, taking no notice): And that’s not to speak of creative destruction or repurposing of infrastructural components or materials. There are many examples, but my favorite comes from a talk by Filip de Boeck about a huge pothole in Kinshasa: whenever it got “repaired,” residents would come out at night and take out the tar to recreate the pothole. Why? Because the pothole was so big that people were forced into detours, which led them right past goods and services offered by residents in stalls around the edges of the pothole.
  • Paul: So they took advantage of one infrastructure failure to help them create another: a street market.
Gabrielle: Baloney. A few stalls is not a street market, and a street market is not (necessarily) an infrastructure. I may not like the technosphere, but I’m not on board with AbdouMaliq Simone’s “people as infrastructure” thing either. But this leads me to another point. I’m struck by Haff’s conception of the technosphere as a single thing. That’s a very large-scale systems perspective—fair enough. But to what end? If he discussed how the technosphere interacted with other spheres (atmo-, litho-, bio-, hydro-), then I might get some mileage out of the singularity. But he doesn’t (at least not in either of the pieces that I read), which to my mind leaves us with a concept that isn’t a whole lot more useful than Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity. Haff’s title appeals to “human well-being,” yet nowhere do we see a discussion of this. Let alone the fact that there are radical inequalities in well-being across the globe, inequalities which arguably shaped the types, geographies, and histories of technological systems that make up the apparently singular technosphere. Another obvious problem with a singular, undifferentiated view of “the technosphere” is manifest in Haff’s “Six Rules” essay.Peter K. Haff, “Humans and Technology in the Anthropocene: Six rules,” The Anthropocene Review (2014): pp. 1–11
There, Haff allows that some individuals—for example, the captain of a navy ship—might directly influence a technological system. He even countenances “uncooperative or adversarial” leaders, citing Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi as examples. The very next sentence: “The effectiveness of an adversarial leader, who is a malfunctioning part as far as the system is concerned, is made possible by the same kind of cascading-network effects that underlie the potential failure of strongly coupled systems …”. And there we have it: the “functioning” system is apartheid, with Mandela being the “malfunctioning” part. Let me be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that Haff is an apartheid apologist—I don’t know him, but I’d be surprised if that were the case. Instead, I mean to highlight the problem of singular configurations: these inevitably portray the status quo—whatever it is, however it came about—as normal and functioning, and anything disruptive as “malfunctioning.” This vision has no sense that present technological systems could have been configured in any other way; it cannot account for (political, social) power differentials in technological systems; it leaves no possibility for change, no room for achieving broader “well-being.”
  • Paul: I’m partly with you on this one. Haff does point out, as so many have done before him, that if the United States’ average energy consumption—about 10 kilowatts—became the global norm, we’d need 68 terawatts of power—four times our current global consumption of 17 terawatts. As he puts it: “This is an appreciable fraction of the geothermal energy flux (32 TW), the biochemical energy flux (90 TW) and the gravitational power load of the world’s rivers (7 TW).” So Haff’s argument has two parts: first, the quest for human well-being (what he calls our “desiderata”) led to these high rates of energy consumption; and second, that consumption is very unlikely to decrease unless demands for more, or more equal, well-being are somehow throttled back. On your point about how technological systems “could have been configured” in other ways: what a typical historian’s dodge! Historians (including me) live for those moments of contingency when everything could have been different. Sure, true dat—it happens. So what? As I said earlier: people are pre-enrolled in the infrastructures of their worlds, however different those may be. And in a globalized society, infrastructures spread far and fast. The world is crammed full of settled controversies and no-longer-contingent choices. 120V or 240V power. ISO standard containers. Automobiles with steering wheels, gas and brake pedals, and speedometers. Standard time. Flush toilets (terrible idea!). Three major staples—rice, maize, and wheat—make up two-thirds of world food consumption. All these things were once contingent choices, but not anymore. Sure, there are vast differences in national and local systems—but from the large-scale, long-term point of view, how does that matter?
Gabrielle: Ha! You think you can get away with accusing me of dodging simply by copping to such moves yourself? Come on, dude. So what, you ask? So this: our present infrastructural configurations result from choices. They are not the result of some inevitable technological march. There is no “autonomy” in play. Yes, choices are constrained by what came before (agency, structure, blah blah blah). But the specific properties of our infrastructures matter a great deal. That, presumably, is why Haff wants to spherify the techno in the first place, in order to compare its properties to those of other spheres, in view of figuring out ways to alter some of those properties. Part of the problem, I think, comes from Haff’s conflation of decision and control. His insistence that dynamic systems often behave in uncontrollable ways is useful: I will grant you that. Scholars have occasionally attended to “the revenge of unintended consequences” (e.g. nonlinear dynamics that lead to accidents such as Chernobyl or Challenger), but we lack a powerful arsenal for apprehending the unpredictable excesses of sociotechnical systems. The so-called “new materialism” scholarship hopes precisely to deal with such capriciousness. In many respects, Haff’s essays are kind of like Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter.Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.
Both attribute a quasi-mystical consciousness to nonhuman matter. Neither allows for accountability and responsibility. And so—despite their obviously progressive objectives—neither offers a world in which humans can do anything to make living on this planet more just, more tolerable, less damaging to each other and to other beings.
  • Paul: As Walt Kelly’s Pogo put it long ago: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.Before somebody accuses me of retrograde pronoun-based sexism, this is a pun on Commodore Perry’s famous message, during the War of 1812: “We have met the enemy, and he is ours.”
    Why are you waiting for Haff to offer you that world where human action still matters? He’s just making clear how big and difficult the problem is. The action part is up to us.
Gabrielle: Of course. But that’s the thing: you can’t understand—let alone change—the properties of “the technosphere” without attention to the politics and power dynamics that produced them. Decades of scholarship in the history of technology show how sociotechnical systems do not emerge along predetermined, inexorable, or autonomous paths. Politics—at all scales—matters hugely. It matters that capitalism runs on fossil fuels and not hydropower; there’s nothing “automatic” about that outcome. (Many citations are possible here, I get exhausted just thinking about the list.) I would not argue that those systems are controllable … but the lack of centralized controllability doesn’t mean that human action has no effect on their shape, function, and outcome either. Agency is not an on–off switch; it’s not about 0s and 1s; it’s not zero-sum. Technology and politics work together. I like to talk about that dynamic as technopolitics, in order to emphasize the imbrication and inseparability of technical function (or malfunction) and human power. Of course, there are other ways to imagine these dynamics that don’t require a control/autonomy binary. The point, for me, is to work toward an explanation of change over time that includes both intention and non-intention, people doing things on purpose and nonhuman dynamics biting back.
  • Paul: Looks like you’re doing that history thing again. Why does it make any difference how the current state of affairs emerged? Or that things might have happened differently in the past? We’re here, we’re stuck in this godawful rut of consumerist, global capitalism, and we need to get out of it. It’s path dependence; we don’t get a do-over. We have to start from where we already are.
Gabrielle: Gimme a break. You do history too—are you telling me that there’s no point in knowing how the infrastructure of climate science came into being? That this doesn’t matter for policy? No cheap shots, please.
  • Paul: I’ve got no argument with you on the possibility—indeed the necessity—of politics in sorting this. The biggest conundrum is how to deal with the global scale. Democracy doesn’t work very well at the level of the nation-state; it’s the worst form of government, except for all the others, as Churchill supposedly said. Look at the climate negotiations: twenty-six years of work to achieve … what? A weak, not-really-binding agreement that won’t even keep the world below a 3.5°C temperature rise even if every nation does exactly what it promised? I’m not optimistic about politics on that scale. On the other hand, there’s real power in leadership, and certain kinds of visionary technopolitics could perform the example-setting that’s so desperately needed.
Gabrielle: I do find Haff’s emphasis on metabolism thought-provoking. That’s one place where there’s some payoff to the technosphere perspective. In unmistakably physical science prose, for example, Haff (2013) declares:
In a closed environment like the Earth (essentially no mass input or output), every metabolizing system must eventually recycle its own waste products (or rely on other systems to do so), otherwise accumulation of spent material (i.e. pollutants) will impair system function. If leaf litter produced by a forest were not recycled it would soon build up to a point where the trees that produced it were buried by their own detritus. In the case of the technosphere, the most important example of mass pollution may be the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
This aligns nicely with the perspective offered by discard studies scholars on waste: there is no such thing as permanent disposal, or even a permanent state of waste; there is only rearrangement of earthly materials over shorter or longer timescales. But “a massive failure to recycle” is hardly an inevitable characteristic of our sociotechnical systems. Fossil-fueled capitalism, imperialism, consumerism (and many other “isms” of recent history) shape the dynamics of production and wasting, repair and reuse. Is it really enough to portray sheer, raw “acquisitiveness” (Haff’s neutralizing rendition of “greed”) as an acultural, apolitical “property” (in the sense of characteristic) of humans?
  • Paul: Committed pessimist that I am, I’m not as sure as you are that a failure to recycle isn’t a characteristic of our sociotechnical systems. Taking “recycling” in its biggest sense, as regenerating or renewing resources, consider that some 10 million premodern hunter-gatherers managed to completely wipe out many large animal species all over the world. Yes, many traditional agricultural forms were pretty good at recycling nutrients; in a lot of places, human excrement was recycled as fertilizer. Now we flush it down the drain, wasting all its value. Our Techno-metabolism course reading on “Sustaining Agricultural Systems in the Old and New Worlds: A long-term socio-ecological comparison” has a lot to say about this.Geoff Cunfer and Fridolin Krausmann, “Sustaining Agricultural Systems in the Old and New Worlds: A long-term socio-ecological comparison,” in Simron J. Singh et al. (eds.), Long Term Socio-Ecological Research: Studies in society–nature interactions across spatial and temporal scales. Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media, 2013, pp. 269–96.
    Farmers in Austria had a well-stabilized system that involved grazing animals to produce manure, which kept their croplands fertilized but also limited their yields so much that they had little surplus to sell. In Kansas in the 1880s, immigrant Austrian farmers found virgin land and exploited the hell out of it, without so many animals, producing a tremendously profitable surplus. Over decades, however, they extracted all the nutrients and wore out the land, leading to a crisis of production in the 1940s that was only resolved with fossil fuels and artificial fertilizer. Meanwhile, after the Second World War, the Austrians (in Austria) adopted those same techniques—another example of the global convergence of infrastructures. In short, you don’t necessarily need to attribute everything to unbridled “greed” or “acquisitiveness” to get the same effect. First of all, everybody’s climbing up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,Abraham Harold Maslow, "A theory of human motivation." Psychological Review, vol. 50, no. 4 (1943): 370‒96.
    starting at the bottom: food, shelter, water, safety, security, family, and clan. Many, many millions of people don’t have even those basics, but they want them and deserve them, and “greed” is a nasty way to describe that. There may be a lot of ways to achieve them, but they all require some minimal amount of energy and materials, and they all produce waste. There’s just no getting away from those facts. Second, especially with increasingly broad, geographically dispersed markets, competition makes traditional, more sustainable techniques comparatively more expensive—so much so that eventually basic market dynamics can wipe them out.
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Maslow's hierarchy of needs (1943). Abraham Harold Maslow, "A theory of human motivation." Psychological review 50.4 (1943): 370-96.

  • So, in a lot of ways, Haff’s “technosphere” is hard to distinguish from the “capitalism-o-sphere” or the “Capitalocene.” And the scale and reach of global capitalism today make maintaining less energy- and materials-intensive lifeways an uphill struggle, at best.
Gabrielle: For the record, I wasn’t suggesting that “greed” applies to aspirations for decent living. Au contraire: I was gesturing at the difference between those aspirations and the endless accumulation of electronic baubles and plastic crap. But you bring up energy, so let’s move on to that. (And please note: I’m resisting a rant on the energy reductionism of physics that now seems to be mutating into a cross-disciplinary infection, to the point that some are now invoking the “energy humanities.”) Haff’s argument ultimately rests on a physical calculus of energy. This brings him to a counterintuitive point (the spice of scholarly argumentation in any discipline):
From the point of view of an autonomous technosphere, climate change is not a problem to be solved by using less energy, but by using more energy. As seen from the dynamics of the Carnot engine, whatever useful work is done by a system, additional energy is required to power a recycling mechanism.
Instead of engineering the climate in ways that deflect solar energy, he suggests searching for ways “to capture the energy of photons in space that would have missed the Earth and then transmit the energy down to the Earth’s surface [...] This is not a prediction, but illustrates how looking at the technosphere from the outside provides its own perspective on possible Earth futures.” It’s an interesting idea, but honestly—doesn’t this put us so firmly in science fiction territory as to be useless for anything other than cool speculation? Similarly with his invocation of “the appearance of effective technospheric recycling mechanisms.” Surely only humans could make such mechanisms “appear”? And surely there would be different possible versions of them—versions that concentrate power and privilege to greater or lesser degrees? And surely that matters enormously when considering “human well-being”?
  • Paul: Yeah, I don’t know about the giant solar panels in space—but it’s hardly the first proposal of its kind. On recycling mechanisms, I agree with you. Of course we can engineer better ways of doing that, especially with large-scale commitments from government. Lifecycle assessment, closed-loop manufacturing, and a dozen other techniques are being implemented all over the place to reduce waste and create full-circle recycling of materials. Some corporations, such as Ikea and United Parcel Service, have made real and effective commitments to analyze and improve every aspect of their supply chains. In our Techno-metabolism course, we’ve encouraged our seminar participants to think about how information “waste” might be recycled to improve efficiency of all sorts. This isn’t especially my idea; in industry right now, the use of “data exhaust” from billions of online transactions has led to all kinds of improvements.
Gabrielle: Hey, speaking of our seminar—there’s a point that confused me, and I suspect I may not be alone. What does Haff mean by “paradigm”? To be clear, I’m trying very hard not to quibble about terminology. Struggles over words can too easily get petty and territorial; I learned this early in my career, when I dared to deploy the notion of “ritual” and got crucified in public by an anthropologist. So I’m not going to snark about the conflation of “technology” and “technosphere.” I won’t even complain about Haff’s unrelenting use of masculine pronouns, or the great-man version of history in his “rule of control.Haff, “Humans and Technology in the Anthropocene: Six rules.”
Here I am, not complaining. But when it comes to Haff’s use of “paradigm,” I’m just puzzled. So maybe you can explain it to me. Haff doesn’t seem to mean “paradigm” in the Kuhnian sense—he’s mostly not talking about epistemological models when he invokes paradigms … though sometimes I did wonder about that. What’s going on there?
  • Paul: Well, I think Haff’s using the word “paradigm” in its generic sense, to mean “a pattern or example.” That’s also its oldest sense: “The original Greek term παράδειγµα (paradeigma) was used in Greek texts such as Plato’s Timaeus (28A) as the model or the pattern that the Demiurge (god) used to create the cosmos.“Paradigm,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradigm
    So it’s appropriate to the notion of global “spheres,” which have a cosmic quality, at least for us. (From “spheres” we could head toward Sloterdijk, but I won’t go there today.) As Haff points out, the lithosphere, the biosphere, etc. have all gone through a series of major patterns (from an anaerobic to an aerobic biosphere; from a liquid magma lithosphere to a crust with tectonic plates floating on liquid magma). Large-scale, long-term patterns—the technosphere is one of those, though it’s only “long term” on human timescales (a few centuries at most).
Gabrielle: Okay, thanks. Now let’s get back to energy. A focus on energy is how Haff makes technology and biology commensurable. (Let’s leave aside the fact that technology and biology are less and less distinguishable. To wit: organisms that exhibit intersex characteristics after exposure to endocrine disruptors; the pesticides chugging through bodies and bananas that Vanessa Agard-Jones describes so beautifully in “Spray”,Vanessa Agard-Jones, “Spray,”Somatosphere (posted May 27, 2014), http://somatosphere.net/2014/spray.html/
the distributed cognition evident in airplane cockpits or “the cloud”; not to mention Donna Haraway’s cyborgs …) Anyway. An approach that reduces everything to units of energy can cut multiple ways. (Okay, so I’m having trouble resisting the rant.) In a recent essay in Aeon,Caleb Scharf, “Where Do Minds Belong?,” Aeon (posted March 22, 2016), https://aeon.co/essays/intelligent-machines-might-want-to-become-biological-again?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=28e967f621-Weekly_Newsletter_25_March_20163_24_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-28e967f621-68871089
Columbia University astrobiologist Caleb Scharf considers the energetic implications of intelligence. He observes that:
our notions about the emergence of intelligent machines expose our fantasies (often unspoken) about what perfection is: not soft and biological, like our current selves, but hard, digital and almost inconceivably powerful. To some people, such a future is one of hope and elevation. To others, it is one of fear and subjugation. Either way, it assumes that machines sit at the pinnacle of the evolution of consciousness.
Computer designers, he notes, talk about “computational capacity versus energy use, sometimes quoted as computations-per-joule.” Futurist fantasies tacitly assume that this ratio will continue to improve, but Scharf observes that “the ratio has been getting better by less and less with each passing year.” While quantum computing might promise to short circuit that process, ultimately nothing can beat the “remarkable energy efficiency” of biology. Here’s my favorite paragraph:
If life is common, and it regularly leads to intelligent forms, then we probably live in a universe of the future of past intelligences. The Universe is 13.8 billion years old and our galaxy is almost as ancient; stars and planets have been forming for most of the past 13 billion years. There is no compelling reason to think that the cosmos did nothing interesting in the 8 billion years or so before our solar system was born. Someday we might decide that the future of intelligence on Earth requires biology, not machine computation. Untold numbers of intelligences from billions of years ago might have already gone through that transition.
And so, Scharf concludes, “Our own technological future might look like this—turning away from machine fantasies, back to a quieter but more efficient, organic existence.” Of course this is speculative. (You gotta admit, though, few scientists have cooler speculations than astrobiologists.) But I’m not sure it’s any more speculative than Haff’s piece ultimately turns out to be—and it points in a completely different direction.
  • Paul: Wow—now you’re sounding even weirder than Haff.
Gabrielle: That’s astrobiology for you.
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Kitchen debates could get dangerous in the orbital layer of the technosphere. Source: NASA

Epilogue, back in the kitchen making dessert …
  • Paul: You make me think of at least a dozen episodes of Star Trek. Haff’s world is definitely the world of Star Trek’s Borg, the civilization of spacefaring, networked cyborgs who travel the universe seeking out and assimilating all other intelligences. I tend to prefer the vulnerable, intelligent organic utopias of James Cameron’s Avatar or Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. The problem I see—and the one I think Haff sees—is that we already live in a world where our job is to feed the machines. “You will be assimilated,” the Borg always said to Captain Picard—but as for us, that’s already happened.
Gabrielle: I give up. Can I be Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero-One? I’d prefer the version with hair, if it’s all the same to you. Call it capillary fetishism.
The authors engaged in this debate in preparation for their seminar Techno-Metabolism as part of the Anthropocene Campus: The Technosphere Issue, which took place at HKW Berlin between April 14-24, 2016.