The Digital Hydroelectric

The light bulb in the window remained on all winter. In the low light of day it glowed green like a Scots pine. After dusk, as the night drew quickly in across the mountains, it blazed with orange-red transparencies. In the early hours of the morning, when the village was asleep and snow covered the frozen ground, it burned a gritty white.

Installed in the window of a tiny information center high on the northwest coast of Scotland, this light bulb is programmed to materialize local consumption of clean, green hydroelectricity. Every ten seconds a microprocessor in its wireless router converts a numerical value representing total power demand into another eight-digit number that instructs the bulb’s light-emitting diodes to produce a specific mix of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

The digital is becoming as much a part of our renewable energy infrastructures as water, wind, and sunlight; electromagnetic fields and electrons; metal and plastic; wood and wire; light and heat; policy and legislation; technical models and economic theories; fantasies of autonomy and resilience; order and control (Bennett 2009; Boyer 2014; Howe 2015; Larkin 2013). Digital devices, information systems, and logics—sometimes denoted by the prefix “smart”—are changing relationships to technical systems and reshaping the conditions of possibility within which people encounter electricity. Against this backdrop the provocation to explore an ontology of the digital is also an opportunity to think about energy through new kinds of things. If, as Tom Boellstorff (forthcoming) proposes, relations between online and offline are transforming our relations to a changing climate, then emerging energy infrastructures present key sites from which to probe digital perspectives on the renewable human.

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Hydroelectric dam on Loch Bhraomisaig, Knoydart, Scotland. Photo by Jamie Cross.

The mountain drains. Water hugs the peat, the grass, the heather, the rock, the loch, the dam wall, and the interior of the steel pipe as it is channeled eighty-seven meters downhill.

In a white brick powerhouse on the valley floor, the impulse of water against a Pelton turbine wheel is converted into mechanical and then electrical energy. Six kilometers of cables, fourteen transformers, and eighty-four wooden pylons carry electrons from the powerhouse through a wood, around a rocky shore, and along a tarmac road, supplying eighty homes and small businesses with electricity. Unconnected to any mainland electricity grid, this small-scale renewable energy infrastructure has become a model for transitions to a low-carbon future.

The dam, turbine, lines, and pylons were first installed in the 1970s, on what was then a privately owned estate. During the 1990s concerns over the long-term maintenance of this hydroelectric infrastructure drove a successful bid to take the estate into community ownership. Today, many residents credit the material qualities of “the hydro” with the production of social collectivity.

Few of them would credit the intrinsic qualities of digital technologies with a similar capacity to produce community or collective action. Yet the hydroelectric system now includes digital components that are changing how people imagine, produce, and manage their relationships. Bolted to the powerhouse wall is a Perspex box housing an electronic monitoring system. This system translates the flow of electrons around the grid into binary code, its sensors and microprocessors conditioning, amplifying, measuring, scaling, and processing information on voltage, current, and power demand.

The production of hydroelectricity in the powerhouse is deafening. The production of digital information is almost inaudible. But put your head against the box on the wall and every half-second, you will hear a slight scratch as time-stamped data is recorded on the hard drive in compressed strings of ones and zeroes. The drive can be accessed via an Ethernet connection through a remote software interface or a command port request, the ones and zeroes downloaded as tabulated, comma-separated values or converted into a database of rows and columns.

The affordances of this digitally remastered electricity infrastructure—to generate abstract, decontextualized information about local electricity consumption, to transmit these abstractions via the Internet with speed and immediacy, and to convert them into “materially operative” forms (Evans 2012)—catalyzed the imagination of its managers. As they worked to secure the hydro’s long-term stability, the digital electric opened up the possibility that energy consumption could be rendered back to people in qualitatively different ways than those offered by an individual meter reading or bill. The light bulb, for example, was designed to transform a familiar source of illumination into a source of information on collective electricity use.

So how does the digital hydroelectric render itself?

The light bulb draws you in. From its point of view, all the world’s a circuit. There is no horizon beyond the flow of electricity: the world is cut and classified, associated and aggregated according to its capacity to move electrons. Monitoring power demand, the digital hydroelectric renetworks people and things. A kitchen kettle is connected to a commercial refrigeration unit, a child’s toy to a forester’s power tools. Rich and poor, millionaires and those on welfare are collapsed into a version of community that does not map straightforwardly onto the collective social units imagined in the home, the pub, the shop, or the village hall.

Just as the digital can produce unexpected collectivities, so too can it produce unanticipated analog effects. To think about energy through the light of the digital is to see electricity not as something finite, discontinuous, and discrete—something that can be on or off—but as something continuous, even hydrological: a flow, a stream, more or less positively charged.

References

Bennett, Jane. 2009. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Boellstorff, Tom. Forthcoming. “For Whom the Ontology Turns: Theorizing the Digital Real.” Current Anthropology.

Boyer, Dominic. 2014. “Energopower: An Introduction.” Anthropological Quarterly 87, no. 2: 309–33.

Evans, Aden. 2012. “Web 2.0 and the Ontology of the Digital.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 6, no. 2.

Howe, Cymene. 2015. “Life Above Earth: An Introduction.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 2: 203–209.

Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327–43.