Monday, April 5, 2010

Hornborg, Part 2: Technomass

This is a continuation from the previous post.

Hornborg treats satellite images like the one above as the visible manifestation of technomass, his term for the infrastructure of industrial technology and its products. As the phrasing suggests, Hornborg is interested in the parallels between technomass and biomass. Thus, technomass refers to the aggregate amount of technological infrastructure, not to individual local elements. Similarly, Hornborg sees local technologies as residing within the equivalent of an ecological niche composed of the features necessary for the effective operation of the technology (raw materials, fuels, labor). When the flows necessary to sustain the technomass stop, the technological infrastructure will disappear.

Hornborg, following world systems theory, is interested in the differences between the light and dark areas, that is the differences between the industrially developed regions of the globe and those less developed. What does the accumulation of technomass mean for the dark areas? Drawing on works like Cronon's Nature's Metropolis (which treats Chicago as linked to the West through a network of resource and commodity flows) and Wilkenson's Poverty and Progress (which argues that British industrial development resulted from exploitation of other areas, notably the shift in cloth production from native wool to US cotton that allowed British land to be liberated for industrial uses and the importation of iron from Sweden), Hornborg argues that the growth of local infrastructure is a result of accumulation.

Imagine that the lights on the satellite image are technomass. For a structure to reproduce itself, it must draw in exergy (potential to conduct work inherent in energy). Here is where Hornborg develops his thermodynamics of imperialism. According to the first law of thermodynamics energy can't be created or destroyed and, as a result, it is erroneous to speak of the consumption of energy. What gets consumed is exergy -- the quality in the energy that allows work to be done -- not the energy itself; energy is still there going out as heat into space, etc. Complex systems of any type, whether it be the human body or industrial technology, persist by inputting high quality energy into the system relative to the quality of energy outputted. Humans, for example, eat high quality molecules and dissipate low quality energy (heat). It is the constant input of high quality energy into the system that allows local complexity to survive in the face of entropy. But, as empirical studies such as those of Cronon and Wilkinson show, it is the net transfer of both energy and matter to the center from the periphery that allows industrial infrastructure to persist. It is the manner in which the inherent inequality of this physical process leads to social inequalities that leads Hornborg to label it the 'thermodynamics of imperialism.'

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