The Networked Condition: Memo Akten Case Study

Tue 12 Apr 2022

At the start of 2020, we began working with Arts Catalyst and Fast Familiar on The Networked Condition: Environmental Impacts of Digital Cultural Production, a collaborative research project exploring digital arts through an environmental lens. The project is part of The Accelerator Programme (led by Julie’s Bicycle and Arts Council England), which helps artists to advance their sustainable practice and share insights with their peers and the wider sector.

As part of The Networked Condition, we’ve been speaking to artists and arts organisations whose work encompasses digital tools and environmental sustainability or activism, hoping to gain insight into a broad range of ideas and approaches. We’re writing up these case studies here as we go along, hoping that they’ll be a source of shared knowledge, inspiration, or reflection for others too.

Memo Akten is an artist, experimental filmmaker, musician and computer scientist from Istanbul, Turkey. He works with emerging technologies and computation as a medium to create images, sounds, films, large-scale responsive installations and performances. Fascinated by trying to understand the nature of nature and the human condition, he draws from fields such as biological and artificial intelligence, computational creativity, perception, consciousness, neuroscience, fundamental physics, ritual, and religion. He has a PhD in Artificial Intelligence / Deep Learning and expressive human-machine interaction from Goldsmiths University of London and is Assistant Professor of Computational Arts at University of California, San Diego.

Memo Akten, still from Depeche Mode – Fragile Tension, 2009

Can you tell us a bit about your practice and what interests you at the moment?

I’m a computational artist, so I primarily work with computation. I write software – that’s the medium I work in. The biggest thing that I’m interested in is generally trying to understand stuff, and that ranges from trying to understand things at a very fundamental level; fundamental physics, so how nature works, to the other end of the spectrum, on a societal level; how humans work as individuals and how society functions and all of the things in between. 

Tell us about your research on the ecological impact of NFTs and machine learning art.

I work a lot with emerging technologies, and I’m interested in their impact on us as individuals and as a society. I’ve been very interested in AI (Artificial Intelligence) for a long time because AI is a means to enable computers to understand the environment that they’re in. 

I’ve also been interested in the blockchain since its inception – there’s a lot of artworks I admire created using the blockchain, such as Primavera De Filippi’s plantoid (a kind of autonomous virtual creature) and terra0, an autonomous forest

My research on NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens) exploded at the start of 2021 because I was concerned that people weren’t aware of how these Proof of Work blockchains worked; a lot of artists getting into the NFT space weren’t aware of the ecological impacts of the “mining” industry, which I think is an abomination. People thought uploading an NFT was simply like tweeting or putting a video on YouTube but it’s not. So, I wanted to make people aware of both the emissions and the e-waste caused by mining.

My practice relies on a lot of traveling: festivals, talks, meaning I need to fly a lot. I wanted to cut down my carbon footprint from travel, and was looking into NFTs as an alternative. When I couldn’t find any figures regarding NFTs – there was absolutely zero information out there – I wrote my report (you can read it here).

Why do you think people found it so hard to accept or discuss the negative conclusions you reached in your research?

One of the most common pushbacks is ‘yeah, but do you fly?’ or ‘yeah, but do you drive a car?’ or ‘yeah, but do you use money?’. Immediately people read my work as a criticism, a personal attack. It’s very difficult to divorce that point of view from the overall conversation and I think we have a similar situation with regards to eating meat and animal products. For example, I am not a vegetarian, but I do think it’s wrong to eat meat, I think the whole animal industry is absolutely abhorrent.

I always think, “OK, you criticize me for using the US dollar, but that doesn’t make the Proof of Work industry any less exploitative”. So, I think this is the root of it: how to make it clear that this isn’t about ‘I am better than you’, but ‘let’s talk about this’. The tool that I built is essentially for calculating the carbon footprint of something, but it became weaponised in a way others didn’t. We have carbon footprint calculators for flying and yet we don’t live in a culture where if someone tweets ‘I just landed in Montreal for a music festival’ people reply to them with a screenshot from a carbon flight calculator saying ‘you’re responsible for 1 ton of CO2.’ We don’t do that, but it happened with NFTs.

I wasn’t aware when I launched the tool that there was already so much anti-NFT sentiment brewing. Secretly, many people already hated NFTs probably for other reasons, perhaps the hyper capitalist aspects of it.

How has this research impacted your own actions, separately from the awareness-raising you were doing?

One of the big push backs that I keep getting is that ‘individual actions don’t matter’; the idea that what you or I do has no effect, which is one of the most fatalistic, lazy points of view one could have. The tragic thing is, there is some truth in that statement, but the truth in that statement is from an individual numerical point of view – and only if we ignore the impact of our actions on others. What I do, what you do, is obviously a drop in the ocean. But what matters is with regards to the pressures that we put on businesses and in a way on each other, because collectively it’s the mindset that makes the difference.

So, whether I make one less flight or not, it doesn’t actually have an effect directly, but the effect that it has is on my environment and those are the people saying that ‘I care about this’ and ultimately it can propagate out to businesses whose agenda is to maximise profits. The CEO of a company has a legal obligation to their shareholders to maximize profits. So, with all this in mind, we have to be aware of these market forces and that was really what was behind all of this. It’s not that if you mint one less NFT, you’re going to save a ton of CO2, but it’s the signal that we send to businesses and each other in terms of what we value and how businesses should act. 

Memo Akten, still from Max Cooper – Morphisis, 2019

Has it changed you as an artist in terms of the work you create, or rather is this research something that sits alongside your practice? 

I’ve definitely learned a lot. I don’t know if it’s influenced my work yet, but I think it definitely will and it’s not the research itself that I’ve learned the most from, but the reception to it. In a way it has been very sad seeing so many people dismiss my criticism based on essentially, ‘but I’m making money’, ‘but it allows me to make a living’ and that is never a moral justification. Observing that was very eye opening and it will affect the work that I make. It just hasn’t yet because I need time to let it sink in.

If an artist were to ask your advice in creating digital art or NFTs in the most sustainable way possible, what useful tips would you give them?

To use one of the new and emerging platforms that don’t use Ethereum (the biggest platform consuming the most energy in terms of the blockchain). I’ve recently started using Hic et Nunc. It’s on a Tezos blockchain, open source and community run, so there’s no big company behind it. This also means that it’s buggy (up and down, crashing). I wrote a guide listing a number of eco-friendly NFTs in April 2021 which is a great resource. Unfortunately though, if an artist sells on an Ethereum blockchain they make at least ten times more (if not hundreds of times more) because the high-end collectors seem to want Ethereum tokens more than they want the art. 

Do you think that people are quite happy to use carbon-intensive processes, partly because it’s so inaccessible to calculate your carbon footprint?

Human psychology is really fascinating. People want to create NFTs because they’re making a ton of money. So the attack on my research is that “oh that figure is not accurate” and then, “oh that figure is not accurate, so I don’t believe any of it, and it isn’t really a problem.”. Whereas yes, it’s not accurate, but it’s still in the right ballpark. And that ballpark is that a single NFT has a footprint similar to that of an international flight. As a distraction, they prefer to argue over the precision, as opposed to the general magnitude. 

One of the craziest defences that people get behind is the idea that carbon footprint was invented by a BP advertising campaign, to put responsibility on the consumer, so we shouldn’t take it seriously. BP didn’t invent the idea of a carbon footprint, they simply popularised and used the idea of a (personal) carbon footprint to put pressure on the consumer so that they themselves could evade responsibility. (As a side note, my tool is not calculating a *personal* carbon footprint, but the footprint of a *product*, a concept that goes back to at least the 1960s). As long as there’s something to hide behind, people will hide behind it. As long as the door is left ajar for people to disagree with the real impact, they’re OK with it. It’s classic politics, really and it’s been very sad to observe it.

Why do you feel people are more open to the conversation around the environmental impact of NFTs now? Are you feeling more positive or more hopeful about us being able to talk about this more openly?

I think it comes back to the personal attack aspect. A lot of people said that I was shaming them right at the very beginning, and I find that very interesting because bullying someone is one thing, but shaming? What that says to me is that people feel ashamed. I think there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance. When I wrote the article, it was followed by this huge online backlash as well as people who were anti-NFT. I think now some of that has subsided, and so now we’re not taking things so personally, we can talk about how to move forward. I’d like to believe that the popularity of some of these non-Ethereum blockchains is in part due to this research and this conversation, because otherwise why would people take a massive pay cut to switch to these platforms? They would just stay on Ethereum. But I still think we’re very far from actually solving the issue. 

I think the most important thing to get out there is to counter this myth that individual actions don’t matter. It’s not a binary, it’s not ‘they matter / they don’t matter.’ There’s nuance to it. Individual actions don’t matter purely from a numerical point of view, but values and actions are contagious, and so, individual actions do matter in the grand scheme of things when you think on a societal level. I don’t litter and say “oh it’s just one bottle” – that’s a stupid way to think. It’s a tricky, tricky subject because it’s such a big, big problem. Ultimately, Climate Change is the ultimate problem that we face and that’s where all the roads lead.

The Networked Condition is a collaboration between Fast Familiar, Abandon Normal Devices and Arts Catalyst, part of Julie’s Bicycle Accelerator Programme, supported by Arts Council England. 

Additional Links

Recent Journals

Other Journals