How Are The Environment & Digital Landscapes Similar? They’re Both Polluted

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“Old solutions have failed to solve new problems. We need a better way to navigate our increasingly treacherous terrain.” Does that quote sound like it was uttered by someone who’s interested in the environment? Well, yes and no. A new book explores a series of ecological metaphors and the stories they inspire — the sky above, the roots below, the land all around — to describe today’s digital crises. The authors state that these crises ask us to “unfold” the environment and digital spaces, where “even our best efforts to help clean up can backfire, sending toxins roaring across the landscape.”

We know that it’s unrealistic to think that we can change our world overnight. “What we can do, what we must do, is begin planting different seeds for a different future for both the environment and digital spaces that we inhabit,” according to Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner. Their MIT book is called “You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape.

environment and digital
Image retrieved from NOAA (public domain)

One of the hats I wear is as a media literacy scholar. I’ve always been fascinated by the media as a tool of literacy learning, and for the last dozen years of so I’ve been active in the Media Education Lab under the guidance of Renee Hobbs. After serving as the program chair for the organization’s annual conference for a couple of years, I’ve stepped back from leadership at this year’s fully online conference to view and continue to learn about the digital landscape that influences our lives so tremendously.

And timely it is. The keynote speaker discussed how the environment and the digital landscape are both “polluted,” and they have much more in common than we might think at first glance. Whitney Phillips teaches at Syracuse University, where she started researching the 2016 US election and how it amplified the toxic areas of society. The book to which this article refers is the follow-up to that investigation, in which she and co-author, Ryan Milner explore how, “Just as the natural world is besieged by a climate crisis, our digital world is besieged by a network crisis.”

Both worlds are infused with a type of trash that is suffocating and debilitating. The question is — and I’d like you to think about closely — what can we do about it?

Polarization: Commonality in Environment and Digital Spaces

“Polarization is at a fever pitch. Polluted information floods social media.” These 2 topics are central to Phillips and Milner, and they are also essential to many of our conversations at CleanTechnica. Whenever we talk about future opportunities with zero emissions, powering our society with renewable sources, and the processes, products, and services that reduces negative environmental impacts through significant energy efficiency, we’re talking about the intersection of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the natural world. The confluence can foster revelations and unimaginable results; it can also stymie the potential of the clean-technology industry.

Phillips and Milner remind us that “knowing where we stand in relation to everything else allows us to make more humane, more reflective, and more ethical choices online.” How do we make sense of the ways that the environment and digital worlds are full of pollution?

As Olaf Steenfadt of Reporters Without Borders explains of each, temperatures are intensifying on both ends of the scale, extreme events are becoming more and more common, and the pollution that’s generated doesn’t respect territorial lines.

If communicative systems exist ecologically, then within this “digital forest,” the lines become blurred. Whether it is about California wildfires, Flint, MI water, hurricane frequency, or seashore community flooding, polarization reflects fundamental changes in the information ecosystem. The big difference in the last 4 years in the US has been an asymmetrical push on the climate crisis to the right, toward extreme ideological temperatures. No longer do people in the same communities with the same local concerns agree even on basic facts. This has emerged, according to journalist Ezra Klein, from a broken political system, but one working exactly as designed.

Phillips says that “a few people have pushed back on” their use of the ecological metaphors. To answer those critics, she refers to Macron’s talk at the G7. Macron reminded his audience that we need to figure out the information disfunction — addressing the gaps in making policy on social media platforms, understanding that we’re not able to accomplish activist goals without digesting the impacts of digital spaces.

Information Disorder & Disregard for Borders: Landscapes Overrun by Pollution

Another feature of the network crisis, according to Phillips and Milner, is the intensification of information disorder, a media landscape overrun by pollution. Today’s media are rife with disinformation (false and misleading information deliberately spread), misinformation (false and misleading information inadvertently spread), and malinformation (information with a basis in reality spread pointedly and specifically to cause harm). The network crisis disregards borders just like in the natural world, so that polluted information moves seamlessly between communities, nations, and the concept of an online/offline split.

“Polluted information is as damaging as it is perfectly calibrated to our contemporary information ecosystem. It thrives when technological and economic systems function at peak efficiency. It thrives when platforms maximize user engagement. It thrives when publications pursue clicks. It thrives when everyday people do the clicking. It thrives when everything is working well—at least working well for some.”

A pollution frame also redirects attention to less obvious, but just as damaging, sources of pollution. For generations, around the globe, polluted information has had devastating effects on the health and safety of countless millions. When government regulation, civil rights protections, investments in jobs and education, and fundamental restructuring the (attention) economy become prevalent, communitarian ethics — where we reorient ourselves to the world around us — can emerge.

“It’s the difference between asserting that an individual has the right to spew whatever poison they want without restraint, and asserting that those within the collective have the right not to be poisoned,” according to Phillips and Milner.

But lots of examples in the digital world prohibit us from fully understanding the environment and the potential of cleantech. It happens when stories about the natural world restrict our focus to exploitation and commodity and inhibit the long-term transformations necessary to address the climate crisis. Phillips and Milner argue that we need, instead, stories that foreground interconnection and interdependence. “Shifting focus to connection, embeddedness, and reciprocity also helps generate better—more thoughtful, more targeted, more effective—responses to the pollution we encounter.”

What Can We Do to Reconcile the Pollution Common to the Environment and Digital Worlds?

Digital spaces allow pollution to “very quickly spiral out of control” because the ecosystem directs where it’s able to travel in systemic ways. “We can—we must—apply a similar framework to polluted information online,” the authors state. “We must begin to think differently so we can begin to act differently. The trick is to draw from ecological metaphors—above, below, and all around—to locate our own ‘you are here’ stickers on the network ecology map.”

Phillips and Milner offer us several mechanisms to begin the journey to conquer the pollution endemic in our environment and digital spaces.

  1. Pull out the Network Ecology Map: Looking down at the roots beneath our feet helps us trace where polluted information came from and how it got there. What networks has the information traveled through, and what forces have pinged it from tree to tree, grove to grove?
  2. Take What You Don’t Know as Seriously as What You Do: Identifying what you don’t know as it is about establishing what you do. Critical yet frequently missing information can include where exactly a claim, attack, or campaign originated, or who exactly has joined in since. Surveying the known landscape also helps pinpoint the areas on the map that are ripe for manipulation.
  3. Remember That Affordances Have Consequences: Acknowledge that we have been set up to pollute, because corporations and their shareholders benefit when we do. We must therefore work that much harder to navigate our landscapes carefully, to not allow the tools we use to restrict our sight, and, when we encounter particular texts, to actively, doggedly, seek out context.
  4. Adjust Your Understanding of Harm: To reduce the pollution we spread, to reduce the pollution we create, we must lower our eyes to the bottom of the pyramid, to the rabbits and worms and fungi. In other words, to us. There the harms aren’t just larger in number and weight. There the harms have something the top layers will never have: the ability to intervene, right now, with our own fingertips.
  5. Spread Information Strategically: The challenge is to be strategic about the messages we amplify. More than that, the challenge is to approach amplification with ecological literacy. The question—to be asked anew case after case, click after click—is: What are the environmental impacts of my choices? What pollution might my actions generate, for whom? What pollution might my actions mitigate, for whom? Most important, whose bodies might my actions nourish, at the expense of whom and what else?
  6. Know Thy Politically Situated Selves: Deep memetic frames are both constructed realities and how the world is, at least for the person whose frames they are. The frames might not be true, but they are certainly real to the person peering through them. And so, when a corrective is issued, it must not merely reject a certain detail. It must instead present an alternative coherent story that explains why something is the way it is. Starting with the logics and vocabulary of a frame, even when pushing back against it, guides the conversation toward meta-reflection.

Final Thoughts

Phillips and Milner do not excuse media composers who have created messages that harm without being motivated to do so. They say that, once messages cause harm, the composers are complicit — whether that was the original intent or not. Renee Hobbs says that, although a basic premise of media literacy is to identify the author’s purpose, we really cannot fully know that author’s purpose. She allows that even the author may not actually know the purpose!

Ross and Rivers argue that through the use of common meme templates combined with the typical humorous or ironic message they convey, Internet memes represent a potentially powerful form of socio-political participation in the online community. Knowing about how memes influence ideological thought about the environment and digital spaces is a starting point. The dominance of certain cultural ways of knowing, however, drifts to other countries and peoples through digital affordances, and those epistemologies can create cognitive dissonance. The tools we have at our disposal — our affordances — allow us to share cultural perspectives, on a personal level, but they also are mechanisms for people and organizations in power to work to control people, politics, and organizations. Transparency about power sharing may be the most important way to reduce the environment and digital pollution around us.

As a final thought, Phillips and Milner give us advice for moving forward.

“How we tend our own soil affects the soil of those around us, and those around them, as the camera zooms out, revealing glowing connections across neighborhoods, counties, states, nations, and the entire globe. We can choose, instead, to tend the land wisely, acknowledging always that our fates are connected. Quietly, slowly, and with sincerity, we get there working side by side, piling small things up until they’re big.”

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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