Permacomputing is a term originating from the demoscene, known for squeezing the most out of very restricted computing resources, such as the 4k intro with a maximum executable file size of 4096 bytes. Artist programmer Ville-Matias Heikkilä, aka Viznut, coined the term in a text he published on his website in 2020 1. What stands out in this writing is the holistic approach to computing and sustainability by taking inspiration from permaculture. In both computing and agriculture, problems are usually solved by increasing control over a process, which often goes hand in hand with an increase in resource use. Permaculture uses methods that lets nature do the work, minimizing the reliance on artificial energy. Heikkilä sees similarities between how both permaculture practitioners and hackers find clever solutions to problems. He writes that the existence of computers can only be justified by their ability to augment the potential of humans to have a strengthening effect on ecosystems.

The text is incredibly rich and detailed, so we’ll only highlight a few characteristics. Instead of one dominant technology and linear progress, permacomputing aims at a diversity of approaches developing at all levels. It is enmeshed in culture, because people have a deep connection to technology, beyond the tool, as part of art, ecology, philosophy and history. Permacomputing is accountable, it only does heavy computation if this saves resources elsewhere and uses automation to save humans from repetitive and time consuming tasks when it requires little energy from computers. It values maintenance and encourages programmers to refactor and rewrite programs to keep them small and efficient, instead of counting on Moore’s law to compensate for software bloat, something also covered by Barath Raghavan and Daniel Pargman in Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits 2. Instead of planned obsolescence, permacomputing practices planned longevity, reuse and repair of existing technology and approaches waste as a resource. Just like all other terms, it points to decentralisation and modularity so that it can be adapted to suit local community needs. Permacomputing contributes to a commons by placing technology in the public domain and promotes the sharing of resources. The term got picked up by other artists, programmers and activists, such as by the programmer of Ariane, a Gemini protocol browser for Android, and by the maker of the solar powered Leaf server, but has yet to become more widely used. Similar to Liberatory Technology and Illich’s Tools for Conviviality 3, the term encompasses political ideas on the role of technology in society, but next to that describes how these ideas might be applied in contemporary design and practice.

  1. Ville-Matias Heikkilä. 2020. Permacomputing.
  2. Barath Raghavan and Daniel Pargman. 2016. Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits. In Proceedings of the Second Workshop on Computing within Limits. ACM, Irvine California, 1–7.
  3. Ivan Illich. 1973. Tools for Conviviality. Harper & Row, New York.