Walking the stuff of digitalised environments, or Happy New Year 2022

This post (14.1.) is a slightly tweaked version of the text originally posted 4th January. It reflects on the holidays just gone and the place that digital devices and walking took therein.

I did quite a lot of reading, and that always makes me want to write. The reading also got me thinking about how digital or, perhaps more descriptively, computerised, technology mixes with bodily and other material. It got me reflecting about how the analogue (or biophysical) gets embedded in the digital. For analogue you could also read biophysical, for digital you could also read capital-intensive. But I’m trying to keep it simple.

Besides reading, one of my inspirations was a conversation I had about why and how so many can assume that the digital is immaterial.

Immaterial? Gadgets?

I am old-fashioned enough to consider the word ‘digital’ to refer to a gadget, a thing, a device or an infrastructure. It has less to do with anything virtual or immaterial, and more with quite solid things like digits, binary code, computing, even fingers. Insightful literature on the consequential materiality and geographic reality of what is peddled as immaterial (‘virtual’, ‘digital’, ‘in the cloud’, ‘placeless’, etc.) has been around for a couple of decades and more. See here, here and here and via many other links and connections besides.

The consumerism of Christmas was again full of gadgets, just as the news was still about COVID, climate crisis and biodiversity troubles. It made me even more astonished about how under-appreciated are the material costs of all that is computerised. Sure, Apple recently announced that it was joining the right-to-repair movement, which has been fighting against business-generated (planned, as in planned obsolescence) e-waste for years. Yet countless people in many walks of life still assume – or just don’t stop to think about the point – that a computer, a mobile phone, a downloaded song, streamed film, a click of a keyboard or word spoken to Siri (does she still exist?), etc. are virtual in the sense of ethereal. They seem to involve not much stuff, at least not very much of it. (“Oh no, that was the age of dirty industries, back in the bad old days…”)

Activists of many kinds (e.g. anyone worried about e-waste) know that this view is wrong. But perhaps the belief isn’t surprising either. The digital has been designed to enter our lives most explicitly via ‘user-friendly’ screens. The infrastructures responsbile for the rest of the experience are (as infrastructures are) black-boxed, designed to be unnoticed, hidden or seamlessly integrated into existing environments.

Sure, the box goes back a long way when it comes to celebrating Christmas [imagine here an image from the Simpsons, all sitting on the sofa watching telly together, perhaps with a Christmas tree in the background]. In the holiday season gadgets remain important as we indulge in ample televisual entertainments as well as social media.

Now in the twenty-first-century, it’s more ‘social’ media than ‘broadcast’ that grabs us, and draws us into the Information and Communications Networks that form a good chunk of the consequential environment of our everyday life. They aren’t either good or bad. They are. For instance, as Christmas changed according to the pandemic, our various digital devices of course helped us manage the altered holiday plans.

In our household we eventually put plan C into practice after considerable online time, messaging and telephoning, adjusting how we would place ourselves in this season of traditionally intense sociability, given the constraints generated by the pesky virus.

Fading tradition?

Plan A, going to the UK, stumbled on lack of booster vaccines and news of shambolic non-efforts in public health. Plan B, joining relatives in the countryside, stumbled on a reported exposure. So we joined friends in town at theirs and then walked to Hietaniemi cemetary to light candles for departed ones. It was just lovely. Similarly New Year’s Eve was downgraded from a party (eagerly anticipated by the pre-teens) to a dinner party (happily also enjoyed by the pre-teens). It was also just lovely.

Whether you reflect on it or not, a holiday is a very bodily thing. Between all this eating, we have also walked very much, both in central Helsinki (including Lauttasaari) and in Kirkkonummi’s Porkkalanniemi (a good tip for afternoon walks for anyone in these parts with access to a car, even a temporary/shared one). Since I prefer to live an appless, gadget-lite, life, I cannot report distances travelled or steps taken in numeric forms. This doesn’t mean I’m not keen on numbers or see them as informative. (See this interview with historian Lorraine Daston for a great read about that.)

One of my reasons for being extremely reluctant to use digital applications is that they that require me to give away data about me (and my body). Beyond that, although the world seems to want me to install and use apps at every turn, and even though my leaders and many colleagues wax lyrical about the benefits of digitalisation, I am highly sceptical of the idea that digitalisation (however defined) might solve any crisis. I am particularly shocked by how easily it is assumed that climate crisis will be fixed with gadgets that run on electricity.

Yet this naively optimistic line is much peddled, from the World Economic Forum to Finland’s political and business leaders. Along with it go old social-theory vocabularies that wax equally optimistically about the space-of-flows and about economics unmoored from its material aspects. Such thinking is associated in Finland with information-age-philosopher Pekka Himanen as well as Manuel Castells, and gets much traction in a country of technophiles.

Electronically mediated yet fully embodied

I’m not a technophile but if I am a Luddite, I’m a discriminating Neo-Luddite, not opposed to tech as some kneejerk reaction (as explained here by Jathan Sadowski). As our Christmas made clear, once again, the world wide web is great at keeping people ‘in the loop’ with others. The pandemic has made the point many times over. And yet, the web has also been peddling much trouble.

As someone with an occasional blogging habit, perhaps my preference for analogue things sits awkwardly with the easy way that social media does intrude on and add to my everyday life. The ‘virtuality’ afforded by the digital has undoubtedly helped keep me in mental health. It has mediated countless conversations with people I know, and delivered eye-opening news from ones I don’t, particularly since March 2020.

As the pandemic inspired novel pastimes, like baking, cooking, needlework and all manner of making, the web has penetrated like never before into homes and other spaces. It has guided material flows and transformations, and possibly our cognitive, affective and biophysical experiences too.

Undoubtedly, via the web I’ve found about where the ice rinks are maintained, and give my body some of the activity that it desires (life online is terrible for it). I can, indeed, use it for connecting with others, notably those who have interests aligned to mine, walking, for example.

All this takes me back, of course, to walking. On which note, dear reader, check out Urban Walks Hki on Instagram. Ahem!

Walking – again

Since the start of the pandemic the streets around me in Helsinki have gone through their own transformations and variations, emptying out and coming back to life as the situation has developed. Walkers, in groups and in ones and twos, have been noticeable in Helsinki pretty much since the spring of 2020. Sometimes you see them, at some street corner or in front of some notable edifice, listening to a guide, all turning their gaze towards the same feature pointed out to them. Some are linked to bigger networks (like Kävelybuumi, in Finnish) and festivals.

Even the huddles of screen-starers periodically appearing in our neighbourhood (are they geocachers?) are part of this new walking boom. My phone has little to do with my walking. Still, mostly I have kept my phone with me, with its COVID-contact-tracing app scanning my surroundings with bluetooth technology. More recently I’ve taken to leaving the phone at home. There is obviously much walking than the kind that leaves traces online.

(As part of my upcoming research for the CONTOURS research project – of which more on this blog in the future – I am also practicing the use of a GoPro camera as a digital fieldwork aid, and so far have found it mostly enjoyable. What, exactly, the combination of walking bodies and recording machines will yield, is still to be worked out. I was going to uplad a snippet of me practicing, but I’d need to upgrade to a more expensive blog platform, so I will save that for later. Instead, here is a photo of the Koivukoski power station in Kajaani taken in November. It will feature in future research.)

Kajaani, November 2021

I keep coming back to the question of what is it with walking as a ‘method’. As I’ve written before, maybe it’s a method in search of a topic. That may be, but the evidence for ambulatory habits as an excellent way to learn about the world is overwhelming. Walking must have been key to the early days of the modern sciences, when counting bits of nature was very important – think of the painstaking and probably boring surveys of forests, grasslands, earth worms and what have you that animate natural history of all kinds. And then I think of the virus hunters of today, doing work described by National Geographic as swashbuckling, figuring out “the basic drivers of spillover—the complex relationship among human activity, environmental degradation, animal behaviour, and virus microbiology”. In walking today, I hope to bring to consciousness the sensorium created over billions of years as a geological base and now being reformatted by ‘digital’ and often capital-oriented imperatives. Ones, which as I noted above, I don’t even particularly like or think are beneficial.

More mundanely, walking is just a small but significant aspect of learning. Walking is what humans and many other creatures do anyway. Regardless of what one is learning about, walking and metaphors of wayfinding derived from it, are ubiquitous and helpful, as Tim Ingold reminds us (his book Lines available here, digitally).

And walking is what I’ve been doing with the Urban Walks Hki gang (more pics of the walk pictured below here). Their wonderful images and lively prose extend and deepen the walks. But the point for me has mostly been the fun, the collective imaginings as we wander and wonder.

Verkkosaari walk – October 2021. Photo by Alicia Ng.

We are all interested in global circuits of stuff as well as ideas and we walk to make connections. We walk to learn. Myself, I tend to focus on traces of infrastructures that are usually hidden. Those traces give us pretty good clues about the materiality of our brave new spaces of flows. The interesting thing for me is that although these networks and circuits support unremarkable everyday practices, it’s also pretty clear that they generate unintended side effects (thank you Ulrich Beck, the sociologist who might even help deal with COVID-19), and they require incredible amounts of matter as well as energy (trickier to conceptualize than matter, but still, as we know, a troublesome thing to be over-producing in our age).

Anthropocene mess as anthropogenic mass

So let me end these seasonal musings by also recommending this post, which shows in words and images the extent of anthropogenic mass on the planet, noting (like an earlier Nature article) that in 2020 the amount of human-made stuff exceeds all living biomass. A lot of it is concrete. In 1900 there was 2Gt of the stuff, by 2020 that figure had risen to 549Gt. (Numbers are good sometimes, so are visualisations). As intensified land-use meets changing Earth systems, designing for sustainability (something I am invested in) will require noticing and communicating much more perceptively about infrastructures, landscapes and the creatures that live with them.

So basically I’m suggesting – again – that walking merely starts us on our way to appreciating just how complex are the things we – all – need to appreciate. Walking together and alone, we really do get a grip (note the body-metaphor) on how spaces of flows are also spaces of viral transmission, violent material displacements (extractivism), genocidal prejudice not to mention unequal border procedures and lots and lots of other not-so-welcome phenomena.

But two good things. Walking remains cheap and doable. I no longer feel as lonely in my criticisms of digitalisation-hubris as was the case only a couple of years ago.

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