The Next Frontier

Energy regimes in the digital era

By Martin A. Ciesielski

Visuals by Dan Dale

January 12, 2018

Live the questions
and someday far in the future
you may gradually,
without even noticing,
live into the answers.

Rainer Maria Rilke

The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan once claimed: “First, we build the tools, then, they build us.” I believe he was right, today more than in the previous years.

The questions we need to ask ourselves are: Are we still building our digital technologies or are they already building us? Assuming they have started to reshape us, either directly or indirectly: what have we taught them while we were still the builders? What kind of worldview and philosophy have their creators imparted on them? Which parameters govern these technologies’ appropriation of the world?

We have long since lost track of our actions’ energy regimes. What’s the power consumption of a Google search? What resources have been invested in the keyboard I am typing on? How fast will all those little clicks in so many online stores sum up to so many items that they fill a container vessel that crosses the seas while burning up thousands of liters of oil and emitting tons of CO2 – not to mention the logistics and vehicles involved in delivering all these individual shipments to their final destinations? In an age where everything and everyone is permanently turned into data, we are flying absolutely blind. That’s the irony.


Our world seems to be governed by the streams of consumption, money, and energy. If there is one thing we have aligned our machines with, it is these three gigantic streams.

As humans, we let these streams guide the way we appropriate this world and eat it alive. Animals and plants serve our ever-expanding and propagating species as food. Other plants like cotton as well as other resources are used to produce our clothing and billions of other so-called consumer goods. These are consumed, i.e., supplied to humans. But what becomes of the waste produced manu-facturing these products or the waste many of these products are turned into? Well, nobody cares. Anything that doesn’t yield revenue or create added value gets externalized, the cost passed on to others or the environment.

Ensuring that this kind of consumption, which is a form of energy transformation, can continue requires other types of energy: energy for the cultivation and exploitation of animals and plants, for logistics, electric power, and heating. These flows of energy support human consumerism. They heat our homes and power our lamps, TV sets, fridges, laptop computers, tablets, and smartphones.

The massive flows of energy also generate costs – and revenues. These revenue streams, in turn, mostly exist as mere electronic impulses, transactions between digital accounts carried out in split seconds. They are accretions and appreciations of share values, credit derivatives, and many more.

So what does that teach our machines?

What are the machines beginning to teach us?

Well, there is yet another layer to all this: surveillance streams. The logistics of commodity flows require tracking technology so that their whereabouts can be determined at any time. Here to, we work with projections that help us assess which resources will be needed where and when – and how these quantifications can be improved. How can we generate more logistics revenue? How can we generate more monetary flows? Easy: by consuming more, be it products of daily use or financial innovations. Yet in the end, what happens in the financial markets may also be termed consumption: buying, value acquisition, arbitrage deals, and divestiture or exit deals. And the financial markets are also subject of surveillance or monitoring by competitors, regulators, and clients. So why should it be any different for the simple online customer? Where do we click? How often? On which sites do we like to stay the longest? What advertisements do we get to see? Which information is likely to interest us and entice us to continue surfing, click, and share – all according to our previous digital footprint?

Energy regimes.

If this is what our machines learn from us they’ll have developed a view of the world as something that can and needs to be consumed. Consequently, this world’s available energy sources need to be aligned with human consumerism and its related monetary flows. This seems to be what it’s all about. More money and larger financial flows generated by more and increasingly frequent energy consumption, energies withdrawn from other life forms, energies released in ways that destroy the fragile balance between atmosphere, hydrosphere, and cryosphere. How long will this complex system of interdependencies support the human race? Do these critical questions affect the gigantic IT systems we are launching and expanding? Or do these systems merely exacerbate the already strong “drive towards self-immolation”, to use a term coined by climate expert Joachim Schellnhuber?

And maybe we are about to engage in combat at yet another front, namely, artificial intelligence. If we are teaching our machines, both explicitly and implicitly, that monopolizing energy flows is key – with monopolists on two levels: the human species in general and, more specifically, a small number of privileged persons within that race – how are those intelligent machines apt to act?

Will they support our energy regimes and help us appropriate all resources? Or will they start shaping us so that we’ll serve their energy regimes? The first feature film in the Matrix trilogy has given us an idea of what this may look like: humans serving as energy sources for machines. Why wouldn’t they learn just that from us? And who says they haven’t already done so?

Maybe the only way to prevent them learning this – or make them re-learn – would be for us to start thinking and acting differently. Maybe there’s still a tiny opportunity, a short time window in which we can learn to do this. This may well be our biggest challenge in the history of mankind. For until now, all we managed is to expand our predatory and exploitative way of life, technologically, geographically, politically, and militarily.

Choosing a different way of life would mean relinquishing energy. It would require us to give up and return energy flows. We would make a conscious decision to desist from any further, expanded appropriation of energy. But why would we do such a thing?


The immense wealth of the developed countries is based on the exploitation and consumption of their ecological capital, which consists of non-renewable energies, fish populations, topsoil, forests, etc. In his classic bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, evolutionary biologist and bio-geographer Jared Diamond warns us not to misname the consumption of capital as “earning money”. Yet it is precisely this consumption of capital that is currently keeping the machines running, with all the premises, logics, legal frameworks, planned and finalized investments they involve. It is a running system, and digitalization will have to align with it, whether or not its apologists like it.

Functional software development, too, follows its own non-sustainable logics. It’s about scalability as well as unnaturally fast and global growth and implementation processes. Tests are conducted in environments that take into account the “technosphere” but not the potential hazards and effects for the physio- and biospheres. It’s about automatization facilitating an energy transfer from costly human labor and almost free power generation to software and depreciable digital machines. The result is a rapidly growing demand for cheap, readily available electrical power for every app installation, every Google search, and every YouTube video. Netflix alone accounts for one third (!) of the American downstream volume. In the digital age, even telling stories costs additional energies – more than the stories may be able to give.

Major tech corporations hold great store by CO2 neutrality. Alas, the server farms – more like server cities spread around the globe – are not 100 percent biodegradable. All the mercury, precious metals, and rare earth elements needed to build their components are being blasted, dug and etched out of the earth in ever-increasing quantities. After an average product life cycle of no more than two years, the toxic waste are discarded in the soil and waters – usually by subcontractors of subcontractors of those subcontractors named in the sustainability reports as certified recycling specialists.

Silicon solar cells contain metals and rare earths that need to be mined in large quantities. Substantial amounts of nitrogen trifluoride, one of the world’s strongest greenhouse gases, are emitted in the production of these cells. It’s the Silicon Way. But where else would all the power for the servers and e-mobility come from. Not to mention all the mobile devices for the users (and used) without whom all the data capturing and business models wouldn’t work.

Driving full throttle, we’ve speeded past the exit to our future. Yet despite all their wonderful and smart technology, even self-driving vehicles need human passengers. After all, that’s their whole point. They don’t just drive around for their own enjoyment – at least not yet.

To meet the standards of species-appropriate accommodation of their passive passengers, these vehicles need a minimum of interior. What about the plastics in the dashboards? The leather upholstery? How and where are they produced? Tires, too, will be an essential part of future cars, and they will probably continue to be shipped around the globe in container vessels to get from manufacturer to automotive plant for quite a while before they will roll off the 3D printer and into the streets.

And what about the digital infrastructure involved in all this. It needs to be operated in addition to the streets, highways, street lights, and traffic light systems. What kind of massive infrastructure including transmitters, receivers, sensors, microprocessors, fiber optics cables, metals, and thousands of plastics does autonomous driving actually entail? And who’s paying for it in all the owed currencies?

Let’s accelerate even more: by 2035, the demand for lithium for our beloved batteries will triple. In countries including Congo and China, lead, lithium, and cobalt are being pried from the earth with explosives or by children working in the mines. Or even both, sometimes simultaneously. In plants somewhere on this planet, these elements are used to build batteries in the cheapest possible way, which are then shipped with gigantic container vessels to car manufacturing plants in Germany, the United States, China, or Japan. All this is taking place before even a single car burns up a single drop of gasoline and a single car sharing app has been installed.

And speaking of apps: no app in the world would function without the beautiful touchscreen glass displays on our tablets and smartphones. To get the quartzes needed to build them, we dredge beaches and vacuum the bottom of the sea.

Why not use desert sand, of which we have an increasing amount at our disposal? Well, they are not so easy to get at. People are dancing and partying in the desert. Humans of the New Age are close! Every year, the technology elite celebrate themselves at the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. Yet the sand there isn’t really good for much else. If you want to build on sand, it needs to meet certain specifications.

Betting on the future.

We seem to live the life humankind wants to live. We must be right, after all, in our choice of lifestyle if so many people risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean just to join us in Europe. There’s just no way that we’re wrong.

We’re the ones making the rules! We fly, we travel, we consume, we have jobs requiring laptops. We’re holding our smartphones in one hand and our cup of organic tea or coffee in the other.

The perverse irony of it is: the more practice this lifestyle, the more are deprived of it. Not only is this way of life not sustainable, it is also based on externalizing costs and damages.

This is the point at which we could start placing bets and professing our beliefs. We just don’t know. We cannot know whether our technological innovation will save us or if their improvements make everything even worse. At this point, we have no way of knowing. Everyone who claims they do know is either lying or trying to secure a small, infinitesimal advantage in the rat race, a few billion more than the others have. Or a couple of real estate objects. Or shares. At the end of the day, that one million may well make the difference, right?

But what good are real estate objects if nobody can afford the rent? What good are shares if their prices drop? What good are millions of euros or dollars if there’s nothing left to buy? What kind of a future are these people betting on?

Maybe the kind that has come after each war and every catastrophe in the past. Those who owned land, including land beyond their borders, picked themselves up and started over again quickly. Two or three company shares more than your competitor will help you gain political influence again soon or keep what influence you already have. Such are the strategies and thought patterns of the elites. They are supported by a wealth defense industry with its very own business agenda. And thus, billions of private funds today are flowing towards the alleged large-scale technologies of tomorrow. Without these huge investments, those companies couldn’t exist. And without Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and their peers, the richest of the rich and their investment companies wouldn’t know how to secure and increase their capital. They wouldn’t know how to address their fear that tomorrow they might belong to a different, socially lower peer group and being snubbed by the old one. It’s simply human, all-too-human behavior.

The new digital frontier.

So far the term “digital frontier” used to describe the continuation of power-based land-grabbing, a continuation of the settlement of the Wild West on a different level. Mankind pushed the frontier to the digital realm while keeping up the consumption of physical resources described above. But maybe we are now witnessing the formation of a truly digital frontier, a frontier driven by technologies and involving the design, redesign or even obliteration of humans, be they rich or poor.

It is worth taking a close look at how historian Jürgen Osterhammel describes the concept of frontier in his seminal work Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century:

“A frontier is a spacious type of processual contact situation, limited not merely locally, in which (a minimum of) two collectives of differing ethnic and cultural backgrounds meet on a definable territory to conduct exchange relations – usually involving threats or use of violence – that cannot be governed by a single, overarching government or legal structure. One of these collectives takes the role of invaders. Its members’ primary interest is to appropriate and exploit land and/or other natural resources. […]”

The invaders rely on three systems of justification, individually or in combination:

• The right of the conqueror, which abolishes any prior rights of ownership;
• The doctrine of terra nullius popular with the 17th-century Puritans, which declares land inhabited by hunters and gatherers or herdsmen as “nobody’s land” that can be seized by anyone and is in need of cultivation;
• The notion of a mission to civilize “the savages”, which is often added later as a secondary ideologization.

Is it possible that we are the new savages? Can technology really develop an independent existence? Isn’t it already doing just that in some way? Is it not aligning energy and matter flows with its own needs? Is it possible that we do not have to wait for artificial intelligence to help technologies shape our environments and ourselves?

Some time ago, I came upon a sentence that made me doubt the silver lining Rilke seems to proclaim in the poem I quoted in the beginning of this essay. This other sentence by Jeff Vandermeer said: “Some questions will destroy you if the answers are kept from you long enough.”

Are our current answers the right ones? Should we start searching for different ones or just wait for them?

But how long can we wait?

Martin A. Ciesielski is author of a recently published book on Digital Leadership Development (Springer Gabler, October 2017) and founder of medienMOSAIK – an art-based consulting firm dedicated to humane transformation processes in the digital age and “More-than-human-World” (David Abram). He conducts practical research in the field of social technologies, money and financial markets, as well as applied Improvisation. Martin Ciesielski lives and works in Berlin.

Dan Dale is an experienced young architect living and working in London. He graduated from UCL Bartlett School of Architecture where he studied film and architecture. The images featured here are a playful series exploring the possibilities of digital landscapes.

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