A messy collection of permacomputing notes
The following is a link dump of resources, sites, social media comments, and “stuff” linked to the subject of permacomputing.
I recently published an essay titled ’Permacomputing: Tackling the Problem of Technological Waste. And it’s probably one of the best nonfiction things I’ve written since I wrote that little thing about why Marginalia is so awesome. The piece is now available both on my site (paywall-free) and for The New Climate on Medium:
What is permacomputing? In short, it’s a community of practice based on permaculture that envisions and promotes a more sustainable tech culture. As far as I’m aware, the term has its origins in a 2020 essay by one Ville-Matias “Viznut” Heikkilä:
Permacomputing is one of those subjects that interested me before I knew this was a subject to be interested in. Whether it’s tiny operating systems, command line software, static websites, 8-bit consoles, or funky protocols, I’ve long been interested in the field of what I loosely call “small tech.”
I guess you could call me frugal or minimalist. But I just feel that if you can do the job with less, why add more for its own sake? Especially when that “more” has real-world implications for the environment and results in products with lifespans that mean your pet hamster will likely outlive them.
So when I stumbled across a post by a Johnny Hankins summarising this concept known as “permacomputing” some time ago, you betcha I was instantly fascinated:
By the way, in terms of good primers, the following post on the xxiicc wiki is also a decent read:
Why does any of this matter beyond promoting aesthetically pleasing software for tech nerds? Well, the following piece by Wim Vanderbauwhede offers perhaps the best breakdown of the scale of the issues facing computer science at large from a climate-based perspective. I highly recommend it:
Neil Selwyn has produced, and continues to produce, a variety of texts in the field, including a fascinating essay on degrowth tech and the education sector:
Finally, I’d be remiss not to link the following essays by Robert Engels and Tomlinson, Blevis, and co, respectively, which introduced vernacular computing and collapse informatics to the discussion:
One question posed to me after publishing my own work on the subject was how do we incentivize tech companies to switch from growth to sustainability?
I feel this question is the crux of the issue with permacomputing (and the degrowth movement in general), and it’s one I don’t necessarily have a hard and fast answer to.
What I will say is that, in the context of a continuation of the global neoliberal order (which should be assumed), is that it might be less about incentivizing corporations and more about changing consumer culture.
If people actively seek and demand better-built, longer-lasting, and sustainable products, then it stands to reason (theoretically) that they’ll buy from the companies providing them. Those companies might not stand to make as much profit, but they’ll inherently have a competitive advantage over their competitors. At least, that’s how the markets are supposed to work.
We do actually have a precedent for this in the form of the American auto industry. Back in the 70/80s, that industry was, like today’s tech industry, built on planned obsolescence. But it was forced to change when more reliable Japanese competitors arrived on the scene:
Closer to today, we see how products such as sustainable clothing, dairy alternatives, man-made diamonds, and meat substitutes are all eating into the profits of their more wasteful competitors (the Fairphone is a great example of this in the tech sector).
I would also point to the emergence of right-to-repair laws as an example of how activism and social pressure can force governments to act on our behalf and set regulations. Again, it all starts with creating awareness of the issues.
Of course, faced with our current issues and lack of time to deal with them, there’s a good argument that we need more significant systematic change. And then there’s the issue of how much power big tech currently holds over the industry and convincing people to look at “progress” in a different light.
Anyway, let me end here by throwing a bunch more links at you:
Branch magazine - an online magazine by and for people who envision a sustainable and liberating internet:
Compudanzas - “explorations of joyful and human-scale computing”:
LowTechMagazine - a solar-powered website and online magazine:
Modding Fridays - - “an online community of people interested to learn together about the maintenance, repurposing, and rea ppropriation of supposedly obsolete consumer electronics, for fun and profit”:
Permacomputing Wiki - The go-to source on this subject and full of links/resources facilitated by Ugrnm & Viznut . It’s still a work in progress, but if you can’t be bothered with trawling through all these links, go here:
Computing Within Limits Workshops - a series of workshops and papers on the subject of permacomputing and frugal computing:
Small File Media Festival - An annual celebration of sustainable alternatives to current streaming services: