“Ecology and the Net” is a digital archive project led by Allison Carruth that bridges two distinct paradigms of the Anthropocene: one focused on technological innovation and the other on environmental crisis. It connects to Professor Carruth’s book project “Digital Utopias, Network Ecologies.” The archive aims, first, to showcase diverse uses of digital media and data visualization in artistic, literary, and popular science accounts of current environmental challenges (such as species extinction, sea level rise and the California drought) and, second, to assemble a complementary set of materials that convey the environmental ramifications of the Internet itself.

Since the Internet’s development in the 1960s, ecological metaphors have been central to the rhetoric emanating from Silicon Valley that translates into lay terms the complex structure of network computing. Today, such metaphors pervade popular discourses: we speak of web surfing and data mining, WiFi hot spots and cloud services, streaming content and mountains of information. Such metaphorical uses of ecology to imagine the Internet and all it encompasses advance utopian views of digital technology. Over the same period, the rise of ecology, climate science and environmental studies as academic fields and environmentalism as a social movement have offered a very different lens on our present and its possible futures: one that centers on planetary crisis. At the same time, the Internet and its tools have become central both to the environmental sciences and to environmental storytelling, art and popular culture: as seen with GPS tracking collars on endangered species, computer modeling in climate science, virtual reality narratives of oil spills and multimedia art installations about food systems. And yet, despite the influence of the Internet on both ecosystems and environmental thought, there has been limited study of its actual footprint—which ranges from natural resources extracted for network infrastructure to the energy demands of quotidian Web habits like video streaming.

In this context, cultural and material histories of digital technology and its environmental dimensions are critical. This is the project of “Ecology and the Net,” an online archive for cultural artifacts and open access scholarship. Focused on the U.S., the principles of selection for the archive emerge from the four research questions that also guide “Digital Utopias, Network Ecologies”: (1) How have the often utopian stories and images of the Internet’s technologies and social practices taken shape since the Cold War, especially in tech centers like Silicon Valley? (2) How do those visions compare to contemporaneous concerns in U.S. culture with ecology and environmental degradation? (3) In what ways have network computing and digital media become increasingly generative of contemporary environmental science, storytelling and art? (4) How can humanities researchers make visible the environmental culture and consequences of the digital age through historical and cultural analyses?

Image credit: The Fab Tree Hab, Terreform ONE