Monday, December 18, 2023

45 Days Of CCS, #18: Dan Nott

Dan Nott's Hidden Systems is a remarkable achievement for journalistic and advocacy comics. It's thoughtful, intricately drawn, cleverly designed, meticulously researched, and deeply humanistic. Like many works of comics journalism, Nott himself is the inquiring figure, wondering out loud precisely how things we take for granted--water, electricity, the internet--really work. What are the physical processes that are required to harness each of them? What are the hidden costs with regard to their use? Who benefits most from these resources?

The book has a built-in limitation: it is published by Random House KidsGraphic, so it's aimed at a younger audience. This is a limitation that's hurting comics in general, as YA/middle grade/kids comics are the only growth market in publishing at the moment. However, Nott is a fairly restrained artist in terms of hyperbole and content to begin with, even with regard to advocacy, so I don't know if a version of this book aimed at adults would have been significantly more different. Certain areas of inequity could have been hit harder, like more detail regarding the lack of potability with regard to Flint's drinking water, for example. Still, Nott goes out of his way to mention the ways that indigenous populations have been repeatedly screwed when it comes to both electricity and water, as well as the ways in which Africa has largely been ignored relative to other countries with regard to the internet. 

The internet chapter was the basis of Nott's senior thesis at CCS, which I was able to read and review at length, and it's still a remarkable achievement on its own. Nott grounds a service that is deliberately regarded as enigmatic and treated with airy metaphors in the reality that the internet is grounded in cables that are underwater, buildings that house rows of computers, and intersections where data is exchanged. Only a tiny portion of the internet is truly wireless, and the internet's existence uses a great deal of natural resources. The concept of the internet transcending borders is only true so much as these centers are in countries with a great deal of wealth; it's one reason why much of Africa, parts of Asia, and even Central and South America are not nearly as wired. 

Nott gets more pointed with electricity and water, as he admits that electricity as a force is difficult to describe and understand. However, its impact is obvious and life-changing, and its pursuit also can wreak havoc on ecological systems. For example, rivers were dammed up worldwide to generate hydroelectric energy, but in so doing it stopped the flow of the rivers, displaced indigenous populations, and disrupted their relationship with the land in a way that prevented them from getting the food and water they needed. He goes even deeper with water, as he notes the use and redirection of water has been the basis of civilization for millennia. However, doing it on a wide scale and for a rapidly escalating population is one of many factors leading to global warming, which in itself tends to disproportionately affected marginalized populations. Some of Nott's references to colonialism, while valid, feel a bit on the shallow side in terms of critical analysis. That's a limit of the publishing format, I suspect, but for a book that is otherwise so carefully researched and its concepts explained, Nott makes a lot of claims regarding colonialism that he doesn't explain in much detail. Still, I admire Nott advocating for and expanding on how a different future is possible in a way that makes complex concepts easy to parse thanks to the diagrammatic quality of his layouts and a relentless battle for clarity. 

No comments:

Post a Comment