Digital Technologies and the Global Environment

Read our special Earth Day blog post by Stephen Rust and Salma Monani, co-authors of Ecomedia: Key Issues, where he discusses how digital technologies impact the way we communicate about the global environment.

With a new entry every fortnight, blog posts written by various Routledge authors will be displayed both on the Routledge website and on our Facebook page. Each post within Facebook will be open to comments so please feel free to voice your thoughts! You can view all of our past blog posts there as well.

On this 45th annual Earth Day, our Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and other social media outlets will be abuzz with uplifting images of nature’s beauty and people marching to bring about a green transformation as well as depressing images of clear-cut forests, melting glaciers, and starving polar bears. Increasingly, we are using digital technologies to communicate our knowledge, our hopes, and our deepest fears about the state of the global environment. But how often do we pause to consider the environmental costs of our technological devices themselves and the infrastructure that connects them?

The termthe cloud, for example, which has entered our vernacular in recent years to reference the global network of computer servers and data centers that make the internet possible, typifies the ways that the language we use to describe our technologies can mask our awareness of the ecological materiality of those technologies. In their article “The Beginner’s Guide to the Cloud,” for example, the online news aggregator explains, “The first thing you should understand about the cloud is that it is not a physical thing.” The cloud may be a handy metaphor for helping us understand a key aspect of the web but when we consider the term from an ecological perspective it becomes highly problematic. For if the very first thing people learn about the cloud is that it lacks physicality, how then can we expect those people to consider the material impacts of global computing networks on the environment, from the extraction and refining of the raw materials used to manufacture computer servers and data centers to the gigawatts of energy consumed each day to power those servers and data centers and the toll on human and environmental health created by the global trade in electronic waste.

From photographs and films to radio, television, video games, the internet, and visual representations of scientific data, media can serve as powerful tools for shifting environmental perceptions and inspiring action. For our latest book,Ecomedia: Key Issues(to be published in August 2015 by Routledge/Earthscan), we have collaborated with scholars from a wide array of disciplinary and geographical backgrounds to explore the intersections of media and environment. The resulting collection combines theoretical discussions with in-depth case studies of particular media texts to engage readers in a thoughtful examination of media’s aesthetic, cultural, and material dimensions. In other words, we explore media and/as ecology.

In our previous collection,Ecocinema Theory and Practice(AFI/Routledge, 2013), we argued for a broad definition of ecocinema that includes not only films that engage directly with environmental issues, such as Al Gore’s seminal climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, but also non-linear avant-garde films, mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, and everything in between. By taking a similar approach for this collection, we were able to pull together such unique perspectives as Ekin Gündüz Özdemirci and Salma Monani’s analysis of eco-nostalgia in contemporary Turkish cinema, Lisa Parks’ examination of the material ecology of broadcast media infrastructure in the United States, Lauren Woolbright and Thaiane Oliveira’s reading of virtual environments in Latin American video games, and Chris Russill’s exploration of the impact of satellite images of the earth on our perceptions of the environment, just to name a few. By engaging a diverse blend of texts and contexts,Ecomedia: Key Issuesprovides a comprehensive global introduction to the growing field of ecomedia studies.

It is our hope that if we can all pay closer attention to the relationships between media and environment that we can make each Earth Day more meaningful and productive.