What is Permacomputing?


In my last post I wrote about the Critical Infrastructure Lab launch event, held in Amsterdam. I attended the two day event and will soon write my report and post it on the Bassetti Foundation website, but I couldn’t wait to write about the most engaging and challenging things I came across, at a workshop led by Ola Bonati and Lucas Engelhardt: the concept and practices of permacomputing.

As you might imagine, the concept is related to the nature practices of permaculture, it encourages a more sustainable approach that not only takes into account energy use and hardware and software lifespans but also promotes the use of already available computational resources.

From the starting point that technology has harmed nature, the concept aims to re-center technology and practice and enter into better relations with the Earth.

Practitioners propose a series of research methods that include living labs (we promote this approach in Responsible Innovation research too), science critique, interdisciplinarity and artistic research, which as many readers will know is very close to my own heart. Fields include Ecosystems and computational conditions of biodiversity, Sustainability and toxicity of computation and Biodigitality and bioelectric energy.The Permacomputing network wiki contains the following principles (as well as going into much more detail of all of the above)

Care for life, Create low-power systems that strengthens the biosphere and use the wide-area network sparingly. Minimize the use of artificial energy, fossil fuels and mineral resources. Don’t create systems that obfuscate waste.

Care for the chips. Production of new computing hardware consumes a lot of energy and resources. Therefore, we need to maximize the lifespans of hardware components – especially microchips, because of their low material recyclability.

Keep it small. Small systems are more likely to have small hardware and energy requirements, as well as high understandability. They are easier to understand, manage, refactor and repurpose.

Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. It is a good practice to keep everything as resilient and collapse-tolerant as possible even if you don’t believe in these scenarios.

Keep it flexible. Flexibility means that a system can be used in a vast array of purposes, including ones it was not primarily designed for. Flexibility complements smallness and simplicity. In an ideal and elegant system, the three factors (smallness, simplicity and flexibility) support each other.

Build on solid ground. It is good to experiment with new ideas, concepts and languages, but depending on them is usually a bad idea. Appreciate mature technologies, clear ideas and well-understood theories when building something that is intended to last.

Amplify awareness. Computers were invented to assist people in their cognitive processes. “Intelligence amplification” was a good goal, but intelligence may also be used narrowly and blindly. It may therefore be a better idea to amplify awareness.

Expose everything. Don’t hide information!

Respond to changes. Computing systems should adapt to the changes in their operating environments (especially in relation to energy and heat). 24/7 availability of all parts of the system should not be required, and neither should a constant operating performance (e.g. networking speed).

Everything has its place. Be part of your local energy/matter circulations, ecosystems and cultures. Cherish locality, avoid centralization. Strengthen the local roots of the technology you use and create.

There is also a page of concepts and ideas that are needed to discuss permacomputing and a library. You can find links to projects, technology assessments and information about courses and workshops, as well as lots of communities to investigate and join, and how to contribute to the wiki.

Why not join the discussion and spread the word?

Researching power and contestation in global digital infrastructures

Changes to the globalising world are being written, not in the language of law and diplomacy, but rather in the language of infrastructure

– Keller Easterling

On 13-14 April I am going to Amsterdam for the Critical Infrastructure Lab Launch Event.

The lab aims to create space to co-develop alternative infrastructural futures that center people and planet over profit and capital, by establishing a community around three infrastructural subtopics (geopolitics, standards, environment), producing a sound body of research and developing actionable policy recommendations and strategic insights.

The question raised is how infrastructure can become a lens and approach to addressing some of the world’s wicked problems, we might think about anything from supply chain issues, to climate change, human rights to governance and ideas of social justice. This includes my own interest and a question that I have thinking about in my work at the Bassetti Foundation: can infrastructure support democratic ideals?

Addressing these questions requires a proactive rather than reactive approach to thinking about infrastructure. Futures have to be imagined, we need a better understanding of how infrastructure (digital in this case) shapes society and could maybe lean towards supporting certain values and away from others, all of which which might require policy development both in terms of governance and business planning.

We could start from the question of possible bias built into a system that is developed primarily by (young) men working for a select group of multinational companies. Which futures do they envisage? What does the development framework look like? Whose interests and positions are excluded?

A broad range of expertise and non expertise in social as well as technical matters is required if we want to address questions about infrastructure design with society in mind, and so the lab is hosting a launch event that offers discussion space for anyone.  The event offers workshops on infrastructural futures and maps and models, including feminist perspectives and collaborative and sustainable approaches to infrastructure design.

Why not Register for the critical infrastructure lab launch event and have a look at the schedule?

For more discussion and a bit of background on the current debate see my recent post comparing two books about digital infrastructure. It includes a comparison of the series of proposals made by the different authors. One book is about the influence of digital infrastructure during recent popular revolutions (think about the Arab Spring and the revolution in Ukraine) reviewed here and the other addresses problems of data as private property rather than a public resource.

The authors both propose ideas and thoughts about how infrastructure that effects every-day life in different contexts could be viewed and developed differently, with the proposals containing a lot of shared ideas and goals.

Computing Within LIMITS 2023, call for papers

LIMITS in Computing

Last year I attended the LIMITS 2022, posting about the experience here.  The organizers have just published the following call for papers for the 2023 workshop:

The LIMITS workshop concerns the role of computing in human societies situated in a world of limits*. This interdisciplinary group of researchers, practitioners and scholars seek to reshape the computing research agenda, grounded by an awareness that contemporary computing research is intertwined with ecological limits in general, and climate- and climate justice-related limits in particular. LIMITS 2023 solicits submissions that move us closer towards computing that support diverse human and non-human lifeforms and thriving biospheres.

* For example, limits of extractive logics, limits to a biosphere’s ability to recover, limits to our knowledge, or limits to technological “solutions”.

Call For Papers

We welcome scholarship by researchers, engineers, designers, and artists who are investigating and/or (re)designing computing systems that engage with pressing ecological and social issues. We also invite works that build on previous LIMITS work, such as provocations from earlier LIMITS gatherings (e.g., Unplanned Obsolescence, LIMITS 2017), that broadens the understanding of LIMITS (e.g., Age of Consequences, LIMITS 2015), that explores our own limits (e.g., Computing within Psychological Limits, LIMITS 2015), that explores strategies for working in a LIMITed world (e.g., Limits-aware computing, LIMITS 2015), or that design and/or build transitional systems (e.g., Solar-powered website, LIMITS 2021). Transitional systems attempt to (re) design, implement, and/or evaluate a real-world or hypothetical socio-technical computing system in response to “implications for design” raised by earlier LIMITS papers or LIMITS-related scholarship in the areas of computing and sustainability, computing and climate-justice.

We also encourage authors to consider the stories they tell and reify through their work. As Costanza-Chock reminds us, “Stories have power”. They ask us to consider, “(…) what stories are told about design problems, solutions, contexts, and outcomes? Who gets to tell these stories? Who participates, who benefits, and who is harmed?” (Costanza-Chock 2020 p. 134)

Key Dates

Abstract registration deadline: March 17, 2023, 11:59pm AOE
Paper submission deadline: March 31, 2023, 11:59pm AOE
Paper reviews available: April 28, 2023
Camera ready deadline: May 19, 2023
LIMITS Workshop: June 14-15, 2023

In 2023, LIMITS will be a virtual, distributed workshop. We welcome participants to organize local gatherings or “LIMITS-hubs” that encourage community-building and sharing of infrastructure.

Reach out to Elina (elina(at)kth.se) if interested. I will be there.