Permacomputing (link to permacomputing wiki) is a movement/aesthetic about computer systems that are sustainable / resilient. It is a response to the idea of eternal growth in the area of technology.

I learned about this term a few weeks ago on mastodon. I can’t find the link anymore, but it was a blog post about the failure of the free software movement, describing permacomputing as its spiritual successor. This week I had the time to give a good read at the permacomputing wiki, and I found it exceedingly interesting.

For a while I have been worried about things like planned obsolescence, eternal growth, scaling as the only way of progress, bloat, conspicuous consumerism, etc. While computer systems in my youth felt like something that could free and raise people as individuals, today they feel wasteful, uncaring and asphyxiating. On the other hand, I have been attracted to aesthetics that see computing as smaller, simpler, more connected with our physicality and ecology. However, this has always been a very lonely feeling — I have always thought that these dreams were pure nostalgia, me being “an old man shouting at clouds”. Learning about permacomputing made me realize that there were people thinking about the same things, and in much deeper and more proactive way. It was a nice feeling.

Reading through the wiki, I came across many terms and concepts that I have seen among people working on Alife, such as alternative forms of computing, like DNA and fungal computing, and robust systems, like Dave Ackley’s T2 project. I wonder if this is something that some people in the alife community has engaged with (even though there are also some in that community that embrace the eternal growth mindset). Something to look forward in Hokkaido later this year. The term Unconventional Computing in the wiki was a nice throwback to my PhD years, since I remember once participating in an “Unconventional Computing” workshop at Todai, just because the name felt interesting. Back then, the concepts were way out of my depth, and I didn’t get a lot out of it. Maybe it is time to revisit it.

Indeed, although as a global movement, permacomputing seems very utopian (more so than the Free Software Movement must have felt back when it was proposed), it also feels like it matches my primordial concepts about evolutionary computation and alife — how computation could behave as a pseudo-biological substrate for long term self-sufficient evolution — or how artificial creatures could find their own niche, and grow in their own direction, if given just the right kind of push. This idea seems to diverge from the permacomputing ethos in that it does not place humans in the center of the technological landscape, but I feel that merging computation and nature in a sustainable, evolving way, even (or specially) in the absence of humanity, is still an appealing dream.

Anyway, this might be worth studying more in the future as a disinfectant for the cynicism that grows out of the bleak techno-corporate environment that I feel myself immersed into these days. But let’s see if I still remember this in a month or so… (maybe I can plant these seeds in more fertile ground?)

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