Rachel Bergmann: History of Environmental Computing Standards
Through Stanford’s Graduate Research and Internship Program in Germany, I spent the summer of 2023 at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin, Germany as a Visiting Predoctoral Fellow. I developed a research project on the history of environmental computing standards. During the final weeks of my fellowship, I organized visits to two archives in Stockholm, Sweden. The intellectual community at Max Planck provided me with a thoughtful and supportive scholarly home during the early stages of this historical project.
At MPIWG, I was hosted by Department II, “Knowledge Systems and Collective Life,” directed by Dr. Etienne Benson. The scholars and researchers in this department investigate what kind of knowledge is valued; how knowledge is produced; and who is authorized to know in the context of environmental politics. The department provided an interdisciplinary home for historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and scholars of media studies and cultural studies to share work and provide fresh perspectives.
I arrived this summer with a few ideas for how to develop the project. With Dr. Benson’s help, I chose one part of the project to pursue. I spent the summer refining my research question, reading secondary literature, researching relevant archives, and making a plan to conduct archival research. Through my conversations with Dr. Benson and others in the department, I developed a research project investigating the history of environmental computing standards— the set of rules and regulations that govern the manufacturing, use, and recyclability of digital technologies like PCs and smartphones.
The fellowship culminated in a visit to two archives in Stockholm, Sweden at the end of my fellowship. In researching the history of environmental computing standards, I was surprised to find that a Swedish labor union representing white-collar workers called TCO had been quite involved in international public debates about workplace safety and environmental conservation in the context of computing technologies. They developed tools and checklists for workers to evaluate the health and environmental hazards of their work computers and display terminals. They eventually developed their own standard to certify union-approved workplace tools.
I was able to plan and complete visits to the two archives in Sweden with collections relevant to my project. I visited TCO’s archive and the Swedish Labour Movement’s Archives and Library, which together hold thousands of documents about TCO’s computing standards. During the summer, there is a direct train route between Berlin and Stockholm. It was exciting to take a sleeper train for the first time! After my archival visit, I returned to MPIWG where I was grateful to discuss my data collection process and the next steps for turning my project into an article draft.
MPIWG’s location in the southwest of Berlin meant I had easy access to Berlin’s many lakes and forests. I enjoyed swimming in Schlachtensee, Wannsee and Krumme Lanke. Throughout the summer I visited Berlin’s museums, galleries, art installations, multimedia performances, film screenings, and concerts by artists exploring themes related to my research, like technology, politics, culture, and environment. Affordable high speed train tickets meant I could also spend a few weekends exploring nearby cities like Hamburg, Munich, and Warsaw.
My summer as a Visiting Predoctoral Fellow at MPIWG was one of cultural enrichment and intellectual growth. The scholarly expertise of the researchers at Max Planck Institute, alongside the contemporary dynamism of Berlin as a city, provided an ideal context to explore and grow. I am so grateful for the financial support from The Europe Center and the Stanford Club of Germany GRIP that enabled me to have such a rewarding summer.