Silent Production

Measuring the impact of the post-industrial economy.

The Urban Ice Core Air Archive
(Image courtesy of David Gissen)

A few years before my grandfather passed away, we took him to visit the American Can Company in Baltimore where he worked for much of his adult life. In a wonderful twist of fate, his own grandson had found a job at the Can Company, but in a very different capacity. My grandfather’s factory—that loud, belching building producing cans—had given way to the kind of creative class businesses that would send Richard Florida into a swoon. Architecture firms, tech companies, art galleries, cheese stores, and wine shops had been carved out of the mammoth structure. Where factory workers once punched their time cards, his grandson was working as a sous chef in a restaurant serving $15 martinis. Brilliant adaptive reuse, but my grandfather couldn’t get over the cost of a cocktail (“Jessie James is not dead. He is alive and well and serving vodka in this place.”) I also suspect that he couldn’t quite get over the shift to a post-industrial economy. In my grandfather’s lifetime,  you could literally see production. You could smell it, you could hear it. It was a noisy, polluting business. Today’s workplace has become, in many circumstances, a much quieter business. But does that mean it’s less polluting?

The topic of the modern work environment has been on the minds of several people around the globe of late. One of my favorite blogs, Australia’s City of Sound, has been exploring the hidden nature of our production infrastructure, like WiFi and posting about new books that address the state of work and the city:

“One of the ideas I’ve been exploring relates to how urban industry—in the widest sense of the word—in the knowledge economy is often invisible, at least immediately and in situ. Whereas urban industry would once have produced thick plumes of smoke or deafening sheets of sound, today’s information-rich environments—like the State Library of Queensland, or a contemporary office—are places of still, quiet production, with few sensory side-effects.”
David Gissen, assistant professor of architecture and visual studies at the California College of the Arts, started thinking about the indoor atmosphere of cities a few years back during his dissertation research. “I lamented the fact that we had no archive of indoor air, as we do for all other manner of indoor elements of the built environment-furniture, designed objects, fashion,” he writes on his blog. “The specific content of the air of the interiors of the past is lost to us -its bio-physical make-up is gone; we really can’t study it with a full range of analytical methods. But I wondered…what if we archived our current indoor urban atmosphere  for the historian of the future?”

He created an experimental project that he calls Urban Ice Core. It’s a concept for capturing, categorizing, and archiving indoor air samples the way we do arctic ice.

A recent report from Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross suggests that while silent and invisible, our new forms of production are still producing very tangible side effects. Wissner-Gross claims that the average Google search produces about 7g of carbon dioxide in the form of computer energy used to crunch the data (Google disputes that number). If Wissner-Gross is accurate, my searching for his report via Google just used the same amount of energy as boiling a tea kettle.

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