Cyborg Natures

Urban Metabolisms and Technological Abstraction of Nature

Posted by Joe Blankenship on August 1, 2016


A young boy, no more than 10 years of age, pounds away at the hard ground of a quarry in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. His scarred and numb hands drive a metal bar into limestone looking for black specs; the only semblance of wealth he knows. Sacks of this sifted material are carried by these boys who are nearly dwarfed by their size and mass. Along a journey of many days, these miners push to make what small profits they can following extortion by local authorities and guerillas while fighting off starvation, illness, and injury. These piles of rock are sold at local markets and are quickly processed for transport to larger centers of commerce where Western demand for these resources is ravenous. Many of these initial sales points are so remote that planes are needed to bring supplies in and carry the mineral out as there are no roads for days in any direction. Within each node of this resource’s path, a cut of profit is taken and the final sales price rises. This rock makes it to China through European and North American subsidiaries for placement in manufacturing flows of any number of telecommunication devices. These production facilities use underpaid labor forces over long hours to keep the ultimate sales price in foreign markets down, therefore perpetuating their viability as a nexus for material production at the cost of many of these laborers’ health and lives.

A young boy, no more than 10 years of age, awakens on a Christmas morning to open his presents. In the process of opening his gifts, he incurs many cuts from the paper and hard plastic packaging to which his parents are most attentive. His glee at receiving his new smartphone is followed by a complete social removal from his family as he stares at and immerses himself in the screen’s inviting glow. Throughout the following year, the young boy, and many others like him, uses his phone to engage in social media exchanges, electronic communications, and even, if ever so seldom, his educational goals. This device goes with him everywhere in the city, so easily fitting in his pocket as it is effortlessly light in his hand. Meanwhile, the cellular service providers in the boy’s city install new towers in strategic locations while engaging in sharing contracts with other service providers to ensure the user of any smartphone maintains access. These accesses (e.g., phone, data, internet, emergency services) are utilized by third and fourth party vendors to encourage certain types of consumption and environmental engagement, such as Foursquare or Yelp’s business services. These are further enabled through the growing number of sensors embedded deep in these devices that tracks every location and tilt of the phone’s position as the boy moves through his everyday spaces. His local city government is complicit with these types of socio-spatial developments, even integrating itself for access through and with these telecommunication devices.

These hypothetical scenarios as outlined above are more than real for the billions who are exploited in the processes of capital flows directed into the urban centers of the world for the advantages of mere millions. These resource flows also bring with them climate and environmental refugees who are displaced by such activities resulting in a glut of cheap, expendable labor for capitalists who further the cycles of extraction from and restructuring of nature in the city. This article is an exploration of how certain metabolic flows into urban environments play larger roles in the transformation of urban landscapes due to their external demand and their critical status within the infrastructures that perpetuate a certain type of urban technological development. The flows of coltan into urban and developed portions of the world will act as an exemplar of how certain technological paradigms drive both the advancement of particular urban political ecologies and how those ecologies are dependent on maintaining these uneven geographies. In these processes, the contradictions between urban socio-economic processes and local/global capital are exposed as their dynamics result in a specific form of re-territorialized nature in the city, driving the despoliation of numerous other natures as these flows touch local spaces.

Cyborg Natures

Critical to the understanding of how urban nature is continually restructured by varying scales of nature and technology, we have to understand how these relational flows occur based on their forms and interactions. Swyngedouw(1) points to the metabolic nature of urbanization within cyborg cities. Within this metabolic nature, he contextualizes cities as networks of socio-ecological processes that are interconnected via flows of material. These flows span the world, entering and leaving major urban centers that act as nexuses for localized flows of resources for global redistribution. In the process, these flows establish circulations that are perpetually redefining the ways in which nature is urbanized based on related assemblages and collectives that are socially mobilized via their materiality in lived spaces(2). To further understand the ways in which urban socio-ecological conditions structure the relations between the urban and nature, Kaika and Swyngedouw(3) suggest studies in three areas: urban metabolism; neoliberalization of urban environments; and urban environmental imaginaries and discursive formations.

Examining these through the conceptual lens of shaping urban natures through technological means, we start to see two initial schemes. First, urban metabolism as defined by its metabolic circulatory flows and fusing of the social and physical exhibit varying hegemonic regimes of control and influence over the transformations and territories set in nature. Certain conceptions of urban spaces are guided by these circulations and fusions while also guiding those facets into the future. This is further complicated as neoliberal globalization mobilizes these urban transformations for capital flows of material and wealth to urban centers resulting in varying effects on rural and remote regions of resource wealth. The consequences of which are massively uneven geographic developments in regions with the urban centers as their key expressions. This begs for particular imaginaries to be forwarded that resolve the emergent contradictions between nature and the city through rationalized symbolic logic for these dynamically changing spaces of crisis.

The second scheme takes the propositions of Kaika and Swyngedouw(3) and juxtaposes the pervasive technological layer as the primary vector of critique. Urban metabolism, in terms of circulations and fusions of material, social, and physical spaces, are compressed in time and space through relations to the neoliberalized environments of urban spaces(4). This is due to the nature in which capital, within neoliberal globalization, seeks persistent growth and over-accumulation resulting in an inherent, critical crisis to the system itself(5). The displacements of this crisis are perpetually being fought out in the battle between the (re)development of nature in and surrounding urban spaces. The resultant imaginaries are ones that increasingly attempt to find technological fixes to these spatial crises, but in and of themselves are symbols and driver of the same processes of disruption and crisis-driven exploitation.

These hybrid natures of cities are growing increasingly complex and are difficult to find appropriate imaginaries for their symbolization, contextualization, and ultimate resolutions. This is costly both in terms of human life and the stresses that are being placed on the natural environment. While we address the issues of natural resource extraction, such as natural gas and crude oil, we fail to address the increasingly problematic state of our use of technology that attempts to fight these environmental injustices, but perpetuates new kinds of injustices in the process. I assert this is due to our inability to break from the overarching systems of capitalism that have become embedded in our mindsets and critical cognition towards any given solution set. While we attempt to resolve issues of international trade of coltan through certification of mineral sourcing, we paradoxically use the digital devices that use those very minerals, frequently illegally sourced, in the process of determining the appropriate courses of action(6).

Cities/Natures: Tropes of Urban Imaginaries, Natural Conceptions, and Cyborg Self

Much of the issue at hand is due to numerous hybridizations occurring simultaneously in urban spaces in relation to nature. First, we have the human relation to urban nature through the conceived architectures which surround the human; guided by the human conception and its coeval of cyclical perception of urban spaces(7). We then have the hybridization of nature via the human for the utility within both the physical urban space and its ideological counterpart as perpetuated by social constructions of those natures. As explored by Shaw(8), this hybrid space is one of further abstraction, removing those who pass through them in everyday life. In the worst case, this space is one in which the human within their socio-ecological paradigm sees nature as something to be harnessed, controlled, and ultimately exploited for that paradigm’s utility. This reinvention of nature, as pointed to by Haraway(9), results in spaces of exploitation and conflict as the actions driving the hybridization expose the persistent contradictions which must persistently be hidden and fixed(7,4).

One way in which these contradictions are masked is through increasing complication of constructed urban spaces and their metaphorical constructions(10). The hybridization and emergent contradictions, such as increased isolation of disadvantaged urban communities, establish regimes of cyborg realities in which the processes of hybridization diffuse the contradictions into unevenly developed spaces. Ergo, the infrastructure and constructions of spaces reflect the contradictions, resulting in the very real conditions found in disadvantaged communities in urban spaces. Gandy(10) bring up four points that are critical in understanding the relationship between urban spaces, nature, and the humans’ everyday lives. First, is the concept of endo-colonization in the human body is dominated by the processes of hybridization into the cyborg self. The second concept is that of agency within the cyborg condition, in which the hybrid space dictates the levels of human autonomy through the spaces construction and socio-ecological restrictions. These concepts then setup the conditions for the third concept of phantom spaces which allows the perpetuation of the creative-destruction through the forth concept, virtual/concrete spatial constructions.

This process of harnessing nature through domination of the mind and body, both individual and social collective, is key to understanding the simultaneous ways in which flows of raw materials can enter and leave urban concentrations without considerations of origination or the ethical legacy of resource consumption. Kinsley’s(11) critique of Mitchell’s Me++: The Cyborg Self the Networked City points to the undeniable link between the mind and body in both building the city and the processes of constructing/harnessing nature in the process. This critique also pointed out the persistent Western opinions that dominate this and many other discourses on urban ecological issues. This is a critical trope as it projects the sense of universal consideration while resulting in certain levels of subject-based and regional erasures, though unintentional as it sometimes may be. Grove(12) suggests that these inequities should be addressed by contextualizing the urban political ecologies within dialogues of critical post-structuralism to expose the dynamics of knowledge/power in hybridization of urban spaces and the struggles of socio-ecological exclusions via the focus on the non-human as the site of spatial identity. This aspect of urban/nature dynamics is drawn out in Deakin & Allwinkle’s(13) critique of Mitchell’s e-topia, in which the issue of ecology and equity are eschewed in the process of demonstrating how certain technological regimes can guide spaces to a certain types of sustainable urban development while the methodological gaps and technological focus largely overlook the inability of these proposals to solve current issues of inequity and uneven development. In addition, e-topia fails to address how new technological and sustainability disruptions create new, more damaging forms of unevenness.

We will briefly explore these above concepts through the work of Bell(14) on water infrastructures as location for reform and resistance in the relations between people, technology, and the city. In this, Bell focuses on critical categories of change in urban water infrastructure in order to synthesize key insights of how urban infrastructure is affected by the application of technological fixes. To this end, Bell(14) show hesitation as said technological fixes and their perceived inevitability demonstrate the potential to reinforce systems of domination over nature, people, and the urban spaces in which they live; this furthers the divide in terms of environmental justice and digital divide via these new and resurgent cyborg spaces. This drives Bell’s appeal to conceive systems of equity through smart urban designs that are sensitive to these dynamics, often fragile balances within socio-ecological systems of politics and economics, in the arena of water sustainability.

This study by Bell(14) encompasses many areas of urban political ecology, cyborg spaces, and the conflicts that arise within and between their mutual concepts. However, this study also points out the ultimate contradictions within the Western context that begs for new levels and forms of socio-political engagement. The appeal to pursue Bell’s Water Sensitive Urban Design does advance a new, radical approach to urban/nature relations, but one that is still persistently uneven and focused within the localized, occidental positions of power/knowledge that leave little rooms for application or considerations outside those spaces. This form of design depends heavily on two areas of progress: political discourse and technical innovation. These two areas are heavily dependent on flows of capital and flows of human consent entailing a heavy dependency of socio-economic regimes found within local spaces which are unique unto those constructions. This often means that the politics and innovations are built looking inward toward systems of support rather than globally via systems of compassion and consideration to the flows of resources supporting these endemic system. This leaves exploited coltan miners and underpaid factory workers at the mercy of systems that develop sustainability with their overt domination as a key component. This environmental justice must be answered and contested if an equitable form of sustainable urban development is to be achieved. The next section will explore the processes of obfuscation and possible avenues of progress in the areas of justice and development through exposing the tropes of technology, nature, and the city via their abstractions.

Abstraction via Technology: from contradiction to differentiation

Newell and Cousins(15) elaborate on the limitations of urban metabolism in examination of the processes that not only conceptualize, but perpetually reconstruct the city. From this study, they describe three ecologies as both constituent and insufficient in the understanding of how urban spaces are conceived. The Marxist ecological approach of socio-natures is married with industrial ecologies of flows and urban ecologies of socio-ecological systems in order to draw out the political-industrial complex that drives urban ecology through its establishment of boundaries. These boundaries are metaphorical constructs that often manifest themselves in spaces through numerous means and interactions between the flows of materials and energies into and from nature which is both living connector to the human and abstract resource for their conceptions of space (urban and elsewhere).

This is deeply suggestive of Lefebvre’s(7) ideas on the production of space as one that is resultant from a combination of numerous relations between the perceptions of individuals and societies, their conceptions as manifest in the architecture of the city which influences and is influenced by the perceptions, and the lived spaces of everyday life for the individual at their many scales. Lefebvre(7) focused on these regimes of production in urban centers and did so initially from a Marxist perspective. Though his approach is openly acknowledged as Eurocentric, it does hold some weight in terms of its persistent influence in modern day. In addressing Newell & Cousins’(15) first point, Marx(16) focused on the means of production within the modes of capitalist production, critiquing the models as proposed by Adam Smith and David Ricardo in that the abstraction of nature is the means by which control is established, but also how critical crisis emerges in the capitalist system. This is due to the conception of nature as an infinite pool of resources to be extracted from so that the modes of production can move forward producing profit from the exploitation of labor and their socially necessary labor time(17). This back and forth between production for profit and the application of fixes is often found in the push for innovative technologies to answer the issues inherent to the capitalist mode of production. Harvey(4) finds this dynamic in his proposition of time-space compression. In this process, primary nodes in the flow of materials and energy are given the means by which to accelerate the processes of (re)appropriation while masking the space in between the nodes as shrunken distance, furthering the opportunities and conditions for spatial injustice. Massey(18) furthers this critique in stating these processes are simultaneous and in a spectrum of multiple trajectories that not only cause evolutionary interactions between these spaces, but does so in such as way that suits the conception of time over space in capitalist systems. Though Massey’s later work was more theoretically grounded and focused on gender issues, these themes can be seen in her work on power geometries(19). Graham(20) points to the above conditions in his study on the projected erasure of borders due to technologically-enabled urban centers that in turn used technologies to shrink distances, increase flows of resources, and perpetuate spatial injustice through and as a byproduct of these processes. In all, the relationship between urban environments and nature are in a continual process of transformation and growth while simultaneously in a continual struggle for equity of access to the flows that enter and leave the numerous spaces of the cyborg city.

The technology, in turn, has evolved in numerous ways to both accommodate and combat against these regimes of dominance over nature in the urban spaces of the world. Kitchin & Dodge(21) point to the processes and scales of code/spaces in which software and human space co-evolve as a result of their mutual interactions. This results in an embedded condition of technology in all aspects of the production of spaces. Perceptions of space are formed through numerous devices, such as smart phones and computers, which are then used in the process of conceiving and building of urban environments. The everyday lived spaces of people are complicit in these processes as many have either ceded to their hegemonic conditions or were born into this dominant technological paradigm. This leaves little space for consideration of technologies’ effects on nature as nature has taken on any number of cyborg forms begging the question as to what nature is to who and why.

This is once again an advantage of urban spaces that have the means and capital to accumulate technologies for ubiquitous usage amongst the urban space’s population. For many other locations, these technological advantages leave them at the mercy of those who are willing to give them the means by which to connect and expose their spatial injustices. Lehdonvirta(22) states there is the potential for emergent forms of alternative economy in the age of technological innovation, but these would once again depend on largely Western-led efforts to enable disadvantaged populations with the means by which to help themselves. The ultimate trope of these notions is in the addressing of core issues; we provide technology and training to focus on a certain array of spatial injustice without asking or addressing the issues that brought us to them in the first place. The reason we cannot is that addressing larger spatial injustices in Africa, Latin America, and the like would draw out the critical crises in capital: endless compound growth; capitals exploitative relation to nature; and universal alienation of people(5). As much as the Western nations wish to help in providing technology and education to these nations, they fail to see the need to educate themselves in how what they do in their everyday lives is actually the root cause of the disadvantaged populations of the world. In this sentiment, setting up schools with quality education in America is just as crucial in solving the problems of the Democratic Republic of Congo as building of schools in North Kivu. Everyone must be aware of these systems if a global/local nexus of social consciousness is to be achieved.

The Flows of Coltan and Urban Landscapes

The nature of coltan and the nature of urban spaces are not so far removed. When time and space are compressed, the efficiencies of flows and their inherent crises go hand-in-hand into and out of numerous landscapes. As we explored with the boys’ journeys, the practices of one drives the actions in the spaces of the other. There are surely nodes in between these two end points, but their effects are no less tangible on the cumulative effects experienced at their ends. Conflict minerals are not just isolated to diamonds and coltan; wars over oil and natural gas are all to recent in the minds of many around the world. However, there are ones, such as coltan, that go largely unseen, but have immense impacts on everyday life in advantaged nations which push international agendas in economics and politics. Bleischwitz et al.(6) sees the pursuit of transparency, certification, and accountability for conflict minerals as only a starting point for spaces that have far deeper political and socio-ecological paradigms. Bleischwitz et al. elaborates on the intensity and difficulty in coltan mining, with its many dangers in a still violent conflict zone, as it enters the largely secretive tantalum industry. In the processes of mining, the minerals are manually extracted from the earth and transported via foot. In route, “taxes” are paid to armed groups or military officials at check points before miners sell their goods to local buyers for very little. These minerals are then sent through numerous channels into the main distribution centers of Goma and Bukavu where they are prepared, sold, and shipped to neighboring countries, such a Rwanda, where the metals are sent to Asia for refinement, packaging as components, and placed into any number of electronics for global sales(6). At every stage the price goes up and the profits never see the tiers beneath it. Smith(23) points to the paradoxical nature of this mineral trade as it is a symbol of economic progress for those who are simultaneously exploited in its extraction and trade. Ekmen(24) points to this “Dutch Disease” as one of the key linkages between violent conflicts related to this illicit resource trade and continual struggles over the mineral wealth demanded by Western markets. In many cases, profits continue to fund conflicts which make regulation and certification of such minerals near impossible. Much of the transparency, certification, and regulatory efforts rest on the shoulders of local and state governments in the DRC and Rwanda, who are already in debt to the IMF and World Bank with minimal assistance from the UN in matters of illicit trade (this is in part due to funding, but also do to corruption). This leaves the avenues of trade and consumption of illicit minerals open for markets in China and Rwanda where profits continue to be made with the participation of Western trade subsidiaries who arrange and profit from international trade agreements.

Since the 1970s, the US. and China began a trade relationship that would benefit a very select number of global markets. Due to the displacement of productive forces in the US to China, the disciplining of two labor forces occurred. Organized labor in US slowly fell apart while cheap labor in China was disciplined in a manner reminiscent of the early industrial revolution. This meant that flows of capital in the opposite direction would cost less resulting in higher consumption rates. However, the processes of these flow is not nearly that simple. This displacement also meant that responsibility for ethical consideration of raw resources, both natural and human, could be relegated to the spaces in between the nodes of production. This is where the coltan miners, factory workers, and other exploited labor forces are placed in the name of lower cost consumer goods and increased efficiencies in the market place for higher profits. The technology then becomes both the symbol of opportunity and mark of subjugation.

These disruptions have had intense effects on urban landscapes. Over a very short time, urban populations in the Western nations have been disciplined by technologies in work, home, and in everyday life. The end use of much technology goes toward accelerated communications, monitoring, and data aggregation on every aspect of daily life that can be measured. Technological fixes are even being developed for the most qualitative aspects of life; namely emotions and human thought. These opportunities are only afforded to those who cannot only access and use this technology, but control the means by which it is implemented in the space and place. This means that “NIMBY” and immanent domain issues are quickly expanding to the realm of ICT infrastructure in the city. The utility of the user is only one half of the paradigm in which the public-private nexus sees these as a means of monitoring and regulation through any number of mechanisms.

Due to the numerous socio-economic divides felt in urban spaces, these flows effect urban landscapes uniquely, but in many ways uniformly. Technologies, enabled by conflict minerals, can do much to draw attention to social and spatial injustice in disadvantaged, minority centers in the city. In fact, there have been many example of governments and corporations responding to such collective actions. But while we use those devices here as an exemplar of successful social activism, we fail to support other populations who suffer moreover due to the means by which the aforementioned social activism occurred. At the same time, the divide facilitates ignorance in that the miner never knows of the modes of production or the use of their labor; they only know that these rocks will help feed their families for another day.

This is one of many stories in the exploration of how certain metabolic flows affect urban development based on particular technological regimes. As we become more integrated into the techno-urban landscapes that we both create and are shaped by, we must be proactive in guiding the means and manners in which these spaces are built; sensitive to the flows that enter and leave the systems upon which we depend. Coltan is one of hundreds of exemplars of resources that invisibly shape these space and would have detrimental effects on those spaces if it were to be removed. This is where consumer awareness must play a larger role in the urban environments’ relations to nature and society. Many of the above examples and studies offer largely untenable solutions because the fail to curb the demand from markets for materials that use minerals and other raw resources, extracted from nature, in manners which ultimately lead to the exploitation of people and degradation of nature writ large. This is also due to the fact that international organizations have not given local and informal economies enough incentive to stop or viable alternatives to their current revenue streams funded by illicit material trade. This paradigm, layered with abstracted layers of corruption throughout the nodes in material and energy flows, is experienced unevenly as its simultaneous and dynamic natures adapt to changes in restriction and drastic change, ensuring current modes of production are not interrupted. Any significant change must first address the cores systemic crises of capitalism in its neoliberal globalized form before progress in assisting conflict mineral trades can truly be addressed. Otherwise, the flows will continue to puddle in the urban landscapes, stained with the marks of injustice.

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