The materiality of the immaterial: ICTs and the digital commons


Special issue for tripleC: “The materiality of the immaterial: ICTs and the digital commons“, co-edited by Vasilis Kostakis & Andreas Roos.

Summary: With an escalating environmental crisis and an unprecedented increase of ICT diversity and use, it is more crucial than ever to understand the underlying material aspects of the ICT infrastructure. This special issue therefore asks the question: What are the true material and socio-environmental costs of the global ICT infrastructure?

In a recent paper as well as in the book Digital Labour and Karl Marx, Christian Fuchs examined the complex web of production relations and the new division of digital labour that makes possible the vast and cheap ICT infrastructure as we know it. The analysis partly revealed that ICT products and infrastructure can be said to embody slave-like and other extremely harsh conditions that perpetually force mine and assembly workers into conditions of dependency. Expanding this argument, the WWF reported that mining in the Congo basin poses considerable threats to the local environment in the form of pollution, the loss of biodiversity, and an increased presence of business-as-usual made possible by roads and railways. Thus ICTs can be said to be not at all immaterial because the ICT infrastructure under the given economic conditions can be said to embody as its material foundations slave-like working conditions, various class relations and undesirable environmental consequences.

At the same time, the emerging digital commons provide a new and promising platform for social developments, arguably enabled by the progressive dynamics of ICT development. These are predominantly manifested as commons-based peer production,i.e., a new mode of collaborative, social production; and grassroots digital fabrication or community-driven makerspaces, i.e., forms of bottom-up, distributed manufacturing. The most well known examples of commons-based peer production are the free/open source software projects and the free encyclopaedia Wikipedia. While these new forms of social organisation are immanent in capitalism, they also have the features to challenge these conditions in a way that might in turn transcend the dominant system.

Following this dialectical framing, we would like to call for papers for a special issue of tripleC that will investigate how we can understand and balance the perils and promises of ICTs in order to make way for a just and sustainable paradigm. We seek scholarly articles and commentaries that address any of the following themes and beyond. We also welcome experimental formats, especially photo essays, which address the special issue’s theme.

Suggested themes:

– Papers that track, measure and/or theorise the scope of the socio-environmental impact of the ICT infrastructure.

– Papers that track, measure and/or theorise surplus value as both ecological (land), social (labour) and intellectual (patent) in the context of ICTs.

– Understanding the human organisation of nature in commons-based peer production.

– Studies of the environmental dimensions of desktop manufacturing technologies (for example, 3D printing or CNC machines) in non-industrial modes of subsistence, e.g. eco-villages or traditional agriculture, as well as in modern towns and mega-cities.

– Suggestions for and insights into bridging understandings of the socio-economic organisation of the natural commons with the socio-economic organisation of the digital commons drawing on types of organisations in the past and the present that are grounded in theories of the commons.

– Elaboration of which theoretical approaches can be used for overcoming the conceptual separation of the categories immaterial/material in the digital commons.

Find this special issue here.