Technoscience / Ecomateriality / Literature
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Computing and Nature

November 14th, 2014 | Posted by Greg Lyons in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Computing and Nature)

I found Nadja Sayej’s “Programming Computers with Dirt” article fascinating. As a programmer myself, I was intrigued at the possibilities of harnessing the Earth’s natural resources for operating a computer. Reading the interview with Martin Howse, the artist behind Earthboot, brought my thoughts back to our earlier Jean-Francois Blanchette reading, “A Material History of Bits.” Blanchette’s paper reinforced the physical grounding that lies beneath all computing – the fact that information must be stored in bits as physical on-off switches somewhere on some tiny chip. Assuming the computing industry continues its rapid growth, what will happen when we run out of resources to make these chips and store this information? Our Earth has a limited supply of silicon to make the integrated circuits that these microchips need, and there is limited physical space on Earth to host computer clusters. We have enough concern for overpopulation of humans, let alone overpopulation of information!

Projects like Earthboot suggest natural solutions for more efficient information storage. Earthboot uses naturally-occurring electricity for booting up a computer, and perhaps this linkage between computers and natural Earth phenomena could prove promising (and more renewable than current materials used). Scientists at Harvard have already made groundbreaking progress in using DNA as a sort of digital storage device, fitting approximately 700 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA (Anthony). In the near future, it could be commonplace to see large amounts of data encoded within strands of DNA, which would bring new meaning to the idea of information being alive.

It is easy to get caught up in the allure of a new technological era, and to consume massive amounts of resources in the process of development. However, as a society we have a responsibility to find long-term sustainability for our technological dependencies. Experimental projects like Earthboot provide a fascinating glimpse into future linkages between nature and computers.

 

Sources:

Anthony, Sebastian. “Harvard Cracks DNA Storage, Crams 700 Terabytes of Data into a Single Gram.” ExtremeTech. ExtremeTech, 17 Aug. 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/134672-harvard-cracks-dna-storage-crams-700-terabytes-of-data-into-a-single-gram>.

Blanchette, Jean-Francois. “A Material History of Bits.” Web. 10 Oct. 2014. http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/blanchette/papers/materiality.pdf

Sayej, Nadia. “Programming Computers with Dirt: Earthboot Powers PCs with Geological Energy.” Motherboard. VICE, 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. <http://motherboard.vice.com/en_uk/blog/programming-computers-with-dirt-earthboot-powers-pcs-with-geological-energy>.

Information Transformations

October 10th, 2014 | Posted by Greg Lyons in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Information Transformations)

What does ancient oral storytelling have in common with cloud computing data centers?  The connection lies in the fact that information cannot exist without a medium to store and deliver it.  Before the invention of writing, human memory was the primary medium for storing information.  Stories were passed down through oral traditions, yet these stories were constantly modified and warped as they were passed down, as imperfections in the medium strongly influenced the information.  Information was lost whenever a story was told for the last time.  The invention and growth of writing revolutionized the way that information was stored, allowing people much greater access (writings of a long-dead author, letters from far away relatives, current events, etc.).  Writing increased the lifespan of information, although it was still very possible to lose data – history has seen far too many book burnings.

The advent of computing has brought about another information revolution, but it is important to remember that this data is still bound to physical media.  In “A Material History of Bits,” Jean Francois Blanchette argues that bits “cannot escape the material constraints of the physical devices that manipulate, store, and exchange them” (1).  Blanchette goes on to describe the mechanisms and processes that are used to store computer data.  These mechanisms have again increased the lifespan of information – when information is lost on one system, often it can be recovered through another system.  When most people log into Facebook or type in a Google search, they do not consider all of the physical computing systems that are involved in the process of bringing up the webpage on the screen.  But the truth is that computing data is very much anchored to physical materials.

Consider a data apocalypse, where every single computer storage system in the world was destroyed (all bits reset to zero).  It might seem intuitive that the information would still be floating around somewhere in vague immaterial space (as many people imagine the “cloud”), and that once the computer systems were rebuilt they would be able to dive back into the pool of information.  However, if every computer storage system were emptied, then there would be no backups or other way of reclaiming the information.  The reality is that once unanchored, the information would drift away like a balloon escaping from a child’s hand, never to be recovered.

Works Cited

Blanchette, Jean-Francois. “A Material History of Bits.” Web. 10 Oct. 2014.http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/blanchette/papers/materiality.pdf