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<article>
<header>
<h1>Permacomputing Update 2021</h1>
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<p>It is now more than a year since I wrote <a href="http://viznut.fi/texts-en/permacomputing.html">my "early notes" about
Permacomputing</a>. At that time, I was not yet aware of anyone else having
similar ideas, so I've now decided to write an update that connects my ideas
with the existing discussions and activities. I also want to share some new
ideas I have been pondering about. This text is about 33K characters / 4900
words long, so allocate your time accordingly.</p>

<h2>1. A fragmented pluriverse</h2>

<p>The "biosphere-aware computing scene" is quite fragmented. There are many
different islands (groups and individuals) that use different terminology
and that are only now discovering each other. It is therefore important to
build bridges between the islands.</p>

<p><a href="https://computingwithinlimits.org/">Computing within Limits
workshops</a> that started in 2015 form an important hub but have been
rather invisible from non-academic perspectives. Many interesting papers
have come out of these workshops, but I would really like to see more
practical and/or longer-term projects that go beyond the shortish workshop
papers. Computing within Limits branched out of a larger field of
"sustainable" ITC <a href="http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-375131">that is known
to have huge problems</a>.</p>

<p>Another hub is in the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fediverse">Fediverse</a>, particularly
around the Mastodon server <a href="https://merveilles.town/">Merveilles.town</a> that centers around
creativity and sustainable technology. Many of these productive hackers,
artists and activists also participate in the "smolnet"/"smallnet",
including the space of the <a href="https://gemini.circumlunar.space/">Gemini</a> protocol. My
Permacomputing article was very well received in these circles and many have
adopted the concept for their use.</p>

<p>Then there's the "Sustainable Internet" activism that has the <a href="https://branch.climateaction.tech/about">Branch online magazine</a>. I
tend to lump this together with the various "solar web" projects such as the
<a href="https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2020/01/how-sustainable-is-a-solar-powered-website.html">solar-powered
version of Low-Tech Magazine</a> and the <a href="http://solarprotocol.net/">Solar Protocol</a>. Also somewhat related
is the <a href="https://smallfile.ca/">Small File Media Festival</a> that
criticizes the carbon footprint of streamed media with smallish (video)
files. This is an area where the demoscene could make important
contributions.</p>

<p>In addition to the generic groups of like-minded people, there are
specific projects, such as <a href="https://collapseos.org/">Collapse
OS</a>, whose participants don't necessarily have connections to wider
groups.</p>

<p>Occasionally, an online article pops up that expresses similar concerns
and ideas as I did with the Permacomputing essay, like Wim Vanderbauwhede's
<a href="https://wimvanderbauwhede.github.io/articles/frugal-computing/">Frugal
computing</a>. It is great to see that many different people independently
come to similar conclusions, but this can also be seen as a sign that we
need more social media activism and awareness-rising even to make all the
concerned people find each other.</p>

<p>Marloes de Valk has been <a href="https://computingwithinlimits.org/2021/papers/limits21-devalk.pdf">mapping</a>
this scattered "pluriverse" and its terminology, but I have the feeling that
this only scratches the surface, and that there's a lot of relevant practice
going on in e.g. non-Western countries.</p>

<p>A major problem with this "pluriverse" is the lack of a common name to be
used in communication. "Permacomputing" scored quite high in De Valk's
Fediverse poll, and I have no objections against using it for this purpose.
Something like "radically sustainable computing" might also be a good
umbrella term ("radically" being the keyword that differentiates it from the
greenwashed capitalism of "Sustainable ITC").</p>

<h2>2. Collapse Informatics</h2>

<p>Many of the early Computing within Limits papers discuss collapse and
scarcity scenarios from somewhat bleak viewpoints. In later years, the
research community started to reframe itself in more positive ways by
drawing inspiration from e.g. Hes &amp; du Plessis' <i><a href="https://www.routledge.com/Designing-for-Hope-Pathways-to-Regenerative-Sustainability/Hes-Plessis/p/book/9781138800625">Regenerative
Sustainability</a></i> and Escobar's <i><a href="https://www.dukeupress.edu/designs-for-the-pluriverse/">Designs for
the Pluriverse</a></i> – just like Permacomputing draws inspiration from
Permaculture. But even when focusing on a positive vision, one should not
take anything for granted. If a vision cannot survive a collapse of
industrial production or network infrastructure, it isn't resilient
enough.</p>

<p>An important paper in the collapse vein is Jang et al.'s <i><a href="https://kurti.sh/pubs/unplanned_limits17.pdf">Unplanned Obsolescence:
Hardware and Software After Collapse</a></i> that e.g. estimates lifetimes for
various hardware components, with the conclusion that it may be possible to
maintain some of current computer hardware for several human generations
even if the entire semiconductor industry collapsed right now. Solderpunk
(the creator of the afore-mentioned Gemini) has a concrete proposal for a
"<a href="gopher://zaibatsu.circumlunar.space/0/%7esolderpunk/phlog/the-standard-salvaged-computing-platform.txt">standard
salvaged computing platform</a>" based on smartphone/tablet e-waste. I'm
sure that there are components with much longer potential lifespans (Jang et
al. estimate current mobile hardware to be able to persist for about one
generation), but at least there would be heaps of this type of junk
available in the early years. I'm personally interested by the possibilities
of microcontroller-based smartcards (that are even more ubiquitous than
mobile phones but have entirely different challenges).</p>

<p>Jang et al. also have a few interesting words about maintenance culture.
In the same way as religious organizations continued to maintain ancient
Chinese roads that no longer received governmental support, computing could
be maintained in a post-collapse world by "semi-ascetic cultural
organizations whose primary focus may or may not be computing". I have
personally been fascinated by the potential of monastery-like communities to
preserve science and technology even during "dark ages" when the society at
large sees no value in them. In medieval Europe, some monasteries even
refined and advocated technologies such as <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271064820_Wind_and_Water_in_the_Middle_Ages_Fluid_Technologies_from_Antiquity_to_the_Renaissance">water
power</a>.</p>

<p>The term <i><a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262276832_Collapse_Informatics_and_Practice_Theory_Method_and_Design">collapse
informatics</a></i> comes from Bill Tomlinson who suggests that one should look
into the existing computing practices in groups that have voluntarily chosen
to live off-grid or in other "collapse-like" conditions. I might also want
to include those who do so involuntarily, as well as those who have made
"collapse-compatible" decisions specifically with computing (e.g. artists
who specialize in old hardware).</p>

<p>I don't know if there is going to be a collapse, but I'm quite sure that
the entire society needs to reduce energy consumption, lengthen
technological lifespans and reduce superfluous dependencies. Recognizing the
possiblity of a collapse may help coordinate these changes. <i><a href="https://www.ceguide.org/Strategies-and-examples/Design/Design-for-disassembly-deconstruction">Designing for
disassembly</a></i> is an example of a concrete goal that supports hardware
longevity in both collapse and non-collapse scenarios.</p>

<h2>3. Anti-utilitarianism</h2>

<p>In profit-oriented societies, people often try to make themselves and
their fields of expertise as important and useful as possible. It has
therefore been delightful to learn about visions that detach computing from
all utilitarian purposes.</p>

<p>Brendan Howell's <i><a href="https://moddr.net/rustic-computing/">Rustic
Computing</a></i> is an artistic project that depicts computing as "the pastime
of dilettantes, amateur scientists and gentleman tabulators who construct
machines to manipulate abstract symbols with no practical application".
Computer components are built using pre-industrial technology, which reminds
me of early mechanical computers such as Zuse's Z1. When computers are built
with non-pollutive technologies, they don't need to justify their existence
by paying back their ecological debts. And since they have no practical
purpose, they don't even have to be faster or better than manual
paper-and-pencil calculation. They can just be interesting and important the
way they are.</p>

<p>I see much of the same attitude in <i><a href="https://compudanzas.net/about.html">Compudanzas</a></i>, a research
project that reimagines computing in the form of "seemingly useless"
activities such as rituals and dancing.</p>

<p>In Steve Lord's idea of <i><a href="https://thedorkweb.substack.com/p/the-100-year-computer">Heirloom
Computing</a></i>, a computer that has been made to last for many generations
can be a piece of family history that evolves with the family, keeping
permanent traces from every generation that has used it, and does not need
to have any purpose besides this.</p>

<p>As suggested by Jang et al., a post-collapse society that has eventually
lost all of its artificial computing capacity may still want to continue the
practice of computer science in a purely theoretical level, as a form of
mathematics. This is another example of how computing may remain meaningful
for some pockets of culture even with no ability to run any potential
applications.</p>

<p>Detachment from utilitarism may (perhaps paradoxically) give way to a
deeper importance and meaning. I'm particularly thinking about Yuk Hui's
idea of <i><a href="https://www.academia.edu/35561477/On_Cosmotechnics_For_a_Renewed_Relation_between_Technology_and_Nature_in_the_Anthropocene">Cosmotechnics</a></i>
which refers to a unified harmony between technology, culture and non-human
nature. Modern technological thinking lost this harmony by turning
everything into utilitarian resources. An interesting point made by Hui is
that every culture should find its own approach to cosmotechnics – so, we
would be replacing a homogenous global utilitarian monoculture with a rich
and diverse polyculture.</p>

<h2>4. Limits of imagination</h2>

<p>It is often difficult to even imagine a kind of computer culture that
does not suffer from unlimited growth. Even the most interesting real-world
examples (such as the Soviet computing culture) exist somewhat in the shadow
of Western developments and ideologies. So, there's no real "other" to
contrast the growth-obsessed mainstream computing with.</p>

<p>Computing within Limits papers have also given me an impression that some
scholars even find it difficult to imagine e.g. how software development
could take place without the Internet. In cases like this, I might suggest
looking into the actual history and listening to people who have experienced
it. Even though the history of computing isn't nearly as diverse as it could
or should be, it is still worthwhile to study it. And definitely not only
the mainstream "winners' history" but everything from the various cultures
and subcultures.</p>

<p>Eriksson and Pargman <a href="https://computingwithinlimits.org/2018/papers/limits18-eriksson.pdf">have
suggested the use of counterfactual history</a> to assist imagination.
Sadly, their own <i><a href="https://www.researchgate.net/project/Coalworld">Coalworld</a></i>
scenario (with the point of divergence being an early-seventies "peak oil"
event) has not yet reached the point where computing can be elaborated. I
wish there was more speculation (both fiction-oriented and academically
rigorous works) that would present thoroughly-imagined alternatives to the
actual history.</p>

<h2>5. Alternative paradigms</h2>

<p>I've already mentioned several "alternative paradigms of computing":
<i>frugal computing</i>, <i>heirloom computing</i>, <i>rustic computing</i>,
<i>collapse informatics</i>. But there are still a few more to add:</p>

<p><i><a href="https://computingwithinlimits.org/2018/papers/limits18-mann.pdf">Regenerative
computing</a></i> is Mann et al.'s idea of applying Hes &amp; du Plessis'
<i>Regenerative sustainability</i> to computing. The most
Permacomputing-relevant part of the Limits'18 is quite dense, so I'll quote
it verbatim: (number 7 refers to Hes &amp; du Plessis' 2014 book <i><a href="https://www.routledge.com/Designing-for-Hope-Pathways-to-Regenerative-Sustainability/Hes-Plessis/p/book/9781138800625">Designing
for hope: pathways to regenerative sustainability</a></i>)</p>

<blockquote>
(3) Move beyond efficiency as the primary lever available to computing. -
These new narratives should look to nature and ecology to demonstrate the
interplay between computing, society and biological systems where limits of
these systems are respected and worked with.<br>
(4) Integrate ecological worldviews into computing's narratives and
processes both the theory such as living systems and deep ecology, and
values sets:
<ul>
<li>Integrity - maintaining the wholeness of [wider] systems, ensuring that
structure and relationships remain intact and functioning as they
should.</li>
<li>Inclusivity - "interacting with the world in its entirety" [7, p. 35],
engaging and integrating with all dimensions, levels of existence and
knowledge.</li>
<li>Harmony - all elements cooperate through relationships that are
respectful in order to avoid dissonance.</li>
<li>Respect - all parts of the world have intrinsic worth and all existence
is part of the extended self, and therefore all self-respect is extended to
mutual respect for the world.</li>
<li>Mutuality - "we are in this together, and what happens to ‘others’ will
also have an effect on self" - see: compassion, treating others the same as
yourself.</li>
<li>Positive reciprocity - "reciprocating in a way that is
of benefit to and advances the relationship between
self and extended self" [7, p. 35].</li>
<li>Fellowship - an extension of mutuality and positive reciprocity, where
the world is co-created by humans in partnership with nature.</li>
<li>Responsibility - morally accountability for the consequences of our
actions in an uncertain and unpredictable world</li>
<li>Humility - change is constant, we cannot know the true consequences of
our actions</li>
<li>Non-attachment - In order to adapt to changing circumstances it is
important to uphold non-attachment in order to decouple from “the futility
of trying to hold onto anything in an ever changing world including ideas,
dogmas and strategies” [7, p. 36]</li>
</ul>
</blockquote>

<p><i>Convivial computing</i>, from <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235173004_Constrained_Design_Processes_Steps_Towards_Convivial_Computing">Fischer
&amp; Lemke's 1987 paper</a>, is an earlier example of taking ideas from
ecologically conscious thinking into computing (in this case, from Ivan
Illich's book <i>Tools for Conviviality</i>). Even earlier, Lee Felsenstein
had been inspired by the same book when designing the Osborne 1 personal
computer. In both cases, however, the ecological aspects of Illich's thought
are ignored. Also, Fischer &amp; Lemke's paper doesn't feel at all like a
forgotten masterpiece of groundbreaking thought – the ideas actually seem to
be very much in line with what was implemented in the "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_application_development">RAD</a>
tools" of the 1990s. And some of these tools (Delphi, Visual Basic) felt
like the epitome of bloat at the time.</p>

<p><i><a href="https://computingwithinlimits.org/2015/papers/limits2015-raghavan.pdf">Benign
computing</a></i> basically advocates keeping things small in order to keep
the problems caused by them small. Currently, huge problems are created by
huge, centrally-managed systems built with the principles of abstraction and
indirection. Raghavan's critique of these principles is very similar to how
I see "<a href="http://viznut.fi/texts-en/maximalism_virtualism.html">maximalism and
virtualism</a>". I also completely agree with Raghavan about that "the
utopian notion of creating new technology that is strictly "beneficial" or
that advances "development"" must be rejected.</p>

<h2>6. Permacomputing practice</h2>

<p>My Permacomputing article from 2020 is basically a vision of a new kind
of computing that works in a radically different way in a radically
different society. It does not give many guidelines towards actual practice
or how to transition towards permacomputing, so maybe I should cover this
area a little bit.</p>

<p>I have been reluctant to name specific technologies or design constraints
for permacomputing. This is because I want to support a diverse polyculture
of ideas and possibilities. Asking what is the most suitable programming
language for permacomputing is a bit like asking what is the most suitable
plant for permaculture – the entire question contradicts itself. There is no
"silver bullet" – there isn't one even in the mainstream industry despite
its continuous attempts to uniformize everything. However, there can be
design wisdom about the strengths, weaknesses and mutual interactions of
specific elements, and this wisdom helps with choosing a language, a plant,
an algorithm or a design pattern for a specific place.</p>

<p>In software, nothing that can be run locally is "poisonous" per se. Even
if something consumes a lot of energy, it does not need to mean more than
that the consumption must be restricted to when that energy is available.
Far more important questions are how the hardware is obtained and
maintained, and how the energy is produced.</p>

<p>I have noticed that many "sustainable" or even "low-tech" computing
projects have been built on cheap DIY-oriented boards such as Raspberry Pi.
Even though these may be among the best of the currently available options,
it should be noted that they have been designed for hackability and
replaceability rather than longevity or repairability. There might be a need
for a radically repairable and modifiable hardware basis to fulfill similar
purposes. Radical modifiability might include the ability to interface with
a large variety of different chips (processors, SoCs etc.) – this would help
maximize the usable lifespans of those chips.</p>

<h3>6.1. Low complexity</h3>

<p>Keeping systems very simple but very capable is a good guideline for a
lot of permacomputing, but particularly so for the crucial basic software
used to enable salvaged/makeshift hardware. Bare-hardware Forth systems
(such as Collapse OS or OpenBIOS) are very capable for their low complexity,
and can be small enough even for rudimentary 8-bit microcontrollers.</p>

<p>One possible approach to simplicity is to try to keep things simple
enough that they can be thoroughly understood and (re)implemented by one
person. This applies not only to application programs but the dependent
elements as well (programming language, operating system, firmware,
hardware). This is not to say that people should write everything from
scratch but to keep the complexity human-graspable. The ideal of human-sized
computing is particularly applicable to systems that are used as tools
(because tools in general should be thoroughly understandable to their
users). Also, in decentralized "post-collapse" societies, the local
all-around experts ("village hackers") should be able to master all aspects
of the local computing systems in order to maintain them and to adapt them
to various local needs. All this becomes much easier if complexities are
kept low or moderate.</p>

<p>The effective complexity of a software program can be estimated by
summing its executable size with the size of the minimum set of dependencies
required to run it (including the OS components). Alternatively, one can
calculate its bootstrap complexity (by summing the size of all code and data
required to compile the program, the dependencies, and the entire dependency
network of the toolset required for the compilation in the smallest system
that can run them). These types of assessment strongly favor programs that
are written in non-bloated languages and can be made run on bare hardware –
even if they can also run in bloated environments and use their special
features.</p>

<p>One way to deal with huge platforms is to create "pockets of simplicity"
such as <a href="https://100r.co/site/uxn.html">simple virtual machines</a>
that can also run on bare hardware. Emulators of existing hardware platforms
are a special case of this. VMs are particularly suitable for small things
that require far less computation than what the hardware is capable of. A
virtual machine may also help eliminate compatibility problems and code rot,
if it is unambiguously defined and the definition is canonized (permanently
frozen). If approached with mainstream engineering attitudes, however, VMs
may easily lead to "Java-like" problems (wastefulness, incompatibilities,
etc.) Setting artificial limits to memory usage and execution speeds may
prevent some of these developments. One might also want to think about how
to statically translate VM programs into native code for running on
platforms that are actually small.</p>

<p>In mainstream computing, "ease of use" is usually implemented as
"superficial simplicity" or "pseudo-simplicity", i.e. as an additional layer
of complexity that hides the underlying layers. Meanwhile, systems that are
actually very simple and elegant are often presented in ways that make them
look complex to laypeople (think about the esoteric syntax of Forth or Lisp,
for example). Ideally, UIs should reflect, amplify and illustrate the
underlying elegance instead of trying to hide or misrepresent the inner
workings. The earliest versions of the Apple Macintosh OS manage to do this
to some extent (the system is not much more complex than the UI
representation, every file is represented by an icon, program files are
stand-alone without external dependencies, etc.)</p>

<p>When minimizing the internal complexity of a system, however, it should
not be isolated from the complexity of the external world. Computers are
dependent on energy availability, temperature and other conditions, so they
should be able to adjust their operation to the changes in these conditions
– even if environmental monitoring is not among their designated tasks.</p>

<h3>6.2. Towards concrete examples</h3>

<p>Permacomputing has so far been defined in ways that emphasize generic
ideas and a wide diversity of possibilities. However, in order to actually
create something that represents permacomputing, one needs to make a lot of
specific design decisions. Concrete examples (either real projects or
mockups) may help with this. In order to cover the possibility space, we
need a lot of different examples from different points of view.</p>

<p>One possible starting point is to think about a general-purpose
single-user computer that remains usable and relevant as long as possible
even in a collapse scenario. Of course, any computer should be
end-user-programmable and have some kind of programming interface to
facilitate it, but what would be the concrete applications this kind of
computer would be used for?</p>

<p>I assume that viewing text files from physical storage devices (such as
flash memory) is what would persist the longest in any scenario. A few
gigabytes of storage would be enough for an entire library of literature
that could be valuable for centuries. And accessing it would be possible
(although not comfortable) even with very rudimentary post-collapse I/O
devices (such as a few switches and indicators for a manual serial protocol
– somewhat like using a Morse code telegraph).</p>

<p>It may be theoretically possible to even read data directly from a USB
flash drive with this kind of manual "telegraphy", but the complexity of the
USB protocol would probably get overwhelming. Fortunately, a complex
protocol implies that there is a (re)programmable microcontroller in the
device, so one may want to reprogram it to support a simpler protocol. One
could also add a "backdoor" that enables the device to run arbitrary
programs from the drive, thus unleashing its potential for general-purpose
computing. It may even be possible to get a USB stick to drive "proper"
interface devices such as display screens despite the low number of I/O pins
(two output pins are enough for composite video, but LCD panels
unfortunately tend to need much more, so some kind of a multiplexer would be
required). This could help reduce and postpone the need for "Morse
code".</p>

<p>These could become general guidelines for maximizing the lifespans of
arbitrary programmable devices: 1) make it as straightforward as possible to
run arbitrary code, 2) support an electrically simple interface that can
even be operated manually in times of far-future scarcity.</p>

<p>Another persistent application besides file viewing would be text
editing. It has been prominent in personal computers since the early years
and probably will be in just about any scenario. It would also imply the
need for general file management tasks such as copying files between storage
devices. Programs for doing these tasks would be among the first to
implement for any "permacomputer" that does not require special expertise to
use.</p>

<p>Telecommunication is important but does not require computers – messages
may well be relayed with classical amateur radio methods. Also, computer
file-sharing networks can well be based on physical media. However, the
existence of a radio and a computer makes it appealing to combine the two. A
program for transferring files and text streams over abritrary channels, in
one- or two-way protocols or packet protocols, with or without error
correction and/or encryption, would be a fine inclusion to the set of
"collapse software".</p>

<p>Of course, supporting far-future post-collapse scenarios does not mean
that one should stick to far-future post-collapse practices – rather, it
ensures that there are fallbacks for everything. You can use a
high-resolution screen today, but the system will work fine even with
tomorrow's more rudimentary display. You can run a complex OS today, but the
simple OS in the firmware ROM is also perfectly fine for editing a text
document.</p>

<p>I imagine that this "simple OS" would normally look either like a plain
Forth interpreter or an orthodox file manager (i.e. a Norton Commander
clone), depending on whether the computer is connected to a sufficient
screen or not. For screens that are a bit too small for the OFM there might
also be an intermediate option that resembles early-2000s cellphone
interfaces. All of these modes would be usable even with quirky input
devices (such as a game controller, a single telegraph key or a barely
functional touchscreen). Hardware is accessed via Forth words that can be
straightforwardly redefined if there are unexpected hardware changes (such
as specific glitches that need to be bypassed).</p>

<p>The OFM would allow one to browse, view and manipulate files, run
executable files, edit text files and enter Forth commands. It could also be
set up as a bootloader to load a more complex OS, but loading one would
often be unnecessary, as many programs (especially ones that favor
single-tasking) would also be available as "Forth" executables (that may
also be native binaries that may or may not use Forth words) or as "ROM"
files runnable with a simple VM.</p>

<p>Systems that don't have much capacity to spare would perhaps only have a
plain Forth interpreter, or if even that would be too bloated, something
like the standard byte protocol used by smartcards.</p>

<p>Longevity maximization easily leads to an emphasis on conservative and
well-tested ideas, so this example may sound a little bit bleak. A fancier
starting point (such as one based on ideas from unconventional computing)
would perhaps give more room for fancier permacomputing ideas that take more
distance from fossil-era computing.</p>

<h3>6.3. Sustainable cyberspace</h3>

<p>There are many projects that address the sustainability problems of the
World Wide Web. Activism for sustainable websites, solar-powered servers,
new protocols, simpler document formats. However, these often take the
underlying Internet for granted. The access may perhaps be slow at times or
places, and a solar-powered server may be sometimes offline, but any place
of the world is still supposedly accessible from any other place of the
world at any time. The weirdness of this assumption may not even be obvious
to modern Internet users – after all, it is in the core of nearly every
major service/protocol (perhaps apart from Email and Usenet that can also
propagate over temporary connections).</p>

<p>I see need for a decentralized protocol that works painlessly in
conditions where everything is not constantly available. Where individual
servers or communication links may be online or offline depending on
circumstances. Where other parts of the network may only be accessible via
temporary connections, physical file-sharing or data mules. Where your
messages still reach their destinations, where you still get the files you
need, and where "social media" discussions can still thrive, despite all
these logistical constraints.</p>

<p>For some inspiration for the required mindset, one may think about how
files were collected and propagated in "pre-Internet" conditions (BBSes,
friend-to-friend file copying) and how to make these processes as automatic
as possible.</p>

<h2>7. Collapse-tolerant business</h2>

<p>I don't often think about how to do business in the capitalist economy,
but in the early 2021 I asked myself what kind of IT company (or other type
of IT-related organization) would thrive both before and after a collapse. I
wanted to challenge my prejudice that anything you do for profit/living will
always be somewhat "greenwashed" instead of properly sustainable.</p>

<p>Here are my ideas of how a relatively small "permacomputing company"
could operate in the "age of abundance":</p>

<ul>
<li>Accept software-related and other customer projects just like any
average IT company, as long as they are in line with strict eco-ethical
standards. Refuse to contribute to the wasteful use of resources, and
strongly prefer doing things in sustainable and robust ways. Make these
standards a part of the company brand.</li>

<li>Have long-term in-house research and development projects related to
radically sustainable computing, both software and hardware. Convince
investors about their vitality to the future of civilization. Also practice
permaculture (or constantly co-operate with ones who do) and try to connect
it to everything else that the company is doing.</li>

<li>Self-host everything you need for software work on local physical
servers. This includes all networked applications as well as an extensive
library of software and documentation (including repair manuals and OS
distributions for all relevant hardware). Offer hosting services to make
use of the surplus.</li>

<li>Produce as much of your own energy as possible with solar panels, wind
turbines etc. Sell the surplus to the company that maintains the grid.</li>

<li>Repair and maintain all hardware by yourself. Maintain a storage
facility for old/recycled hardware. Offer services related to repairing and
recycling (in a small scale, for now). Maintain a hackerspace or constantly
co-operate with one.</li>

<li>Support forms of culture that strengthen the status of radically
sustainable computing/technology (e.g. hackerspaces, education, demoscene
events, art projects that use "obsolete" hardware, etc.)</li>

<li>Make sure that many of the employees live close to the office. Maintain
spaces that can be turned into apartments once transportation becomes more
difficult.</li>
</ul>

<p>Once the world has completely changed, the focus or the organization will
become somewhat wider:

</p>
<ul>
<li>Accept any customer projects related to computing or any other
technology you happen to understand. Offer repair services.</li>

<li>Collect/buy "e-waste", build working computers and appliances out of it,
sell them.</li>

<li>Keep in contact with the rest of the "computing scene" even if
long-range communication networks have collapsed. Share information and
trade hardware components. Use couriers if necessary.</li>

<li>If microchips or some other essential components are no longer produced,
participate in attempts to restart the production (in a small scale, for
now – until we learn how to do it sustainably).</li>

<li>Similarly, try to rebuild communication networks if they have collapsed.
Offer communications services, maybe maintain "Internet cafés".</li>

<li>Maintain digital and physical libraries of pre-collapse and
post-collapse information. Print physical books. Participate in projects
that support the continuing existence of science and education.</li>

<li>Make sure that technological understanding will pass on to new
generations. If necessary, educate the new employees (or cult members or
whatever they may be called) from scratch.</li>

<li>If it becomes impossible to make living out of this, start depending on
agriculture. But in any case don't forget the importance of science and
technology. If necessary, explain the importance in religious terms.</li>
</ul>

<h2>8. Postdigital advocacy</h2>

<p>Art researchers recognize the concept of "postdigital" as a reaction
against the so-called "digital revolution" that took place in the nineties,
and especially against the typically "digital" esthetics. Using cassette
tapes for music in a world where digital music formats are ubiquitous is an
obvious example of "postdigital".</p>

<p>But not all that is called "postdigital" is non-digital. Actually, much
of it is very profoundly digital – pixel art and glitch art for example. The
term is somewhat misleading – it does not only mean "the non-digital that
comes after digital", but can also be read as "a later form of digital" or
"something that comes after the digital revolution". It particularly seems
to set itself apart from the "progress narrative" that wants to continuously
replace everything with "bigger and better". This makes the idea relevant to
permacomputing as well.</p>

<p>When advocating lifestyles that abandon maximalism, it is important to
frame it in a positive way. Settling for simple and coarse things does not
need to be a "sacrifice" but something genuinely better than the mainstream
alternative. "Postdigitality" is already a prominent force in e.g. indie
games that often choose to use pixel graphics as a "modern" esthetic
preference rather than as "retro nostalgia". This gives hope that a major
paradigm shift is possible for the mainstream digital culture in
general.</p>

<p>During the global pandemic, many people have been extremely dependent on
prohibitively complex digital blackboxes. I therefore assume that, once the
pandemic is over, many people will want to distance themselves from the
mainstream digital world. To concentate on non-digital things but also to
find a healthier relationship with the digital. I think this is something
that advocates of radically sustainable computing should tap into.</p>

<h2>Links</h2>

<p>(Added 2021-08-27) Here are some links I failed to include in the
original version of this page:</p>
<ul>
<li><a href="https://moddingfridays.bleu255.com/Main_Page">Modding
Fridays</a>: "An online community of people interested to learn together about the maintenance, repurposing, and reappropriation of supposedly obsolete consumer electronics, for fun and profit. We see our interest as part of a broader conversation on post-digital culture, permacomputing and repair
culture". Includes a wiki and an XMPP chatroom.</li>
<li><a href="http://civboot.org/">Civboot</a> is an educational project
aiming at simplifying the requirements and dependencies of computer
technology as well as increasing humanity's ability to understand it.</li>
<li><a href="https://wiki.xxiivv.com/site/permacomputing.html">Permacomputing
at the XXIIVV Wiki</a></li>
<li><a href="https://communitywiki.org/wiki/SimpleSystemsManifesto">Simple
Systems Manifesto</a></li>
</ul>

<p>Written by Ville-Matias "<a href="http://www.viznut.fi/">Viznut</a>" Heikkilä.<br>
<b>2021-08-12</b>: initial release<br>
<b>2021-08-27</b>: added the links section<br>
<a rel="license" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/">
<img alt="Creative Commons License" src="data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAAFgAAAAfCAMAAABUFvrSAAAADFBMVEUAAAD///99fX2+w7rj0zguAAAA4klEQVRIx7WWgQ6FIAhFYf3/P9cjMX0K3rvStVwDT3QTRFS2jB/22DBkE9fI/WuwV639GnOrEILN/R6jKW4DCEaWftVWsWVJyjWX3M9NHTcne7j3fQH+42Zk8NNuy8BNlhTXOi3AqiM5V2KhhYGfv9xPH4DdV+oUrmGk8K1z3XzKwN2uQMBtJIDIwHZjwXCCUFIwKU39PKYIUduNKptMglCFnklp7gQhihB56M3L5tujOqqG75uA+dEU9wyWH6V5wMjR89CM2KVgzMf0IYpYRHE5ZskVRizKKA1g2Yi3tIU7sCfXlRBdibyVCwAAAABJRU5ErkJggg=="></a><br>
This work is licensed under a
<a rel="license" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/">
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License</a>.</p>
</article>


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title: Permacomputing Update 2021
url: http://viznut.fi/texts-en/permacomputing_update_2021.html
hash_url: 0f791a9509f762f1a1a36b6ca2333230

<p>It is now more than a year since I wrote <a href="http://viznut.fi/texts-en/permacomputing.html">my "early notes" about
Permacomputing</a>. At that time, I was not yet aware of anyone else having
similar ideas, so I've now decided to write an update that connects my ideas
with the existing discussions and activities. I also want to share some new
ideas I have been pondering about. This text is about 33K characters / 4900
words long, so allocate your time accordingly.</p>

<h2>1. A fragmented pluriverse</h2>

<p>The "biosphere-aware computing scene" is quite fragmented. There are many
different islands (groups and individuals) that use different terminology
and that are only now discovering each other. It is therefore important to
build bridges between the islands.</p>

<p><a href="https://computingwithinlimits.org/">Computing within Limits
workshops</a> that started in 2015 form an important hub but have been
rather invisible from non-academic perspectives. Many interesting papers
have come out of these workshops, but I would really like to see more
practical and/or longer-term projects that go beyond the shortish workshop
papers. Computing within Limits branched out of a larger field of
"sustainable" ITC <a href="http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-375131">that is known
to have huge problems</a>.</p>

<p>Another hub is in the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fediverse">Fediverse</a>, particularly
around the Mastodon server <a href="https://merveilles.town/">Merveilles.town</a> that centers around
creativity and sustainable technology. Many of these productive hackers,
artists and activists also participate in the "smolnet"/"smallnet",
including the space of the <a href="https://gemini.circumlunar.space/">Gemini</a> protocol. My
Permacomputing article was very well received in these circles and many have
adopted the concept for their use.</p>

<p>Then there's the "Sustainable Internet" activism that has the <a href="https://branch.climateaction.tech/about">Branch online magazine</a>. I
tend to lump this together with the various "solar web" projects such as the
<a href="https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2020/01/how-sustainable-is-a-solar-powered-website.html">solar-powered
version of Low-Tech Magazine</a> and the <a href="http://solarprotocol.net/">Solar Protocol</a>. Also somewhat related
is the <a href="https://smallfile.ca/">Small File Media Festival</a> that
criticizes the carbon footprint of streamed media with smallish (video)
files. This is an area where the demoscene could make important
contributions.</p>

<p>In addition to the generic groups of like-minded people, there are
specific projects, such as <a href="https://collapseos.org/">Collapse
OS</a>, whose participants don't necessarily have connections to wider
groups.</p>

<p>Occasionally, an online article pops up that expresses similar concerns
and ideas as I did with the Permacomputing essay, like Wim Vanderbauwhede's
<a href="https://wimvanderbauwhede.github.io/articles/frugal-computing/">Frugal
computing</a>. It is great to see that many different people independently
come to similar conclusions, but this can also be seen as a sign that we
need more social media activism and awareness-rising even to make all the
concerned people find each other.</p>

<p>Marloes de Valk has been <a href="https://computingwithinlimits.org/2021/papers/limits21-devalk.pdf">mapping</a>
this scattered "pluriverse" and its terminology, but I have the feeling that
this only scratches the surface, and that there's a lot of relevant practice
going on in e.g. non-Western countries.</p>

<p>A major problem with this "pluriverse" is the lack of a common name to be
used in communication. "Permacomputing" scored quite high in De Valk's
Fediverse poll, and I have no objections against using it for this purpose.
Something like "radically sustainable computing" might also be a good
umbrella term ("radically" being the keyword that differentiates it from the
greenwashed capitalism of "Sustainable ITC").</p>

<h2>2. Collapse Informatics</h2>

<p>Many of the early Computing within Limits papers discuss collapse and
scarcity scenarios from somewhat bleak viewpoints. In later years, the
research community started to reframe itself in more positive ways by
drawing inspiration from e.g. Hes &amp; du Plessis' <i><a href="https://www.routledge.com/Designing-for-Hope-Pathways-to-Regenerative-Sustainability/Hes-Plessis/p/book/9781138800625">Regenerative
Sustainability</a></i> and Escobar's <i><a href="https://www.dukeupress.edu/designs-for-the-pluriverse/">Designs for
the Pluriverse</a></i> – just like Permacomputing draws inspiration from
Permaculture. But even when focusing on a positive vision, one should not
take anything for granted. If a vision cannot survive a collapse of
industrial production or network infrastructure, it isn't resilient
enough.</p>

<p>An important paper in the collapse vein is Jang et al.'s <i><a href="https://kurti.sh/pubs/unplanned_limits17.pdf">Unplanned Obsolescence:
Hardware and Software After Collapse</a></i> that e.g. estimates lifetimes for
various hardware components, with the conclusion that it may be possible to
maintain some of current computer hardware for several human generations
even if the entire semiconductor industry collapsed right now. Solderpunk
(the creator of the afore-mentioned Gemini) has a concrete proposal for a
"<a href="gopher://zaibatsu.circumlunar.space/0/%7esolderpunk/phlog/the-standard-salvaged-computing-platform.txt">standard
salvaged computing platform</a>" based on smartphone/tablet e-waste. I'm
sure that there are components with much longer potential lifespans (Jang et
al. estimate current mobile hardware to be able to persist for about one
generation), but at least there would be heaps of this type of junk
available in the early years. I'm personally interested by the possibilities
of microcontroller-based smartcards (that are even more ubiquitous than
mobile phones but have entirely different challenges).</p>

<p>Jang et al. also have a few interesting words about maintenance culture.
In the same way as religious organizations continued to maintain ancient
Chinese roads that no longer received governmental support, computing could
be maintained in a post-collapse world by "semi-ascetic cultural
organizations whose primary focus may or may not be computing". I have
personally been fascinated by the potential of monastery-like communities to
preserve science and technology even during "dark ages" when the society at
large sees no value in them. In medieval Europe, some monasteries even
refined and advocated technologies such as <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271064820_Wind_and_Water_in_the_Middle_Ages_Fluid_Technologies_from_Antiquity_to_the_Renaissance">water
power</a>.</p>

<p>The term <i><a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262276832_Collapse_Informatics_and_Practice_Theory_Method_and_Design">collapse
informatics</a></i> comes from Bill Tomlinson who suggests that one should look
into the existing computing practices in groups that have voluntarily chosen
to live off-grid or in other "collapse-like" conditions. I might also want
to include those who do so involuntarily, as well as those who have made
"collapse-compatible" decisions specifically with computing (e.g. artists
who specialize in old hardware).</p>

<p>I don't know if there is going to be a collapse, but I'm quite sure that
the entire society needs to reduce energy consumption, lengthen
technological lifespans and reduce superfluous dependencies. Recognizing the
possiblity of a collapse may help coordinate these changes. <i><a href="https://www.ceguide.org/Strategies-and-examples/Design/Design-for-disassembly-deconstruction">Designing for
disassembly</a></i> is an example of a concrete goal that supports hardware
longevity in both collapse and non-collapse scenarios.</p>

<h2>3. Anti-utilitarianism</h2>

<p>In profit-oriented societies, people often try to make themselves and
their fields of expertise as important and useful as possible. It has
therefore been delightful to learn about visions that detach computing from
all utilitarian purposes.</p>

<p>Brendan Howell's <i><a href="https://moddr.net/rustic-computing/">Rustic
Computing</a></i> is an artistic project that depicts computing as "the pastime
of dilettantes, amateur scientists and gentleman tabulators who construct
machines to manipulate abstract symbols with no practical application".
Computer components are built using pre-industrial technology, which reminds
me of early mechanical computers such as Zuse's Z1. When computers are built
with non-pollutive technologies, they don't need to justify their existence
by paying back their ecological debts. And since they have no practical
purpose, they don't even have to be faster or better than manual
paper-and-pencil calculation. They can just be interesting and important the
way they are.</p>

<p>I see much of the same attitude in <i><a href="https://compudanzas.net/about.html">Compudanzas</a></i>, a research
project that reimagines computing in the form of "seemingly useless"
activities such as rituals and dancing.</p>

<p>In Steve Lord's idea of <i><a href="https://thedorkweb.substack.com/p/the-100-year-computer">Heirloom
Computing</a></i>, a computer that has been made to last for many generations
can be a piece of family history that evolves with the family, keeping
permanent traces from every generation that has used it, and does not need
to have any purpose besides this.</p>

<p>As suggested by Jang et al., a post-collapse society that has eventually
lost all of its artificial computing capacity may still want to continue the
practice of computer science in a purely theoretical level, as a form of
mathematics. This is another example of how computing may remain meaningful
for some pockets of culture even with no ability to run any potential
applications.</p>

<p>Detachment from utilitarism may (perhaps paradoxically) give way to a
deeper importance and meaning. I'm particularly thinking about Yuk Hui's
idea of <i><a href="https://www.academia.edu/35561477/On_Cosmotechnics_For_a_Renewed_Relation_between_Technology_and_Nature_in_the_Anthropocene">Cosmotechnics</a></i>
which refers to a unified harmony between technology, culture and non-human
nature. Modern technological thinking lost this harmony by turning
everything into utilitarian resources. An interesting point made by Hui is
that every culture should find its own approach to cosmotechnics – so, we
would be replacing a homogenous global utilitarian monoculture with a rich
and diverse polyculture.</p>

<h2>4. Limits of imagination</h2>

<p>It is often difficult to even imagine a kind of computer culture that
does not suffer from unlimited growth. Even the most interesting real-world
examples (such as the Soviet computing culture) exist somewhat in the shadow
of Western developments and ideologies. So, there's no real "other" to
contrast the growth-obsessed mainstream computing with.</p>

<p>Computing within Limits papers have also given me an impression that some
scholars even find it difficult to imagine e.g. how software development
could take place without the Internet. In cases like this, I might suggest
looking into the actual history and listening to people who have experienced
it. Even though the history of computing isn't nearly as diverse as it could
or should be, it is still worthwhile to study it. And definitely not only
the mainstream "winners' history" but everything from the various cultures
and subcultures.</p>

<p>Eriksson and Pargman <a href="https://computingwithinlimits.org/2018/papers/limits18-eriksson.pdf">have
suggested the use of counterfactual history</a> to assist imagination.
Sadly, their own <i><a href="https://www.researchgate.net/project/Coalworld">Coalworld</a></i>
scenario (with the point of divergence being an early-seventies "peak oil"
event) has not yet reached the point where computing can be elaborated. I
wish there was more speculation (both fiction-oriented and academically
rigorous works) that would present thoroughly-imagined alternatives to the
actual history.</p>

<h2>5. Alternative paradigms</h2>

<p>I've already mentioned several "alternative paradigms of computing":
<i>frugal computing</i>, <i>heirloom computing</i>, <i>rustic computing</i>,
<i>collapse informatics</i>. But there are still a few more to add:</p>

<p><i><a href="https://computingwithinlimits.org/2018/papers/limits18-mann.pdf">Regenerative
computing</a></i> is Mann et al.'s idea of applying Hes &amp; du Plessis'
<i>Regenerative sustainability</i> to computing. The most
Permacomputing-relevant part of the Limits'18 is quite dense, so I'll quote
it verbatim: (number 7 refers to Hes &amp; du Plessis' 2014 book <i><a href="https://www.routledge.com/Designing-for-Hope-Pathways-to-Regenerative-Sustainability/Hes-Plessis/p/book/9781138800625">Designing
for hope: pathways to regenerative sustainability</a></i>)</p>

<blockquote>
(3) Move beyond efficiency as the primary lever available to computing. -
These new narratives should look to nature and ecology to demonstrate the
interplay between computing, society and biological systems where limits of
these systems are respected and worked with.<br>
(4) Integrate ecological worldviews into computing's narratives and
processes both the theory such as living systems and deep ecology, and
values sets:
<ul>
<li>Integrity - maintaining the wholeness of [wider] systems, ensuring that
structure and relationships remain intact and functioning as they
should.</li>
<li>Inclusivity - "interacting with the world in its entirety" [7, p. 35],
engaging and integrating with all dimensions, levels of existence and
knowledge.</li>
<li>Harmony - all elements cooperate through relationships that are
respectful in order to avoid dissonance.</li>
<li>Respect - all parts of the world have intrinsic worth and all existence
is part of the extended self, and therefore all self-respect is extended to
mutual respect for the world.</li>
<li>Mutuality - "we are in this together, and what happens to ‘others’ will
also have an effect on self" - see: compassion, treating others the same as
yourself.</li>
<li>Positive reciprocity - "reciprocating in a way that is
of benefit to and advances the relationship between
self and extended self" [7, p. 35].</li>
<li>Fellowship - an extension of mutuality and positive reciprocity, where
the world is co-created by humans in partnership with nature.</li>
<li>Responsibility - morally accountability for the consequences of our
actions in an uncertain and unpredictable world</li>
<li>Humility - change is constant, we cannot know the true consequences of
our actions</li>
<li>Non-attachment - In order to adapt to changing circumstances it is
important to uphold non-attachment in order to decouple from “the futility
of trying to hold onto anything in an ever changing world including ideas,
dogmas and strategies” [7, p. 36]</li>
</ul>
</blockquote>

<p><i>Convivial computing</i>, from <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235173004_Constrained_Design_Processes_Steps_Towards_Convivial_Computing">Fischer
&amp; Lemke's 1987 paper</a>, is an earlier example of taking ideas from
ecologically conscious thinking into computing (in this case, from Ivan
Illich's book <i>Tools for Conviviality</i>). Even earlier, Lee Felsenstein
had been inspired by the same book when designing the Osborne 1 personal
computer. In both cases, however, the ecological aspects of Illich's thought
are ignored. Also, Fischer &amp; Lemke's paper doesn't feel at all like a
forgotten masterpiece of groundbreaking thought – the ideas actually seem to
be very much in line with what was implemented in the "<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_application_development">RAD</a>
tools" of the 1990s. And some of these tools (Delphi, Visual Basic) felt
like the epitome of bloat at the time.</p>

<p><i><a href="https://computingwithinlimits.org/2015/papers/limits2015-raghavan.pdf">Benign
computing</a></i> basically advocates keeping things small in order to keep
the problems caused by them small. Currently, huge problems are created by
huge, centrally-managed systems built with the principles of abstraction and
indirection. Raghavan's critique of these principles is very similar to how
I see "<a href="http://viznut.fi/texts-en/maximalism_virtualism.html">maximalism and
virtualism</a>". I also completely agree with Raghavan about that "the
utopian notion of creating new technology that is strictly "beneficial" or
that advances "development"" must be rejected.</p>

<h2>6. Permacomputing practice</h2>

<p>My Permacomputing article from 2020 is basically a vision of a new kind
of computing that works in a radically different way in a radically
different society. It does not give many guidelines towards actual practice
or how to transition towards permacomputing, so maybe I should cover this
area a little bit.</p>

<p>I have been reluctant to name specific technologies or design constraints
for permacomputing. This is because I want to support a diverse polyculture
of ideas and possibilities. Asking what is the most suitable programming
language for permacomputing is a bit like asking what is the most suitable
plant for permaculture – the entire question contradicts itself. There is no
"silver bullet" – there isn't one even in the mainstream industry despite
its continuous attempts to uniformize everything. However, there can be
design wisdom about the strengths, weaknesses and mutual interactions of
specific elements, and this wisdom helps with choosing a language, a plant,
an algorithm or a design pattern for a specific place.</p>

<p>In software, nothing that can be run locally is "poisonous" per se. Even
if something consumes a lot of energy, it does not need to mean more than
that the consumption must be restricted to when that energy is available.
Far more important questions are how the hardware is obtained and
maintained, and how the energy is produced.</p>

<p>I have noticed that many "sustainable" or even "low-tech" computing
projects have been built on cheap DIY-oriented boards such as Raspberry Pi.
Even though these may be among the best of the currently available options,
it should be noted that they have been designed for hackability and
replaceability rather than longevity or repairability. There might be a need
for a radically repairable and modifiable hardware basis to fulfill similar
purposes. Radical modifiability might include the ability to interface with
a large variety of different chips (processors, SoCs etc.) – this would help
maximize the usable lifespans of those chips.</p>

<h3>6.1. Low complexity</h3>

<p>Keeping systems very simple but very capable is a good guideline for a
lot of permacomputing, but particularly so for the crucial basic software
used to enable salvaged/makeshift hardware. Bare-hardware Forth systems
(such as Collapse OS or OpenBIOS) are very capable for their low complexity,
and can be small enough even for rudimentary 8-bit microcontrollers.</p>

<p>One possible approach to simplicity is to try to keep things simple
enough that they can be thoroughly understood and (re)implemented by one
person. This applies not only to application programs but the dependent
elements as well (programming language, operating system, firmware,
hardware). This is not to say that people should write everything from
scratch but to keep the complexity human-graspable. The ideal of human-sized
computing is particularly applicable to systems that are used as tools
(because tools in general should be thoroughly understandable to their
users). Also, in decentralized "post-collapse" societies, the local
all-around experts ("village hackers") should be able to master all aspects
of the local computing systems in order to maintain them and to adapt them
to various local needs. All this becomes much easier if complexities are
kept low or moderate.</p>

<p>The effective complexity of a software program can be estimated by
summing its executable size with the size of the minimum set of dependencies
required to run it (including the OS components). Alternatively, one can
calculate its bootstrap complexity (by summing the size of all code and data
required to compile the program, the dependencies, and the entire dependency
network of the toolset required for the compilation in the smallest system
that can run them). These types of assessment strongly favor programs that
are written in non-bloated languages and can be made run on bare hardware –
even if they can also run in bloated environments and use their special
features.</p>

<p>One way to deal with huge platforms is to create "pockets of simplicity"
such as <a href="https://100r.co/site/uxn.html">simple virtual machines</a>
that can also run on bare hardware. Emulators of existing hardware platforms
are a special case of this. VMs are particularly suitable for small things
that require far less computation than what the hardware is capable of. A
virtual machine may also help eliminate compatibility problems and code rot,
if it is unambiguously defined and the definition is canonized (permanently
frozen). If approached with mainstream engineering attitudes, however, VMs
may easily lead to "Java-like" problems (wastefulness, incompatibilities,
etc.) Setting artificial limits to memory usage and execution speeds may
prevent some of these developments. One might also want to think about how
to statically translate VM programs into native code for running on
platforms that are actually small.</p>

<p>In mainstream computing, "ease of use" is usually implemented as
"superficial simplicity" or "pseudo-simplicity", i.e. as an additional layer
of complexity that hides the underlying layers. Meanwhile, systems that are
actually very simple and elegant are often presented in ways that make them
look complex to laypeople (think about the esoteric syntax of Forth or Lisp,
for example). Ideally, UIs should reflect, amplify and illustrate the
underlying elegance instead of trying to hide or misrepresent the inner
workings. The earliest versions of the Apple Macintosh OS manage to do this
to some extent (the system is not much more complex than the UI
representation, every file is represented by an icon, program files are
stand-alone without external dependencies, etc.)</p>

<p>When minimizing the internal complexity of a system, however, it should
not be isolated from the complexity of the external world. Computers are
dependent on energy availability, temperature and other conditions, so they
should be able to adjust their operation to the changes in these conditions
– even if environmental monitoring is not among their designated tasks.</p>

<h3>6.2. Towards concrete examples</h3>

<p>Permacomputing has so far been defined in ways that emphasize generic
ideas and a wide diversity of possibilities. However, in order to actually
create something that represents permacomputing, one needs to make a lot of
specific design decisions. Concrete examples (either real projects or
mockups) may help with this. In order to cover the possibility space, we
need a lot of different examples from different points of view.</p>

<p>One possible starting point is to think about a general-purpose
single-user computer that remains usable and relevant as long as possible
even in a collapse scenario. Of course, any computer should be
end-user-programmable and have some kind of programming interface to
facilitate it, but what would be the concrete applications this kind of
computer would be used for?</p>

<p>I assume that viewing text files from physical storage devices (such as
flash memory) is what would persist the longest in any scenario. A few
gigabytes of storage would be enough for an entire library of literature
that could be valuable for centuries. And accessing it would be possible
(although not comfortable) even with very rudimentary post-collapse I/O
devices (such as a few switches and indicators for a manual serial protocol
– somewhat like using a Morse code telegraph).</p>

<p>It may be theoretically possible to even read data directly from a USB
flash drive with this kind of manual "telegraphy", but the complexity of the
USB protocol would probably get overwhelming. Fortunately, a complex
protocol implies that there is a (re)programmable microcontroller in the
device, so one may want to reprogram it to support a simpler protocol. One
could also add a "backdoor" that enables the device to run arbitrary
programs from the drive, thus unleashing its potential for general-purpose
computing. It may even be possible to get a USB stick to drive "proper"
interface devices such as display screens despite the low number of I/O pins
(two output pins are enough for composite video, but LCD panels
unfortunately tend to need much more, so some kind of a multiplexer would be
required). This could help reduce and postpone the need for "Morse
code".</p>

<p>These could become general guidelines for maximizing the lifespans of
arbitrary programmable devices: 1) make it as straightforward as possible to
run arbitrary code, 2) support an electrically simple interface that can
even be operated manually in times of far-future scarcity.</p>

<p>Another persistent application besides file viewing would be text
editing. It has been prominent in personal computers since the early years
and probably will be in just about any scenario. It would also imply the
need for general file management tasks such as copying files between storage
devices. Programs for doing these tasks would be among the first to
implement for any "permacomputer" that does not require special expertise to
use.</p>

<p>Telecommunication is important but does not require computers – messages
may well be relayed with classical amateur radio methods. Also, computer
file-sharing networks can well be based on physical media. However, the
existence of a radio and a computer makes it appealing to combine the two. A
program for transferring files and text streams over abritrary channels, in
one- or two-way protocols or packet protocols, with or without error
correction and/or encryption, would be a fine inclusion to the set of
"collapse software".</p>

<p>Of course, supporting far-future post-collapse scenarios does not mean
that one should stick to far-future post-collapse practices – rather, it
ensures that there are fallbacks for everything. You can use a
high-resolution screen today, but the system will work fine even with
tomorrow's more rudimentary display. You can run a complex OS today, but the
simple OS in the firmware ROM is also perfectly fine for editing a text
document.</p>

<p>I imagine that this "simple OS" would normally look either like a plain
Forth interpreter or an orthodox file manager (i.e. a Norton Commander
clone), depending on whether the computer is connected to a sufficient
screen or not. For screens that are a bit too small for the OFM there might
also be an intermediate option that resembles early-2000s cellphone
interfaces. All of these modes would be usable even with quirky input
devices (such as a game controller, a single telegraph key or a barely
functional touchscreen). Hardware is accessed via Forth words that can be
straightforwardly redefined if there are unexpected hardware changes (such
as specific glitches that need to be bypassed).</p>

<p>The OFM would allow one to browse, view and manipulate files, run
executable files, edit text files and enter Forth commands. It could also be
set up as a bootloader to load a more complex OS, but loading one would
often be unnecessary, as many programs (especially ones that favor
single-tasking) would also be available as "Forth" executables (that may
also be native binaries that may or may not use Forth words) or as "ROM"
files runnable with a simple VM.</p>

<p>Systems that don't have much capacity to spare would perhaps only have a
plain Forth interpreter, or if even that would be too bloated, something
like the standard byte protocol used by smartcards.</p>

<p>Longevity maximization easily leads to an emphasis on conservative and
well-tested ideas, so this example may sound a little bit bleak. A fancier
starting point (such as one based on ideas from unconventional computing)
would perhaps give more room for fancier permacomputing ideas that take more
distance from fossil-era computing.</p>

<h3>6.3. Sustainable cyberspace</h3>

<p>There are many projects that address the sustainability problems of the
World Wide Web. Activism for sustainable websites, solar-powered servers,
new protocols, simpler document formats. However, these often take the
underlying Internet for granted. The access may perhaps be slow at times or
places, and a solar-powered server may be sometimes offline, but any place
of the world is still supposedly accessible from any other place of the
world at any time. The weirdness of this assumption may not even be obvious
to modern Internet users – after all, it is in the core of nearly every
major service/protocol (perhaps apart from Email and Usenet that can also
propagate over temporary connections).</p>

<p>I see need for a decentralized protocol that works painlessly in
conditions where everything is not constantly available. Where individual
servers or communication links may be online or offline depending on
circumstances. Where other parts of the network may only be accessible via
temporary connections, physical file-sharing or data mules. Where your
messages still reach their destinations, where you still get the files you
need, and where "social media" discussions can still thrive, despite all
these logistical constraints.</p>

<p>For some inspiration for the required mindset, one may think about how
files were collected and propagated in "pre-Internet" conditions (BBSes,
friend-to-friend file copying) and how to make these processes as automatic
as possible.</p>

<h2>7. Collapse-tolerant business</h2>

<p>I don't often think about how to do business in the capitalist economy,
but in the early 2021 I asked myself what kind of IT company (or other type
of IT-related organization) would thrive both before and after a collapse. I
wanted to challenge my prejudice that anything you do for profit/living will
always be somewhat "greenwashed" instead of properly sustainable.</p>

<p>Here are my ideas of how a relatively small "permacomputing company"
could operate in the "age of abundance":</p>

<ul>
<li>Accept software-related and other customer projects just like any
average IT company, as long as they are in line with strict eco-ethical
standards. Refuse to contribute to the wasteful use of resources, and
strongly prefer doing things in sustainable and robust ways. Make these
standards a part of the company brand.</li>

<li>Have long-term in-house research and development projects related to
radically sustainable computing, both software and hardware. Convince
investors about their vitality to the future of civilization. Also practice
permaculture (or constantly co-operate with ones who do) and try to connect
it to everything else that the company is doing.</li>

<li>Self-host everything you need for software work on local physical
servers. This includes all networked applications as well as an extensive
library of software and documentation (including repair manuals and OS
distributions for all relevant hardware). Offer hosting services to make
use of the surplus.</li>

<li>Produce as much of your own energy as possible with solar panels, wind
turbines etc. Sell the surplus to the company that maintains the grid.</li>

<li>Repair and maintain all hardware by yourself. Maintain a storage
facility for old/recycled hardware. Offer services related to repairing and
recycling (in a small scale, for now). Maintain a hackerspace or constantly
co-operate with one.</li>

<li>Support forms of culture that strengthen the status of radically
sustainable computing/technology (e.g. hackerspaces, education, demoscene
events, art projects that use "obsolete" hardware, etc.)</li>

<li>Make sure that many of the employees live close to the office. Maintain
spaces that can be turned into apartments once transportation becomes more
difficult.</li>
</ul>

<p>Once the world has completely changed, the focus or the organization will
become somewhat wider:

</p><ul>
<li>Accept any customer projects related to computing or any other
technology you happen to understand. Offer repair services.</li>

<li>Collect/buy "e-waste", build working computers and appliances out of it,
sell them.</li>

<li>Keep in contact with the rest of the "computing scene" even if
long-range communication networks have collapsed. Share information and
trade hardware components. Use couriers if necessary.</li>

<li>If microchips or some other essential components are no longer produced,
participate in attempts to restart the production (in a small scale, for
now – until we learn how to do it sustainably).</li>

<li>Similarly, try to rebuild communication networks if they have collapsed.
Offer communications services, maybe maintain "Internet cafés".</li>

<li>Maintain digital and physical libraries of pre-collapse and
post-collapse information. Print physical books. Participate in projects
that support the continuing existence of science and education.</li>

<li>Make sure that technological understanding will pass on to new
generations. If necessary, educate the new employees (or cult members or
whatever they may be called) from scratch.</li>

<li>If it becomes impossible to make living out of this, start depending on
agriculture. But in any case don't forget the importance of science and
technology. If necessary, explain the importance in religious terms.</li>
</ul>

<h2>8. Postdigital advocacy</h2>

<p>Art researchers recognize the concept of "postdigital" as a reaction
against the so-called "digital revolution" that took place in the nineties,
and especially against the typically "digital" esthetics. Using cassette
tapes for music in a world where digital music formats are ubiquitous is an
obvious example of "postdigital".</p>

<p>But not all that is called "postdigital" is non-digital. Actually, much
of it is very profoundly digital – pixel art and glitch art for example. The
term is somewhat misleading – it does not only mean "the non-digital that
comes after digital", but can also be read as "a later form of digital" or
"something that comes after the digital revolution". It particularly seems
to set itself apart from the "progress narrative" that wants to continuously
replace everything with "bigger and better". This makes the idea relevant to
permacomputing as well.</p>

<p>When advocating lifestyles that abandon maximalism, it is important to
frame it in a positive way. Settling for simple and coarse things does not
need to be a "sacrifice" but something genuinely better than the mainstream
alternative. "Postdigitality" is already a prominent force in e.g. indie
games that often choose to use pixel graphics as a "modern" esthetic
preference rather than as "retro nostalgia". This gives hope that a major
paradigm shift is possible for the mainstream digital culture in
general.</p>

<p>During the global pandemic, many people have been extremely dependent on
prohibitively complex digital blackboxes. I therefore assume that, once the
pandemic is over, many people will want to distance themselves from the
mainstream digital world. To concentate on non-digital things but also to
find a healthier relationship with the digital. I think this is something
that advocates of radically sustainable computing should tap into.</p>

<h2>Links</h2>

<p>(Added 2021-08-27) Here are some links I failed to include in the
original version of this page:</p>
<ul>
<li><a href="https://moddingfridays.bleu255.com/Main_Page">Modding
Fridays</a>: "An online community of people interested to learn together about the maintenance, repurposing, and reappropriation of supposedly obsolete consumer electronics, for fun and profit. We see our interest as part of a broader conversation on post-digital culture, permacomputing and repair
culture". Includes a wiki and an XMPP chatroom.</li>
<li><a href="http://civboot.org/">Civboot</a> is an educational project
aiming at simplifying the requirements and dependencies of computer
technology as well as increasing humanity's ability to understand it.</li>
<li><a href="https://wiki.xxiivv.com/site/permacomputing.html">Permacomputing
at the XXIIVV Wiki</a></li>
<li><a href="https://communitywiki.org/wiki/SimpleSystemsManifesto">Simple
Systems Manifesto</a></li>
</ul>

Written by Ville-Matias "<a href="http://www.viznut.fi/">Viznut</a>" Heikkilä.<br>
<b>2021-08-12</b>: initial release<br>
<b>2021-08-27</b>: added the links section<br>
<a rel="license" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/">
<img alt="Creative Commons License" src="data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAAFgAAAAfCAMAAABUFvrSAAAADFBMVEUAAAD///99fX2+w7rj0zguAAAA4klEQVRIx7WWgQ6FIAhFYf3/P9cjMX0K3rvStVwDT3QTRFS2jB/22DBkE9fI/WuwV639GnOrEILN/R6jKW4DCEaWftVWsWVJyjWX3M9NHTcne7j3fQH+42Zk8NNuy8BNlhTXOi3AqiM5V2KhhYGfv9xPH4DdV+oUrmGk8K1z3XzKwN2uQMBtJIDIwHZjwXCCUFIwKU39PKYIUduNKptMglCFnklp7gQhihB56M3L5tujOqqG75uA+dEU9wyWH6V5wMjR89CM2KVgzMf0IYpYRHE5ZskVRizKKA1g2Yi3tIU7sCfXlRBdibyVCwAAAABJRU5ErkJggg=="></a><br>
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<p>Within an organization, there are three kinds of power structures: <strong>role power</strong>, <strong>relationships</strong>, and <strong>expertise</strong>.</p>
<p>Understanding these kinds of power — how they’re built; how they’re wielded; ethically and otherwise; what they can and can’t accomplish — is key to understanding organizations at a systemic level and maximizing your effectiveness at work.</p>
<h2 id="what-do-i-mean-by-power-and-why-are-am-i-talking-about-it">What do I mean by “power” and why are am I talking about it?</h2>
<p>First, I should define what I mean by “power”. I use the term in a sense fairly close to its <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_(physics)">definition in physics</a>. In physics, power is “the amount of energy transferred … per unit of time”. More power means more work performed per unit of time; less power: less work. We can think about power in an organizational sense similarly: power, organizationally-speaking, is the ability to get more work done in a given unit of time. More colloquially, power is the ability to get shit done.</p>
<p>For many, talking about power bluntly can feel gross. We tend to associate “power” with coercion or manipulation, but since the majority of folks are ethical and kind, we don’t love thinking about power. We especially don’t want to think about <em>our</em> power.</p>
<p>However, there’s a reason why I include <a href="https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm">The Tyranny of Structurelessness</a> on <a href="https://jacobian.org/2018/may/2/engmanager-reading-list/">my list of required reading for new managers</a>: power exists within organizations whether we pay attention to it or not. Even in what Jo Freeman calls “structureless” organizations – what we’d now call “flat” organizations – power structures exist whether we want to think about them or our place in them or not.</p>
<p>But power, at least from an organizational theory standpoint, isn’t about manipulation or getting people to do work they wouldn’t otherwise<sup id="fnref:1"></sup>. Power is an organizational system – the ability for the organization to get work done – that is vested in individuals (because organizations are made up of individuals). In healthy organizations, “power” manifests as a group of people, all aligned and doing their jobs, and all delivering value for the organization together. More on this thought in the section on <a href="#relationship-power">relationship power</a>.</p>
<p>That’s why I think it’s important for everyone to understand how power exists and manifests inside organizations. Sociopaths already know this stuff, and use it to their advantage (and everyone elses’ detriments). I think it’s critical that empathetic, caring, ethical people understand power, too, so they can get stuff done in an empathetic, caring, ethical way.</p>
<h2 id="role-power">Role Power</h2>
<p>When we talk about power at work, this is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Role power is the power vested in you by your role – by your position on the org chart. Fundamentally, it’s the power of getting to use “we”: the power to speak on behalf of the organization. An individual contributor can’t say “we’re all getting new laptops” (well, they can, but it probably won’t happen); the CEO certainly can.</p>
<p>Role power also manifests in the power to tell subordinates what to do. When your boss asks you to do something, there’s always an implicit “do this because I’m your boss” in that request. All else being equal, you’re more likely to do the thing if your boss asks than if someone else does.</p>
<p>However, role power is limited – more limited than most people think. I would say that role power only accounts for maybe 20% of a person’s overall power organizationally<sup id="fnref:2"></sup>. Yes, a boss can, well, boss people around&amp;mldr; but the effectiveness of this is quite limited. Orders lead to compliance, but not alignment; a manager who orders people around will get only the minimum out of their staff. They’ll be causing burnout and resentment, which will sooner or later cause that manager to fail.</p>
<p>Further, there’s not that much that you can accomplish through role power alone. When I first became a manager, I had grand expectations about how much more I’d be able to get done. Our team had been struggling with a difficult technical transition: I thought our organization wasn’t making it a high enough priority, and I thought that people on the team were approaching the work poorly. I thought, “now that I’m the boss they’ll have to listen to me!”</p>
<p>I was so wrong.</p>
<p>I started ordering people around and arguing with my new peers on the management team. I didn’t quite get to the point of shouting “respect my authority!” – but I did get embarrassingly close to that. This didn’t just fail: it made the situation worse. My direct reports, who had respected me as a peer, lost that respect when I became their boss. My new peers, my fellow managers, stopped paying attention to me. I left the organization about a year later, tail between my legs.</p>
<p>Role power is, somewhat contradictorily, more powerful the less you use it. If you get work done through other forms of power 99% of the time, when you <em>do</em> finally say “do this because I’m your boss”, it lands with force – and the relationship is strong enough to absorb that forcefulness. On the other hand, using role power too often damages relationships – and as we’ll see, relationship power is the most effective form of organizational power.</p>
<p>Role power can only be built in one way: by getting promoted, moving up the org chart. This also diminishes its value: you can’t build role power unilaterally; you only have as much or as little as the org vests in you. It’s a fixed thing; the others are not.</p>
<h2 id="relationship-power">Relationship Power</h2>
<p>While role power is overemphasized, <strong>relationship power</strong> is often underestimated – but it’s by far the most effective sort of organizational power. If role power accounts for maybe 20% of someone’s total power, relationship power is something like 70%-80%.</p>
<p>Relationship power is simply the ability to get work done through your relationships with others. It’s all the work that gets done because people and teams know and understand each other, work together effectively, and are happy to help each other out because they want others to be successful, too.</p>
<p>If there’s one thing you take away from this article I hope it’s this: <strong>spend more time building relationships at work</strong>. If you build strong relationships with your colleagues, your work will be smoother, happier, and more effective.</p>
<p>An example of how relationship power works:</p>
<p>I’ve had several roles where I’ve been responsible for developing budgets. Each time, I’m usually the first among my peers to have my budget approved; it takes me mere days while my peers spend weeks or months going back and forth on their budgets. Is this because I’m just really good at budgets? Well, maybe – but more likely, it’s because I’ve laid the groundwork for a smooth approval far in advance. I’ve met everyone involved in the budget approval chain – a finance person or three, maybe our Head of Operations or COO. I get coffee with them, get to know them and their jobs, really understand what they’re looking for. I make sure they know that I’m happy to help them out in their jobs. Often, I can: if I develop a bit of light automation, or some Excel/Google Sheets macros, I can save finance folks boatloads of time.</p>
<p>Importantly: I don’t do this because I’ll later need something from them! This isn’t a <a href="https://www.shmoop.com/quotes/someday-and-that-day-may-never-come.html">Don Corleone moment</a> – that would be ugly and manipulative. This is something I do with <em>all</em> the people I need to work with because I genuinely want to know and understand them and their jobs<sup id="fnref:3"></sup>. I offer to help because helping other people be more effective in their jobs is good for the whole organization (and it feels good to help, individually). Having a good relationship means working together is easy and effective, and I want that with everyone.</p>
<p>So, when budget season comes, I find it pretty easy. My first draft will be far closer to done because I understand what the other stakeholders want and can anticipate some of their questions. Because we’ve already worked together, if there’s a problem they know it’ll be easy to pick up the phone and tell me about it.</p>
<p>Importantly, relationship power functions <em>within</em> reporting chains too! Sure, you certainly are <em>allowed</em> to order a direct report to do something, but as I’ve noted above, this is ineffective. If instead, you understand your reports well – what they like, what they don’t, what motivates them – and they understand you and the team – what you need, what success looks like for the team, how the team’s work fits into the greater org – you can ask them for work within that context and they’ll be happy to do it. You might not even need to ask; they might just know!</p>
<p>This is why empathy and emotional intelligence are such critical skills for managers: understanding other people, being able to reason about how they think and what motivates them, and genuinely caring about their well-being all make it easier to work with them to get things done.</p>
<p>You build relationship power by&amp;mldr; building relationships. This begins with talking to them. There’s a reason why one-on-ones are <em>the</em> cornerstone of good management practice: 1:1s mean scheduled time for building relationships. Regular 1:1s lead to better relationships and this builds relationship power for both the manager and the report!</p>
<p>You also build relationship power outside your reporting chain through talking to folks – regular meetings, coffee breaks, chats over lunch, and so forth. In <a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B015VACHOK">High Output Management</a> (one of the all-time best management books), Andy Grove writes about how much time he spends simply walking around and talking to people. It can seem surprising that an executive would spend so much time just listening, but</p>
<blockquote><p>It’s obvious that your decision-making depends finally on how well you comprehend the facts and issues facing your business. This is why information-gathering is so important in a manager’s life. Other activities—conveying information, making decisions, and being a role model for your subordinates—are all governed by the base of information that you, the manager, have about the tasks, the issues, the needs, and the problems facing your organization. <strong>In short, information-gathering is the basis of all other managerial work, which is why I choose to spend so much of my day doing it.</strong></p></blockquote>
<p>(Emphasis mine.)</p>
<p>You also build relationship power every time you work with someone (assuming you do a good job, of course). This doesn’t necessarily mean doing favors – relationship power isn’t a Machiavellian quid pro quo – it’s simply that when you accomplish something with other people, that relationship gets stronger. One weird thing I’ve found is that sometimes <em>asking for help</em> can build a relationship faster than offering it. Most people want to help their colleagues, and being open about where you’re struggling is a great way to show that it’s safe for them to open up to you.</p>
<h2 id="expertise-power">Expertise Power</h2>
<p>Finally, expertise power. Expertise power is the power you have at an organization by being a clear expert in some technology, system, or process. It’s the power that a person (or team) has because they know or understand something better than everyone.</p>
<p>I have less to say about expertise power than the previous two, mostly because I’ve rarely worked for organizations or in roles where it’s been all that useful<sup id="fnref:4"></sup>. Expertise power is something typically that Staff- or Principal-level engineers have. These positions don’t have the same role power as managers. Both managers and very senior <abbr title="individual contributors">ICs</abbr> fundamentally use relationship power to get stuff done, but senior <abbr title="individual contributors">ICs</abbr> augment that with expertise power rather than role power.</p>
<p>If you’re interested in learning more about how expertise functions within these sorts of senior <abbr title="individual contributor">ICs</abbr> roles, I suggest Will Larson’s book <a href="https://staffeng.com/book">Staff Engineer: Leadership beyond the management track</a>.</p>
<h2 id="conclusion">Conclusion</h2>
<p>Learning to think about organizational power was transformative for my career. Suddenly, I was able to understand why some projects got done – and others withered on the vine. Understanding <em>why</em> relationships are so important helped me make sure I prioritized them appropriately. I doubt I’d be the leader I am today without gaining this understanding. I hope it likewise helps you in your career!</p>
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<h1>Frugal computing</h1>
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<p>On the need for low-carbon and sustainable computing and the path towards zero-carbon computing.</p>

<h2>Key points</h2>

<h3>The problem:</h3>

<ul>
<li>The current emissions from computing are about 2% of the world total but are projected to rise steeply over the next two decades. By 2040 emissions from computing alone will be close to half the emissions level acceptable to keep global warming below 1.5°C. This growth in computing emissions is unsustainable: it would make it virtually impossible to meet the emissions warming limit.</li>
<li>The emissions from production of computing devices far exceed the emissions from operating them, so even if devices are more energy efficient producing more of them will make the emissions problem worse. Therefore we must extend the useful life of our computing devices.</li>
</ul>

<h3>The solution:</h3>

<ul>
<li>As a society we need to start treating computational resources as finite and precious, to be utilised only when necessary, and as effectively as possible. We need <em>frugal computing</em>: achieving the same results for less energy. </li>
</ul>

<h3>The vision:</h3>

<ul>
<li>Imagine we can extend the useful life of our devices and even increase their capabilities without any increase in energy consumption.</li>
<li>Meanwhile, we will develop the technologies for the next generation of devices, designed for energy efficiency as well as long life.</li>
<li>Every subsequent cycle will last longer, until finally the world will have computing resources that last forever and hardly use any energy.</li>
</ul>

<h2>Defining computational resources</h2>

<p>Computational resources are all resources of energy and material that are involved in any given task that requires computing. For example, when you perform a web search on your phone or participate in a video conference on your laptop, the computational resources involved are those for production and running of your phone or laptop, the mobile network or WiFi you are connected to, the fixed network it connects to, the data centres that perform the search or video delivery operations. If you are a scientist running a simulator in a supercomputer, then the computational resources involved are your desktop computer, the network and the supercomputer. For an industrial process control system, it is the production and operation of the Programmable Logic Controllers.</p>

<h2>Computational resources are finite</h2>

<p>Since the start of general purpose computing in the 1970s, our society has been using increasing amounts of computational resources. </p>

<p>For a long time the growth in computational capability as a function of device power consumption has literally been exponential, a trend expressed by <a href="https://www.britannica.com/technology/Moores-law">Moore's law</a>. </p>

<p>With this growth in computational capability, increasing use of computational resources has become pervasive in today's society. Until recently, the total energy budget and carbon footprint resulting from the use of computational resources has been small compared to the world total. As a result, computational resources have until recently effectively been treated as unlimited. </p>

<p>Because of this, the economics of hardware and software development have been built on the assumption that with every generation, performance would double for free. Now, this unlimited growth is no longer sustainable because of a combination of technological limitations and the climate emergency. Therefore, we need to do more with less. </p>

<p>Moore's law has effectively come to an end as integrated circuits can't be scaled down any more. As a result, the performance per Watt is no longer increasing exponentially. On the other hand, the demand for computational resources is set to increase considerably. </p>

<p>The consequence is that at least for the next decades, growth in demand for computational resources will not be offset by increased power efficiency. Therefore with business as usual, the total energy budget and carbon footprint resulting from the use of computational resources will grow dramatically to become a major contributor to the world total.</p>

<p>Furthermore, the resources required to create the compute devices and infrastructure are also finite, and the total energy budget and carbon footprint of production of compute devices is huge. Moore's Law has conditioned us to doubling of performance ever two years, which has led to very short effective lifetimes of compute hardware. This rate of obsolescence of compute devices and software is entirely unsustainable. </p>

<p>Therefore, as a society we need to start treating computational resources as finite and precious, to be utilised only when necessary, and as frugally as possible. And as computing scientists, we need to ensure that computing has the lowest possible energy consumption. And we should achieve this with the currently available technologies because the lifetimes of compute devices needs to be extended dramatically. </p>

<p>I would like to call this "frugal computing": achieving the same results for less energy by being more frugal with our computing resources. </p>

<h2>The scale of the problem</h2>

<h3>Meeting the climate targets</h3>

<p>To limit global warming to 1.5°C, within the next decade a global reduction from 55 gigatonnes CO₂ equivalent (GtCO₂e) by 32 GtCO₂e to 23 GtCO₂e per year is needed <a href="#5">[5]</a>. So by 2030 that would mean a necessary reduction in overall CO₂ emissions of more than 50%. According to the International Energy Agency <a href="#10">[10]</a>, emissions from electricity are currently estimated at about 10 GtCO₂e. The global proportion of electricity from renewables is projected to rise from the current figure of 22% to slightly more than 30% by 2040 <a href="#15">[15]</a>. In other words, we cannot count on renewables to eliminate CO₂ emissions from electricity in time to meet the climate targets. Reducing the energy consumption is the only option. </p>

<h3>Emissions from consumption of computational resources</h3>

<p>The consequence of the end of Moore's law was expressed most dramatically in a 2015 report by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) "Rebooting the IT Revolution: a call to action" <a href="#1">[1]</a>, which calculated that, based on projected growth rates and on the 2015 ITRS roadmap for CMOS chip engineering technologies <a href="#16">[16]</a>, </p>

<blockquote>
<p>computing will not be sustainable by 2040, when the energy required for computing will exceed the estimated world's energy production. </p>
</blockquote>

<p>It must be noted that this is purely the energy of the computing device, as explained in the report. The energy required by e.g. the data centre infrastructure and the network is not included. </p>

<p>The SIA has reiterated this in their 2020 "Decadal Plan for Semiconductors" <a href="#2">[2]</a>, although they have revised the projection based on a "market dynamics argument": </p>

<blockquote>
<p>If the exponential growth in compute energy is left unchecked, market dynamics will limit the growth of the computational capacity which would cause a flattening out the energy curve. </p>
</blockquote>

<p>This is merely an acknowledgement of the reality that the world's energy production is not set to rise dramatically, and therefore increased demand will result in higher prices which will damp the demand. So computation is not actually going to exceed the world's energy production.</p>

<blockquote>
<p>Ever-rising energy demand for computing vs. global energy production is creating new risk, and new computing paradigms offer opportunities to dramatically improve energy efficiency.</p>
</blockquote>

<p>In the countries where most of the computational resources are consumed (US and EU), electricity production accounts currently for 25% of the total emissions <a href="#4">[4]</a>. According to the SIA's estimates, computation accounts currently for a little less than 10% of the total electricity production but is set to rise to about 30% by 2040. This would mean that, with business as usual, computational resources would be responsible for at least 10% of all global CO₂ emissions by 2040. </p>

<p>The independent study "Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 &amp; recommendations" <a href="#3">[3]</a> corroborates the SIA figures: they estimate the computing greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 between 3.0% and 3.5% of the total, which is a bit higher than the SIA estimate of 2.5% because it does take into account networks and datacentres. Their projection for 2040 is 14% rather than 10%, which means a growth of 4x rather than 3x. </p>

<p>To put it in absolute values, based on the above estimate, by 2040 energy consumption of compute devices would be responsible for 5 GtCO₂e, whereas the target for world total emissions from all sources is 23 GtCO₂e.</p>

<h3>Emissions from production of computational resources</h3>

<p>To make matters worse, the carbon emissions resulting from the production of computing devices exceeds those incurred during operation. This is a crucial point, because it means that we can't rely on next-generation hardware technologies to save energy: the production of this next generation of devices will create more emissions than any operational gains can offset. It does not mean research into more efficient technologies should stop. But their deployment cycles should be much slower. Extending the useful life of compute technologies must become our priority.</p>

<p>The report about the cost of planned obsolescence by the European Environmental Bureau <a href="#7">[7]</a> makes the scale of the problem very clear. For laptops and similar computers, manufacturing, distribution and disposal account for 52% of their <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/global-warming-potential">Global Warming Potential</a> (i.e. the amount of CO₂-equivalent emissions caused). For mobile phones, this is 72%. The report calculates that the lifetime of these devices should be at least 25 years to limit their Global Warming Potential. Currently, for laptops it is about 5 years and for mobile phones 3 years. According to <a href="#8">[8]</a>, the typical lifetime for servers in data centres is also 3-5 years, which again falls short of these minimal requirements. According to this paper, the impact of manufacturing of the servers is 20% of the total, which would require an extension of the useful life to 11-18 years. </p>

<h3>The total emissions cost from computing</h3>

<p>Taking into account the carbon cost of both operation and production, computing would be responsible for 10 GtCO₂e by 2040, almost half of the acceptable CO₂ emissions budget <a href="#2">[2,3,14]</a>.</p>

<figure>
<img src="https://wimvanderbauwhede.github.io/images/computing-emissions.png" alt="A graph with two bars: world emissions (55) and emissions from computing (0.1) in 2020; and for 2040, the world emissions target to limit warming to 1.5°C (23), and the projected emissions from computing (10)" title="A graph with two bars: world emissions (55) and emissions from computing (0.1) in 2020; and for 2040, the world emissions target to limit warming to 1.5°C (23), and the projected emissions from computing (10)">
<figcaption>Actual and projected emissions from computing (production+operation), and 2040 emission target to limit warming to &lt;2°C</figcaption>
</figure>

<h3>A breakdown per device type</h3>

<p>To decide on the required actions to reduce emissions, it is important to look at the numbers of different types of devices and their energy usage. If we consider mobile phones as one category, laptops and desktops as another and servers as a third category, the questions are: how many devices are there in each category, and what is their energy consumption. The absolute numbers of devices in use are quite difficult to estimate, but the yearly sales figures <a href="#10">[10]</a> and estimates for the energy consumption for each category <a href="#11">[11,12,13,14]</a> are readily available from various sources. The tables below show the 2020 sales and yearly energy consumption estimates for each category of devices. A detailed analysis is presented in <a href="#14">[14]</a>.</p>

<table>
<caption>Number of devices sold worldwide in 2020</caption>
<tr><th>Device type</th><th>2020 sales</th></tr>
<tr><td>Phones</td><td> 3000M</td></tr>
<tr><td>Servers</td><td> 13M</td></tr>
<tr><td>Tablets</td><td> 160M</td></tr>
<tr><td>Displays</td><td> 40M</td></tr>
<tr><td>Laptops</td><td> 280M</td></tr>
<tr><td>Desktops</td><td> 80M</td></tr>
<tr><td>TVs</td><td>220M</td></tr>
<tr><td>IoT devices</td><td> 2000M</td></tr>
</table>

<p>The energy consumption of all communication and computation technology currently in use in the world is currently around 3,000 TWh, about 11% of the world's electricity consumption, projected to rise by 3-4 times by 2040 with business as usual according to <a href="#2">[2]</a>. This is a conservative estimate: the study in <a href="#14">[14]</a> includes a worst-case projection of a rise to 30,000 TWh (exceeding the current world electricity consumption) by 2030. </p>

<table>
<caption>Yearly energy consumption estimates in TWh</caption>
<tr><th>Device type</th><th>TWh</th></tr>
<tr><td>TVs</td><td> 560</td></tr>
<tr><td>Other Consumer devices</td><td> 240</td></tr>
<tr><td>Fixed access network (wired+WiFi)</td><td> 900 + 500</td></tr>
<tr><td>Mobile network</td><td> 100</td></tr>
<tr><td>Data centres</td><td> 700</td></tr>
<tr><td>Total</td><td> 3000</td></tr>
</table>

<p>The above data make it clear which actions are necessary: the main carbon cost of phones, tablets and IoT devices is their production and the use of the mobile network, so we must extend their useful life very considerably and reduce network utilisation. Extending the life time is also the key action for datacentres and desktop computers, but their energy consumption also needs to be reduced considerably, as does the energy consumption of the wired, WiFi and mobile networks. </p>

<h2>A vision for low carbon and sustainable computing</h2>

<p>It is clear that urgent action is needed: in less than two decades, the global use of computational resources needs to be transformed radically. Otherwise, the world will fail to meet its climate targets, even with significant reductions in other emission areas. The carbon cost of both production and operation of the devices must be considerably reduced. </p>

<p>To use devices for longer, a change in business models as well as consumer attitudes is needed. This requires raising awareness and education but also providing incentives for behavioural change. And to support devices for a long time, an infrastructure for repair and maintenance is needed, with long-term availability of parts, open repair manuals and training. To make all this happen, economic incentives and policies will be needed (e.g. taxation, regulation). Therefore we need to convince key decision makers in society, politics and business.</p>

<p>Imagine that we can extend the useful life of our devices and even increase their capabilities, purely through better computing science. With every improvement, the computational capacity will in effect increase without any increase in energy consumption. Meanwhile, we will develop the technologies for the next generation of devices, designed for energy efficiency as well as long life. Every subsequent cycle will last longer, until finally the world will have computing resources that last forever and hardly use any energy.</p>

<figure>
<img src="https://wimvanderbauwhede.github.io/images/towards-zero-carbon-computing.png" alt="A graph with four trends: emissions from production, emissions in total, performance and emissions/performance." title="A graph with four trends: emissions from production, emissions in total, performance and emissions/performance.">
<figcaption>Towards zero carbon computing: increasing performance and lifetime and reducing emissions. Illustration with following assumptions: every new generation lasts twice as long as the previous one and cost half as much energy to produce; energy efficiency improves linearly with 5% per year.</figcaption>
</figure>

<p>This is a very challenging vision, spanning all aspects of computing science. To name just a few challenges:</p>

<ul>
<li>We must design software so that it supports devices with extended lifetimes.</li>
<li>We need software engineering strategies to handle the extended software life cycles, and in particular deal with <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical_debt">technical debt</a>.</li>
<li>Longer life means more opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities, so we need better cyber security.</li>
<li>We need to develop new approaches to reduce overall energy consumption across the entire system.</li>
</ul>

<p>To address these challenges, action is needed on many fronts. What will you do to make frugal computing a reality?</p>

<h2>References</h2>

<p><small>
<span id="1">[1] <a href="https://www.semiconductors.org/resources/rebooting-the-it-revolution-a-call-to-action-2/"><em>"Rebooting the IT revolution: a call to action"</em>, Semiconductor Industry Association/Semiconductor Research Corporation, Sept 2015</a></span><br>
<span id="2">[2] <a href="https://www.src.org/about/decadal-plan/decadal-plan-full-report.pdf"><em>"Full Report for the Decadal Plan for Semiconductors"</em>, Semiconductor Industry Association/Semiconductor Research Corporation, Jan 2021</a></span><br>
<span id="3">[3] <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095965261733233X"><em>"Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 &amp; recommendations"</em>, Lotfi Belkhir, Ahmed Elmeligi, Journal of Cleaner Production 177 (2018) 448--463</a></span><br>
<span id="4">[4] <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions"><em>"Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions"</em>, United States Environmental Protection Agency</a>, Last updated on April 14, 2021</span><br>
<span id="5">[5] <a href="https://www.unep.org/emissions-gap-report-2020"><em>"Emissions Gap Report 2020"</em>, UN Environment Programme, December 2020</a></span><br>
<span id="6">[6] <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jiec.13123"><em>"The link between product service lifetime and GHG emissions: A comparative study for different consumer products"</em>, Simon Glöser-Chahoud, Matthias Pfaff, Frank Schultmann, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 25 (2), pp 465-478, March 2021</a></span><br>
<span id="7">[7] <a href="https://eeb.org/library/coolproducts-report/"><em>"Cool products don’t cost the Earth – Report"</em>, European Environmental Bureau, September 2019</a></span><br>
<span id="8">[8] <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-014-0838-7"><em>"The life cycle assessment of a UK data centre"</em>, Beth Whitehead, Deborah Andrews, Amip Shah, Graeme Maidment, Building and Environment 93 (2015) 395--405, January 2015</a></span><br>
<span id="9">[9] <a href="https://www.statista.com">Statista</a>, retrieved June 2021</span><br>
<span id="10">[10] <a href="https://www.iea.org/reports/global-energy-CO%E2%82%82-status-report-2019/emissions"><em>"Global Energy &amp; CO₂ Status Report"</em>, International Energy Agency, March 2019</a></span><br>
<span id="11">[11] <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-015-0909-4"><em>"Redefining scope: the true environmental impact of smartphones?"</em>, James Suckling, Jacquetta Lee, The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment volume 20, pages 1181–1196 (2015)</a></span><br>
<span id="12">[12] <a href="https://www.racksolutions.com/news/blog/server-rack-power-consumption-calculator/"><em>"Server Rack Power Consumption Calculator"</em>, Rack Solutions, Inc., July 2019</a></span><br>
<span id="13">[13] <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S111001682030524X"><em>"Analysis of energy consumption and potential energy savings of an institutional building in Malaysia"</em>, Siti Birkha Mohd Ali, M.Hasanuzzaman, N.A.Rahim, M.A.A.Mamun, U.H.Obaidellah, Alexandria Engineering Journal, Volume 60, Issue 1, February 2021, Pages 805-820</a></span><br>
<span id="14">[14] <a href="https://doi.org/10.3390/challe6010117"><em>"On Global Electricity Usage of Communication Technology: Trends to 2030"</em>, Anders S. G. Andrae, Tomas Edler, Challenges 2015, 6(1), 117-157 </a></span><br>
<span id="15">[15] <a href="https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/energy-outlook.html"><em>"BP Energy Outlook: 2020 Edition"</em>,BP plc</a></span><br>
<span id="16">[16] <a href="https://www.semiconductors.org/resources/2015-international-technology-roadmap-for-semiconductors-itrs/"><em>"2015 International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS)"</em>, Semiconductor Industry Association, June 2015</a></span><br>
</small></p>
</article>


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title: Frugal computing
url: https://wimvanderbauwhede.github.io/articles/frugal-computing/
hash_url: 710f8cdebd7560223ebd378f9cbe7822