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issue: 02/15/2000

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1 excerpted from "Chips Ahoy: The hidden toll of computer manufacture and use," by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning.

2 excerpt from "Internet: The Illusions of Empowerment," by Jerry Mander, Whole Earth, Winter, 1998.

3 Ibid.

4 Joseph K. Hart., a professor of education wiriting in 1924, as quoted in Stephen L. Talbot's The Future Does Not Compute, O'Reilly and Associates, 1995, page 364.

5 Lehrer News Hours, Interview with Ray Suarez, Feb. 10, 2000.

6 Ibid. Holder's exact words were, "It's not just a question of trying to get back to the computers; you have to do the other things that we do -- figure out who's talking to who, get into chat rooms, things like that -- always respecting people's privacy. I want to make sure that everybody understands that, but do the investigative things that we would do in other investigations to see who, for instance, is bragging about something that they did and then follow that lead. "

7 from A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, (Oxford Press, 1949), pages 224-5.

it eco

Information Technology Meets Global Ecology:
Computers and Consciousness

by Cate Gable

Is there an intersection between the worlds of information technology (IT) and global ecology?

Many people would answer, "No!" They might argue that the worlds are mutually exclusive: that the very act of manufacturing a computer degrades the environment by using massive amounts of resources-clean water, intensive labor in clean rooms-and producing toxic waste in quantities that far outweigh any potential positive effects that one computer could have on the world.

In fact, these are the resources used to make one 8-inch wafer1:

  • 4,267 cubic feet of bulk gases
  • 3,787 gallons of waste water
  • 27 pounds of chemicals
  • 29 cubic feet of hazardous gases
  • 9 pounds of hazardous waste
  • 3,023 gallons of de-ionized water

Not only is semiconductor manufacturing the worst air polluting industry, it also uses several million gallons of water a day.

Ideological opponents to information technology like Jerry Mander argue that computers, "gather staggering new power in the hands of giant corporations, banks, and global trade bureaucracies.2" Mander tells us that, "Two hundred corporations now control twenty-eight percent of global economic activity; twenty-four corporations are among the hundred largest economies of the world, far larger than many countries.3" All this is made possible by the centralizing power of computers.

Consider this 1924 statement by educator Joseph Hart which discusses the revolution of electricity as opposed to steam-power:

Centralization has claimed everything for a century: the results are apparent on every hand. But the reign of steam approaches its end: a new stage in the industrial revolution comes on. Electrical power breaking away from its servitude to steam is becoming independent. Electricity is a decentralizing form of power: it runs out over distributing lines and subdivides to all the minutiae of life and need. Working with it, men may feel the thrill of control and freedom again.4

How wrong this writer was. The production and distribution of electricity is centralized in the hands of a few large corporations. Rather than feeling the freedom that this writer predicts, we are entirely dependent on the energy companies. One of the greatest pleasures for back-to-the-landers, even today, is the ability to get 'off-the-grid' - to be able to produce, regulate, and control one's energy costs and use.

Now, imagine that the quote is not about how a new energy source and distribution system will decentralize power but how the internet will liberate each computer user and decentralize information distribution. In fact, the analogy is a close one. Electricity even mimics the actual structure of the internet in that it has hubs (servers) and lines that go to individual houses (or computers) for power distribution, usage measurement and billing. Imagine that electricity is digital information being pumped over these lines.

Could we be under the same delusions at the early stages of this new technology revolution that Hart was?-that somehow the houses/PCs at the ends of those lines will have the ultimate power? There were a few short halcyon months for the world wide web, back when CERN's Tim Berners-Lee developed an open platform methodology for the presentation of scientific information; but now Big Business and Big Government have their mitts in the pot, vying for regulation and control of a system where even privacy is threatened. The internet has been commandeered by the machinery of capitalism. And since when has the consumer been in the driver's seat of that machine?

The recent spate of "denial of service" cracker events have provided Clinton a great excuse to ask Congress to increase to $2 billion dollars the amount that will be put to solving 'security issues' on the web (with an additional $37 million going to the Security Department).5 On the Lehrer News Hour Feb. 10, 2000, the United States Deputy Attorney General, Eric Holder, made a slip of the tongue in talking about the FBI eavesdropping on chat rooms6 to find out information which might lead to the arrests of the hackers involved in the sabotage. He tried to mop up after his slip by backing away from his Big Brother on the Net statement but who is he kidding?

So, back to our original question: is there a positive intersection between IT and global ecology? Can computers and information technology become part of the fight to save the earth? Or are we IT professional and computer-users contributing to our fall into the sink-hole of techno-hell-where corporate profits reign; where the last remaining Temperate Westcoast Forests get ground up into pulp, sent to Japan and add to Weyerhaeuser's bottomline; where wild fish are totally exterminated and we are left with aqua-farming; and the earth's macro-systems ( air, soil, water, climate-control) degrade into irreversible decline?

Perhaps, we should ask an even more difficult question: Are computers changing our consciousness? And if so, how? Do we feel more connected to ourselves and the wild world-the world of moss, rain, leaves and raccoons-or does sitting in front of the computer, chatting, downloading, reading and responding to e-mail create in us a disembodiment, a passivity, and an illusion of 'motion' that is non-existent?

Maybe I'm a Pollyanna optimist, but I still think there are many of us who have both a sensual connection to the earth-all the interesting people in my life have grown up playing in rivers!-and a knowledge of computers that will allow us to put them to use in the service of sustainable values or, what Aldo Leopold called, the "Land Ethic:" namely that

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community, It is wrong when it tends otherwise.7

I believe that we can be committed to the ethical use of IT, but this is not an idle activity. It requires vigilance, honesty about our motives, and the ability to admit where we are wrong. I had never fully understood the effect of computer manufacturing before researching this article. Now I see that we must demand the application of industrial ecological principles to computer manufacturing because in its present form it is unsustainable; it violates the land ethic.

So, these are the kinds of issues we will explore in this monthly column. I'll discuss people and projects that utilize information technology to support environmental rejuvenation. We'll consider what it really means to use IT wisely and responsibly. We'll review green websites and portals; I'll keep you apprised of conferences dealing with IT/Eco concerns; and I hope also to begin a dialogue with you about how you balance information technology and ecology issues in your own lives.

b i o :
Cate Gable is a poet and writer (author of Strategic Action Planning NOW!) , strategic marketing consultant in e-commerce, teacher, and President of Axioun Communications International. She divides her time between Berkeley, CA; the Pacific Northwest; and Paris, France. Send comments to her at


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