An Urgent Appeal to Silicon Valley
The time has long since passed that Silicon Valley was a global center of technological innovation. It has become a center of entrenched institutional power instead. Nowhere is this more evident than in the failure to excel in the field of cutting edge green product design. The inability of Silicon Valley to create sustainable online services and the wide array of green products needed to access them is due to a lack imagination, not insufficient investment or enthusiasm. It comes down to an inherent limitation in the dominant binary logic of zeroes and ones that drives the core processes powering the high tech economy. Creating green solutions that will extend the warranty of the planet beyond our lifetimes requires a base 3, ternary approach to product and service design that thus far has woefully been lacking. Without a quantum leap of the mind from digits to trits, Silicon Valley and the communities and industries that rely upon it are doomed to go the way of so many lumbering dinosaurs and deserted desert empires before them.
At its most basic, the problem is rooted in an inability to ground green product design in fundamental principles derived from nature, rather than highly rationalized processes invented by humans to benefit ourselves. Until the leading lights of Silicon Valley confess to the highly extractive and often vampiric nature of their current product offerings – and take decisive actions to correct them – we all will suffer in the end. There are only so many rare earth minerals to go around, and only so much landfill space available to house the glut of fossil fuel derived components needed to build the smart devices and touchscreens that power today’s Internet. In addition, ever increasing demands on overstretched and outdated electrical power grids from cloud computing services are ticking time bombs that have and will continue to explode across the face of the Bay Area’s highly integrated networks of communication, public safety, and commerce.
The wildfires and rolling blackouts of 2020 were harbingers of what is to come. Wind farms and solar panels alone will not fix this mess, nor will fleets of semi-autonomous electric vehicles that continue to rely on manufacturing chains that take more out the planet’s resource base than they put back in. Corrugated cardboard is still created by cutting down trees, and no amount of recycling of discarded Amazon shipping boxes will change this reality. And the tragedy of it all is that the companies who powered Silicon Valley to such prominence had promised us all so much more.
What, then is to be done? I believe that true solutions lie to found in nature, if only we can train ourselves where and how to look. There are at least four core principles of green product design. Each one of them begins and ends in cyclical patterns of grow and decay that can be replenished and sustained over time but that allow humanity to benefit during the interim. Beginning from these natural principles, the companies of Silicon Valley who currently command so much financial power and intellectual bandwidth can create the innovative processes from which a new generation of green products and Earth-friendly services might emerge. And if this were to happen, we all would benefit in the end from their efforts.
By way of analogy, we might look to the work of scholars in the historical profession and related fields in the social sciences and humanities – precisely to those disciples in today’s academic environment that currently are under the greatest threat from the rising tides of the STEM industrial complex – for clues to where such principles might be found. Historical narratives, for example, are not built by assemblies of facts alone; they start out as inchoate fragments and shards of human endeavor that are collected, cataloged, and archived before something as coherent as a “fact” can come to life. The situation is similar in the world of high tech. Only by studying nature at its most pristine and primal can we assemble the step-by-step processes out of which more sustainable, greener products will be manufactured.
Broadly speaking, the natural world is characterized by four interconnected fields of potentially infinite energetic self-expression: recyclability, reassemblability, repurposability, and retainability. These, in turn, may be observed in practical operation in the carbon-based life form ecology that surrounds us: wood, stone, glass, and metal. In each case, active human intervention is required to unlock the inherent forces that each contain. Wood can be a source of heat, light, and shelter. Stones can be used to build and buttress. Glass can be a transparent, chemically neutral source for pragmatic storage as well as aesthetic showcase. Metal can maintain is use value and flexible strength over impressively-broad scales of time.
If the core natural principles of wood, stone, glass, and metal were to be more fully integrated into the current fossil-fuel centric configuration of computing power that drives the world economy, then the possibilities for a more resilient high tech marketplace might yet be born. By thinking deeply, intensively, and creatively about how high tech tools and gadgets can be recycled, reassembled, repurposed, and made to retain their value, the titans of today’s Silicon Valley can redeem themselves for past mistakes committed during their initial rise to power in the past century. The good news is that there is still time. Nature waits for us to discover her inner truths with an implacability and imperturbability that can only elicit admiration, adoration, and affection. If we are not willing to learn the lessons that the Earth patiently waits to teach, we do not deserve to call this planet home. Then the Valley’s elite would all be better off gathering into their exclusive enclaves and inner circles and rocketing themselves to the moon.