This problematic proposal based on neoliberal state intervention and civic duty is returned to in more detail in the final chapter. Throughout the book, Maxwell and Miller chronicle the deep structural problem of global ICT production circuits and intimate a global mass movement that ties together “green consumers, activists, policy makers, and unionists” (p. 125), presumably in order to overthrow the state-business alliance. Yet “green citizenship” ultimately ends up relying on the corrupted neoliberal nation-state, since the three forms of green citizenship proposed—environmental, sustainability, and resistance—“offer strategies for change that can be channeled to representative government” (p. 144). This same representative government that Maxwell and Miller chide for claiming that “the private sector can play a role, along with government” in environmental policy (p. 119), is also supposed to be the mechanism for regulating the very companies that continue their harmful production circuit practices.
Maxwell and Miller accompany green citizenship with “green governance,” an organizational reform of government based on participatory inclusion and decentralization. But this proposal is just as fraught with problems. Even though Maxwell and Miller claim that “research… provides evidence that decentralized, participatory governance can play a vital role in policy making” (p. 147), international development practice has long since problematized the assumptions behind government decentralization and participatory reforms. As Jonathan Rigg points out,
“Decentralization and democratization do not go hand-in-hand and decentralization—like participation—tends to become caught up in local-level political tensions and asymmetries… Decentralization, therefore, when there are deep-seated inequalities in terms of wealth and power, and when local level institutions are dominated by elites will only further empower those elites while permitting them to capture an even greater share of resources.” [open notes in new window]
Despite the repeated emphasis on individual strategies throughout the book, Maxwell and Miller remove the human element from government by not considering local cultural power relations and conditions, while inadvertently universalizing organizational solutions that shouldn’t be universalized. As just one example shows, China has been decentralizing its environmental governance gradually over the past several decades, yet local authorities continue to favor economic growth policies over standards and regulations, despite growing protests from ICT laborers. Furthermore, Maxwell and Miller graft the notion of “green citizenship” onto various local movements that may not necessarily identify first and foremost as “green citizens.” In their examples of “sustainability citizenship,” Maxwell and Miller include the Latin American, Brazilian, and California-based ragpickers who have mobilized to protect their work, yet, these groups might just as easily identify as “laborers” rather than “citizens,” relating more to their own material conditions instead of the liberal notion of rights and duties under green governance.
Given the emphasis on the deplorable conditions of laborers coupled with the sustained critique of the economic growth models of government institutions, it is therefore surprising that Maxwell and Miller don’t come to a more grassroots solution for greening the media. This contradiction occurs mainly because the authors demonstrate a latent ambivalence towards using ICT itself. For example, in Chapter One, Maxwell and Miller denigrate the efficacy of “blogging or posting videos online to riff on commercial culture” (p. 23). They rightly argue that focusing on digital strategies usually leads to the cultural and academic valorization of the immaterial labor of Internet users in the Global North (pp. 15-16) while the labor conditions of workers toiling away in the ICT production circuits of the Global South are ignored. Yet they also consider Greenpeace’s “Green My Apple” campaign—an Internet riff of Apple’s own website layout—emblematic of a more radical form of green citizenship (p. 144). Although Maxwell and Miller are critical of the ICT advocacy wrought by so-called immaterial labor, they are nonetheless reluctant to reject it outright.
Because of this ambiguity, Maxwell and Miller overlook the grassroots possibilities for change in the Global South that could be facilitated by ICT. Although the disparity in technology access between global regions—the “global digital divide”—continues to impact the educational experiences paradoxically needed to develop ICT skills, studies have shown that less-infrastructure dependent ICT, particularly mobile phones, are growing exponentially in the Global South, suggesting a possible inroads for mass mobilization. In Chapter Four, Maxwell and Miller lament how the ICT production circuit fragments workers making mobilization practically impossible:
“with labor so geographically dispersed via international subcontracting, union density in the ICT/CE industries is ‘startingly low around the world’” (p. 96).
ICT could help mitigate this problem, as demonstrated by farmers of the Filipino People Power II movement in 2001 utilizing cell phones to organize mass protests that led to the overthrow of President Estrada. As environmentalist Giles Slade notes, the cellphone “permits a new micro-level of social coordination previously unavailable and indeed unimaginable” to human beings. Thus the potentialities for a labor disruption on a mass scale coordinated with help from ICT micro-coordination could provoke several significant outcomes.
Maxwell and Miller also express frustration at consumers who worship ICT as if their mobile devices came into the world independent of any labor or material inputs—what the authors call “the technological sublime”; a reconceptualization of Marx’s commodity fetishism (p. 7). Maxwell and Miller’s aforementioned three paradigms of ecological ethics are meant to reacquaint consumers with the materiality of their ICT, but the increasingly international division of labor in ICT production also provides various access points for laborers to disrupt the technological sublime. In 2008, a worker who assembled iPhones in Apple’s Foxconn factory in China accidentally uploaded a photo of herself and saved it as the default background on several phones before they shipped to North America for sale. As a result, her image disrupted the consumer commodity fetish of Apple products by revealing, if only for a moment, the human labor behind the iPhone’s construction. Although an accident that likely had little, if any, long-term effects on the consumers who received these iPhones, this fortuitous encounter reveals the kind of imaginative possibilities available to laborers in the global production circuit.
All of this is not to imply that the Global South simply be provided with computer and iPhone donations from the Global North, an idea trotted out by Maxwell and Miller as part of green citizenship (p. 142). As Jan Nederveen Pieterse points out,
“the Internet is principally a middle-class medium; as a medium, essentially an extension of the typewriter, it presupposes literacy and the ability to absorb or create content and digital literacy. It may be termed a Starbucks approach to [development].”
This also applies to social movements. Instead, Pieterse sensibly suggests that we look at how individuals have used traditional ICT such as television, radio, and the telephone—more ubiquitous forms of media across the Global South that can broadcast to mass audiences than modern digitalia—for their own political purposes. Indeed, this notion of using contextually appropriate and broader ICT to develop social movements is not only more ecologically sound since it relies on pre-existing resources, but it is also more culturally embedded as a social practice. For instance, more Chinese currently have access to television than they do to smart phones. Thus it is not surprising that an underground network of Chinese democrats recently hacked several Chinese television networks instead of Chinese websites in order to denounce the Communist Party’s policies. Likewise, during the Arab Spring, the media activist collective Mosireen used basic video cameras and projectors to educate Internetless communities about the Egyptian military’s crimes against civilians. Contextually specific ICT can be used in a similar fashion to disrupt and/or green various points in the ICT production circuit in the Global South.
This is not to endorse political quietism in the Global North, where activists merely wait for the structural conditions of global capitalism to collapse on their own. As much as Maxwell and Miller would be loath to admit, one way to assist the Global South via ICT is through digital activism. One reason Maxwell and Miller outright dismiss the “playful hackers, YouTubers, bloggers and other volunteers” is because they require free, or nearly free resources for its revolution—presumably such things like free software, public domain licensing, free file-sharing, etc.—a model that the authors claim is identical to
“what paper-mill owners must have said about the rivers and endless forests at their disposal, or how the first voltage barons and their banking and communications customers felt about cheap coal” (161).
Maxwell and Miller rightly draw attention to the lack of consideration over what negative externalities digital strategies impose on the environment. Yet disavowing an entire online community for some of its theoretical flaws ignores how hacktivists and highly knowledgeable users have developed ICT disembedded from capital in ways advantageous to the Global South.
For instance, the online distribution of manuals and software for reverse engineering ICT hardware—including smart phones, televisions, and radios – not only circumvents WTO intellectual property rights, but also fosters indigenous modifications to locally established technologies. Robert W. Gehl similarly notes that reverse engineering as a social practice can lead to the construction of ICT tools that help shape a better politics beyond capitalism. Although reverse engineered ICT is always threatened by the prospect of being appropriated by capitalism, companies like Microsoft clearly feel threatened by the prospect of reverse engineered ICT, and have initiated strategies in various Global South countries to reassert capital’s dominance.
Additionally, efforts to make software platform independent—programs designed to run on any computer regardless of its operating system, be it whatever various versions of Mac O/S X or Windows—mitigate Maxwell and Miller’s concern about the consumer obsession with ICT newness. Maxwell and Miller retort that digital labor invokes “the Schumpeterian fantasy of entrepreneurs leading the way” (Ibid), yet this mischaracterizes digital activism since one of its primary tendencies is the notion of collective innovation, which also includes collaboration with non-technical users.
For the less technically inclined, YouTube, Twitter, and the blogosphere (an outlet Maxwell and Miller are familiar with) provide interactive opportunities for users to contribute to and join in on the critique of global ICT production circuits. Over the past several years, a litany of social media campaigns on supply chains have gone viral, including the Rainforest Alliance’s Follow the Frog video, the World Wildlife Foundation’s palm oil program, and Greenpeace and Global Witness’ online spoof commercials. UNI Global Union, an international worker organization dedicated to forging solidarity between laborers around the world, has also joined in by posting videos on YouTube that show Wal-Mart’s egregious supply chain practices. Crucially, these organizations are not just throwing videos up for users to simply consume. Indeed, Maxwell and Miller downplay the reasons for the success of The Story of Stuff by referring to it as a short film rather than an online project (p. 161). As Michael O’Heaney, executive director of The Story of Stuff, points out, online videos must engage audiences as “co-creators” by providing materials and resources to help users become more active in developing their own projects, repurposing online content, and developing their own networks for action.
But all these possibilities are not considered in Greening the Media since the root of Maxwell and Miller’s ambiguity over the usage of ICT stems from the unanswered question of how much damage to the environment and human life is acceptable for the development of ICT if such outcomes inevitably result from production circuits. As suggested above, the answer to this question lies within the various articulated social formations of the Global South in collaboration with the digital labor of the Global North. In short, whatever ICT the bourgeoisie develops that becomes dominant in a given social formation thus becomes one of the tools that can be used to dig their own graves. Instead, Maxwell and Miller get caught up in the environmental contradictions of the Global North, proposing a sustainability citizenship that engages with capitalism’s growth model, even while they repeatedly deem the latter problematic.
Maxwell and Miller state at the beginning of the book that the reader “will be startled by the scale and pervasiveness” of the environmental and human risks of global ICT production circuits (p. 1), and, as such, Greening the Media is indispensable for understanding capitalism’s structured exploitation of people and nature. Yet by the final chapter, having suggested some kind of grassroots solution against the corporate state along the way, Maxwell and Miller ultimately resort to a modest liberal proposal for reforming capitalism. As a consequence, Maxwell and Miller limit their ambitions by not considering the possibility or even necessity for a revolutionary grassroots movement to institute another mode of production.
Sadly, the growing difficulty with writing in more radical terms says more about the contemporary neoliberal colonization of the imagination than they do about this book’s particular solutions to greening the media. To invoke Fredric Jameson’s oft-quoted remark, it has now become “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” To be sure, one of the latest left critiques of current environmental strategies, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, contains several similar conceptual moves as Greening the Media. Like Maxwell and Miller, Klein articulates a fundamental contradiction with state-endorsed market-based plans to improve the environment, this time related to global warming, such as cap and trade schemes and “clean” fracking. Klein argues that the problem of climate change cannot be resolved without challenging the intrinsic logic of capitalism, whilst advocating a grassroots movement based on deeper and more decentralized democracy as one possible solution - a notion identical to Maxwell and Miller’s green citizenship and governance. Finally, Klein concludes her book by reassuring the reader that revolution as a means for social transformation isn’t a viable option because history has shown that they “don’t have much to offer in the way of roadmaps.” As Jodi Dean points out, this is nothing short of a disavowal of the achievements that the radical left has won from almost two centuries of large scale mobilizing and strategizing, while also delimiting the range of tactics available to address what is clearly one of the most pressing issues of our time.
With this in mind, it must be acknowledged that Maxwell and Miller have done a tremendous job laying out the imperiled nature of our particular moment in ICT history. To move forward, the planet and its inhabitants now need more uncompromising strategies from the left on how to dismantle the capitalist state.