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Opinions: Socio-ecological effects of media (technologies) and how to deal with them

29.03.2019 11:26 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Socio-ecological effects of media (technologies) and how to deal with them

Sigrid Kannengießer, University of Bremen, member of Digital Culture and Communication, Political Communication, Philosophy of Communication, Gender and Communication, Science and Environment Communication Section

We are facing an ecological crisis caused by climate change. Different actors in politics, the economy and civil society (are trying to) develop strategies and means to transform society to be more sustainable. Media and communication studies mostly deal with the topics of climate change and sustainability on the levels of media content, its production and appropriation. This enables analysis of how journalists, agents of public relations and “ProdUsers” of online content are presenting climate change and sustainability, under which conditions they work, and within which networks. Furthermore, these presentations of climate change and sustainability are examined also from the audiences’ perspective, analysing how people perceive and interpret this media content.

But only a rather small research field deals with the socio-ecological effects caused by the production, appropriation, and disposal of media (technologies). What different actors do in relation to media technologies to contribute to sustainability has not been sufficiently addressed so far. Yet, there are many initiatives in which people act on media, thus putting the media technologies themselves in the centre of their practices. By doing so they are consciously and actively seeking to transform not only the technologies but also trying to change society.

Therefore, my argument within this opinion piece is twofold: First, as media and communication scholars we have to deal with the materiality of media (technologies) by also considering where the media devices we use and analyse come from, which socio-ecological effects they cause when they are used, and where the media apparatuses go after their disposal. Second, we have to pay attention to practices, which people develop in relation to media (technologies) to contribute to a sustainable society.

There is a small research field that examines the processes through which media devices are produced. While the investigation of manufacturing processes of media technologies, which are mainly taking place in production facilities in Asia, Eastern Europe and Mexico, is difficult due to severe restrictions, some authors have been successful in gaining insights. They point to indecent working conditions under which people produce the fancy gadgets. These conditions not only harm the health of those involved but also the surrounding environment due to the toxic effects of the manufacturing processes.

Furthermore, the damaging effects of the extraction processes of resources needed for the production of (digital) media technologies have been studied. In particular, the extraction of coltan in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a focus of research (and media discourse): people, often children, extracting the mineral are not only facing severe health problems due to their working conditions but their lives are endangered because of dangerous mines, which are mainly owned by rebel groups financing their war by selling the mineral. Moreover, the surrounding environment is being damaged too, due to deforestation and because the animals living within this region are evicted or killed.

Another rather small research area deals with the socio-ecological effects of media appropriation, focusing on the energy which is needed not only for running media technologies when using them but also for servers in huge centres which store data and facilitate our internet use. For operating huge data farms, energy intense cooling systems are needed to cope with the heat produced by the operating servers. The main resource of the energy used by media devices in their day-to-day use as well as by the server farms is fossil energy, causing emissions which lead to climate change. Therefore, the ecological footprint of processes like mediatization, digitalization and datafication is far from being sustainable.

A third research area deals with the ways media technologies are disposed of. Although illegal under the Basel Convention, disposed of media technologies (broken or not) are shipped from North America and Europe to big waste dumps in Africa (Agbogbloshie in Ghana) or Asia (Guiyu in China). Here, the toxic e-waste damages the heath of people trying to extract some of the still valuable resources from the disposed of apparatuses through burning them. Due to this inappropriate disposal, the surrounding environment is poisoned too.

In communication and media studies, we have to pay more attention to these different aspects of the materiality of media technologies that cause severe socio-ecological effects during the production, appropriation and disposal of media devices. That means media and communication studies need to further recognize the need to analyse and discuss the socio-ecological effects of the meta-processes mediatization, digitalization, and datafication, and to pay attention to these effects when examining new phenomena regarding media and mediated communication. Taking these socio-ecological effects into account is not only necessary because otherwise we would not understand these comprehensive socio-cultural meta-processes and discuss the many possibilities they provide, but just as important, it is our responsibility as scholars to reveal and address the problems and negative impacts which accompany these transformations, some of them having disastrous effects on people’s lives and the environment.

Moreover, and this is the second aspect of my argument, as media and communication scholars, we have to pay attention and analyse initiatives, on the levels of media production, media content and media appropriation, which are trying to develop new ways of dealing with the negative socio-ecological effects which I have summarized so far. There are many different actors who are aware of the socio-ecological effects of mediatization, digitalization and datafication, and who are trying to contribute to sustainability by shaping these processes to reduce the negative impacts they cause. And it is our responsibility as scholars to acknowledge these practices to not only understand what people do with media (technologies) but also to acknowledge and study people’s critical understanding of datafication, digitalization and mediatization, and to become aware of what actors are trying to improve on the basis of that criticism. The analyses of these practices will allow us to further discuss and assess how today’s media content and technologies can be used to contribute to a sustainable society.

Faced with ecological crisis and unjust globalization processes, more and more people are changing their consumer behaviour; they buy fair trade products and/or consume fewer products in general. Media play a crucial role not only because people gain information about sustainable consumer options but also because online platforms for selling, buying or exchanging goods are made available to them through online media. At the same time, media themselves are drawn into the focus of consumption as people become increasingly aware of the socio-ecological effects of the production, consumption, and disposal of media technologies. Some people act on media to contribute to sustainability; examples can be found in the repairing of media technologies in Repair Cafés and the production of fair media devices: Repair Cafés are public events in which people come together to repair their everyday objects – media technologies being among the goods which are brought most often to these events. While some people help in the repairing process, others come with their broken devices – many being keen to learn how to repair. Many of the people involved try to prolong the lifespan of the technologies they own, to prevent the need to produce new media apparatuses and the disposal of existing ones. An example of how people try to contribute to sustainability regarding the production processes of media devices are technologies which should be produced under decent working conditions using sustainable resources, e.g. the Fairphone (a smartphone being developed and produced by the Dutch company Fairphone) and the Fairmouse (a computer mouse being developed by the German non-governmental organization NagerIT).

The repair of media apparatuses and production of fair media technologies are practices with which people try to contribute to a sustainable society. Of course, these practices are not without any constraints or contradictions, and it is our task as scholars to critically analyse them to address these complexities. Hence, we need to take these media practices into account to not only understand what people do with media, but to fully understand how people act on media to transform society, and how media can be used to contribute to sustainability.

Last but not least, as media and communication scholars, we also have to reflect on our own consumption of media technologies and our fascination for media innovation and ask ourselves how we can contribute to a sustainable society – not only in our research but also in our own (media) practices.

Suggestions for further reading:

Baldé C P, Forti V, Gray V, Kuehr R and Stegmann P (2017). The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017. Bonn/Geneva/Vienna: United Nations University, International Telecommunication Union & International Solid Waste Association.

Gabrys, J (2011). Digital rubbish: A natural history of electronics. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.

Kaitatzi-Whitlock, S (2015). E-waste, human-waste, inflation. In R Maxwell, J Raundalen, and N L Vestberg (eds.) Media and the ecological crisis. Milton Park/New York: Routledge, pp. 69–84.

Kannengießer S (forthcoming). Acting on media for sustainability. In H Stephansen and E Treré (eds.) The turn to practice in media research: implications for the study of citizen- and social movement media. London et al.: Routledge.

Kannengießer S and Kubitschko S (2017). Editorial. Acting on Media: influencing, shaping and (re)configuring the fabric of everyday life. Media and Communication. 5(3), pp. 1–4.

Kannengießer S (2017). ‘I am not a consumer person’ – Political participation in Repair Cafés. In J Wimmer, C Wallner, R Winter, and K Oelsner (eds.) (Mis)Understanding Political Participation. Digital Practices, New Forms of Participation and the Renewal of Democracy. London et al.: Routledge, pp. 78–94.

Kannengießer S (2016). Conceptualizing consumption-critical media practices as political participation. In L Kramp, N Carpentier, A Hepp, R Kilborn, R Kunelius, H Nieminen, T Olsson, S Tosoni, I Tomanić Trivundža, and P Pruulmann-Vengerfeldt (eds.) Politics, Civil Society and Participation. Tartu: Tartu University Press, pp. 193–207.

Maxwell R, Raundalen J and Lager Vestberg N (eds.) (2015). Media and the Ecological Crisis. New York: Abington: Routledge.

Maxwell R and Miller T (2012). Greening the Media. Oxford: Oxford Press.

Velkova J (2016). Data that warms: Waste heat, infrastructural convergence and the computation traffic commodity. Big Data & Society 3(2), pp. 1-10.



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