Tackling Climate Change With Communal Technologies

An interview with author and activist Marta Peirano about internet infrastructure and climate change – and how we can change the game.

Workshop at Berliner Gazette's "Friendly Fire Conference", 2017. © Norman Posselt, CC BY 4.0 Workshop at Berliner Gazette's "Friendly Fire Conference", 2017. © Norman Posselt, CC BY 4.0

Marta Peirano will give a keynote at the MORE WORLD conference on Oct 11 in Berlin.

While climate change seems to be intangible, nowhere and everywhere at the same time, it is entangled with everything and everyone. Against this backdrop, the Berliner Gazette’s 20th anniversary initiative MORE WORLD stimulates a critical dialogue. The goal is to better understand and grasp the causes of climate change through entanglements of ecosystems with communal, state and global structures – and ultimately to explore possibilities to tackle climate change from within such interconnections. In the following interview, the Madrid-based author and activist Marta Peirano reflects on the interplay between internet infrastructure and climate change – and how we can change the game.

Peirano's book “El enemigo conoce el sistema” (The enemy knows the system) makes an important contribution by thinking of today’s major challenges in context rather than as isolated instances. It suggests that the politics of the net are no longer to be discussed among a sworn-in community of net aficionados but rather in the broadest possible social conversation and, moreover, in relation to all the different political, social, economic issues that the all-pervasive net is nowadays connected to. The fact that her book has become a bestseller in Spain – it is now in its sixth edition, only three months after publication – makes one wonder whether there is particularly fruitful ground in Spain for thinking and discussing contemporary challenges in a broader, inter-connected context. It seems there are some unexpected lessons to be learned for advancing such an approach in the future.

Krystian Woznicki: The second chapter of your book “El enemigo conoce el sistema” is dedicated to internet infrastructure. You begin the chapter with a quote by mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer Claude Shannon – known also as "the father of information theory." The quote in fact inspired your book’s title. Could you explain how you chose the title and how it reflects the issue of infrastructure?

Marta Peirano: In the original quote, Shannon states that "one ought to design systems under the assumption that the enemy will immediately gain full familiarity with them", meaning you cannot rely on the secrecy of your infrastructure to protect it from attack. I take a different approach. I say you cannot rely on the security/availability/goals of infrastructure if you do not know them. Today, only a few companies know the workings of the complex systems we rely on – and not only for communications. Those companies make great efforts to conceal them from us, not only physically but also cognitively, producing an interface of metaphors that has replaced our knowledge. This deliberate substitution is designed to conceal those systems’ true goals: data extraction, mass manipulation and, increasingly, population control.

KW: How from your point of view is the issue of Internet infrastructure a critical political issue that transcends net politics in a narrow sense, encompassing all sectors of political life today?

MP: Critical infrastructure is by definition a social concern. Big dependency requires big sovereignty. Today, European governments are openly investing in 5G infrastructure built by companies funded by authoritarian regimes that are also known to fund hacker groups that engage in infrastructure boycott and disinformation campaigns. This was unthinkable only a few decades ago. It should also be illegal, especially in the context of climate emergency. We need infrastructure we can rely on. We know what happens when we rely on infrastructure we don't own, know or legislate. Puerto Rico happens. Thousands of people die.

KW: The expansion of cloud infrastructure (the installation of fiber optic cables, the erection of data centers and server farms, etc.) has a geopolitical dimension that is rarely discussed. It materializes itself at border controls, in immigration decisions, in drone attacks – and is also linked to global warming. The political geography of cloud infrastructure transcends the sovereignty of nation-states and apparently also suspends their responsibility. What is your analysis of this predicament?

MP: The Cloud is an embassy; it has successfully turned intellectual property laws into a "rule of inviolability" of the 1961 Vienna Convention. It also operates as a tax haven, infrastructure built to protect the workings of a dubious business, opaque to local authorities and controlled overseas. Our authorities cannot enter those servers, even when they have proof of a growing amount of illegal activities, from child abuse porn to disinformation campaigns. Child abuse is an Internet problem; Cambridge Analytica is a business problem. This is capitalism without democracy, power without responsibility. As Edward Snowden said, if the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was working, they would be paying 3% of their yearly revenue in fines. You cannot police what you cannot see.

KW: Turning to the influence of cloud infrastructure on global warming: while the incessant increase in ‘cloud activities’ leads to higher temperatures through the rising heat of server farms, higher temperatures cause stress for cloud infrastructure (necessitating ever more energy-devouring cooling systems). It seems this is a vicious cycle that no-one is prepared to deal with seriously. Aren’t there any critical and practical responses are worth pursuing?

MP: As usual, this is presented as a technical problem. It is not. It is a design and a humanitarian problem. This cloud infrastructure has been developed for and by the data extraction industry, and is being further developed, not with the purpose of managing the climate crisis but with the purpose of managing humans during that crisis. Different goal, different design.

KW: What new responses to this particular vicious cycle do we need to invent? What role do communal technologies play in this context?

MP: We need to develop technologies for the opposite goal: helping humans manage the climate crisis where it is happening. Right now, that means helping people disconnect from those who love the same songs, movies, books or values they love and reconnect with those in physical proximity who face the same challenge: their neighbors. Those tools will be local and communal because they will be designed to respond to local, shared emergencies.

KW: I wonder how reinventing the net would bring us closer to the initial promise of the net. That promise now survives only as a neoliberal myth, namely, that the net provides spaces for new forms of cooperation.

MP: The problem is not the Internet per se, it is something that has happened to it. It could be described as a fungus infection, contracted during the dotcom crisis when its immune system was weak. It has quickly propagated in the same way heroin and casinos do, in a context of prolonged austerity and severe inequality. I believe we have a unique chance to save the internet, though, with the right medicine: decentralized, locally-run infrastructure designed to protect the ecosystem and help communities look after themselves and share their own precious resources in ways that are just and humane.

KW: The question of cooperation also looms large in the context of climate change. The goal of the MORE WORLD project is to better understand and grasp the causes of climate change through entanglements of ecosystems with communal, state and global structures, and ultimately to explore possibilities to tackle climate change from within such interconnections – as enablers of cross-border cooperation among all of us who are affected by climate change. Re-imagining the net as a distributed, decentralized bottom-up infrastructure, what potentialities for cross-border cooperation do you see arising vis-à-vis climate change?

MP: GPL is my religion. It is the only system designed to ensure everybody benefits from progress, and nobody is taken for a ride. Every local improvement should become an improvement for everyone else. Technically, we already know how to do it: everything one Uber car learns becomes something every other Uber car then knows. We must apply this knowledge to repair and improve our relationship with the environment. It is the only way to survive.

KW: And regarding other major social, economic and political challenges of the day?

MP: I think what's required here is a holistic approach. Any protocol genuinely focused on helping communities repair their relationship with the environment and manage their resources fairly and sensibly will become tools for social and political justice. Only the tools of the village can dismantle the master's house. It is time to demand a radical responsibility over the tools of our own survival. We are ready.

Join the MORE WORLD project!

The BG’s 20th anniversary project MORE WORLD invites you to explore together cooperative practices that tackle climate change. To this end, the BG organizes a big conference October 10-12 2019, offering a diverse program of workshops bringing together people from more than 25 countries. Further information can be found on this website: more-world.berlinergazette.de

About Marta Peirano

Marta Peirano is a writer and a journalist. Long time advocate for free software, digital security and the radical decentralization of critical infrastructure, she covers media and technology for multiple media outlets including national daily eldiario.es, where she has been deputy director. Her books include “El enemigo conoce el sistema” (The enemy knows the system), a study on surveillance capitalism, digital feudalism and political manipulation online, published in 2019. And “Pequeño libro rojo del activista en la red” (The Little Red Book of Online Activism), an essay about the impact of digital surveillance, with a foreword by Edward Snowden, published in 2015.

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