Special Issue: Volume 52, Number 3 (Aug/Sept 2017)

Computing and the Environment: Introducing a Special Issue of Information & Culture

Nathan Ensmenger and Rebecca Slayton
(p. 295-303)


In much of the literature on the information society, its defining characteristic is assumed to be its immateriality. That is to say, as our interactions and activities become less dependent on the movement of atoms and more focused on the manipulation of bits, they seem less limited by the constraints of physical reality. But when we look closely at the material underpinnings of the information economy—from the minerals that make up digital devices to the massive amounts of energy and water required to power data centers—it becomes clear that information technologies are firmly grounded in physical environment. In fact, information technologies continuously shape not only the physical environment but also representations of the relationship between natural and built worlds.

Nathan Ensmenger is an associate professor in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University. His 2010 book, The Computer Boys Take Over, explores the social, labor, and gender history of software workers. He is currently working on a book exploring the global environmental history of the electronic digital computer.

Rebecca Slayton is an assistant professor at Cornell University with a joint appointment in the Science and Technology Studies Department and the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. Her current research examines the history of the “smart” electrical grid and cybersecurity.

From Clean Rooms to Dirty Water: Labor, Semiconductor Firms, and the Struggle over Pollution and Workplace Hazards in Silicon Valley

Christophe Lécuyer
(p. 304-333)


This article argues that labor activists initiated Silicon Valley’s antitoxics movement and were the driving force behind environmental remediation in the region in the first half of the 1980s. In order to unionize semiconductor plants, activists associated with SCCOSH and United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, a left-wing union, attacked corporate negligence regarding worker safety and health. SCCOSH later allied itself with the Central Labor Council of Santa Clara County to push for the cleanup of aquifers contaminated by the semiconductor industry. The activists ultimately failed to organize Silicon Valley, but their campaigns led to a revolution in safety among microelectronics firms and to large-scale remediation efforts conducted under the EPA’s Superfund program.

Christophe Lécuyer is professor of the history of science and technology at Université Pierre et Marie Curie. He has written extensively on the history of Silicon Valley and the history of high technologies. He has taught at MIT, Stanford, and the University of Virginia and held senior research appointments at Collegium de Lyon and Central European University.

Data, Power, and Conservation: The Early Turn to Information Technologies to Manage Energy Resources

Julie Cohn
(p. 334-361)

Electric power networks represent complex and dynamic envirotechnical systems. By turning other energy resources into electricity, power systems have transformed the American landscape. In the early 1900s utilities gathered and calculated information by hand to improve efficiency, lower costs, and manage primary energy resources. By 1920 the quantity of data available outstripped the ability to process and use it in a timely fashion. Utilities adopted information technologies to better and more quickly understand the systems they managed. The modern turn to the digital for environmental goals has deep roots in the history of the electric power industry.

Julie Cohn, PhD, is a research historian in the Center for Public History at the University of Houston. She focuses on history of energy, environment, and technology, especially with respect to electrification.

“Governmentalities” of Conservation Science at the Advent of Drones: Situating an Emerging Technology

Lisa Avron
(p. 362-383)

Conservation scientists are looking to widen their lens on the landscapes they seek to protect. Using Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) fitted with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), ecologists hope to hone their abilities to account for and render visible precious wildlife and to better allocate resources for governing environments. What can a close analysis of the development of UAS tell us about conservation science itself and its relationship to GIS technologies? This article uses the example of the development of UAS by innovators at the University of Florida’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Research Program (UASRP) to explore the governing rationalities undergirding growing excitement for drone technologies in conservation practice, to understand the historical continuities these novel machines embody, and to reveal a multidimensional understanding of the motivations and logics of contemporary conservation science.

Lisa Avron is a PhD candidate in Cornell University’s Science and Technology Department. She is currently conducting dissertation research, studying simulations used to calculate environmental risk to water quality and quantity at the advent of climate change in the state of Florida.

This issue is avaiable on Project MUSE