Notes on Cool: The Temporal Politics of Friendly Monsters and the E-waste Aesthetic
by Sabine LeBel
published June 2015
1. Scale and Visibility
E-waste is the most visible environmental problem of the information age. Abandoned and yellowed monitors, keyboards, and hard drives litter the street corners in urban areas around the world. Visuality is key to the representation of environmental issues, and e-waste is more readily “seeable” than chemical exposure suffered by electronics workers or leaking underground chemical storage tanks, both of which are part of the often unspoken environmental legacy facing Silicon Valley, a leader in the production of information technologies. Activist, documentary, and news photographs dominate representations of e-waste, typically with the aim of educating computer users, shaming electronics manufacturers, or exposing the dirty secret of the global e-waste trade. If e-waste has an aesthetic in these representations, then one ubiquitous feature is scale: the sheer enormity and volume of trashed monitors, keyboards, and wires piled in hills, often dwarfing a human figure. Photographer Edward Burtynsky takes captivating, devastating images of e-waste in Guiyu, China. Photographer Pieter Hugo’s book Permanent Error documents e-waste in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Two compelling examples of e-waste, with the aim to educate and inform, albeit using different visual tactics than Burtynsky or Hugo, are WEEE Man and the film WALL-E. WEEE Man is a giant sculpture in the United Kingdom made entirely from e-waste. In WALL-E, e-waste is an important part of the devastated wastescapes of abandoned future earth. Both WEEE Man and WALL-E represent garbage and e-waste in terms of scale.
2. Time and Planned Obsolescence
Planned obsolescence drives the environmental politics of the information age, and especially the production of e-waste. Planned obsolescence is the universally implemented corporate policy of “death dating,” in which products are designed to fail after a designated period of time in order to goad consumers into buying the latest model (Slade 5). As Jonathan Sterne observes, computers and cellphones are “designed to be trash,” forcing us into a “radical monopoly of coercive participation” in which we must constantly upgrade software, hardware, and peripherals (Sterne 19, 24). Sterne implies that the purported purpose of information and communication technologies, to enable users to communicate and access information, has been coopted by the cynical profit motive of late capitalism. By slyly upending the logic that consumer electronics are actually intended for use, Sterne directs our attention not only to landfill or recycling practices, but also to the intentionality of design and production processes that both rob users of products with longevity and put pressure on already taxed waste management systems.
Planned obsolescence is the leading contributor to the e-waste problem, which is the fastest growing waste stream in the industrialized world (Deathe, MacDonald, Amos 321). Jody Baker argues that waste is an essentially spatial category of organization: unwanted material that needs to be relocated. It has traditionally been relegated to dumps or landfills at the edge of town, away from human habitation (Baker). In the case of e-waste, some of it is illegally exported from rich to poor countries. The UN Environment Program estimates that 20-50 million tons of electronics are discarded every year and, of that, about seventy percent end up in poor nations (Grossman 6). This trade continues despite the Basel Ban, effective since 2008, which prohibits the export of hazardous waste from rich to poor nations (Basel Action Network). Recent research, however, suggests that the e-waste trade is increasingly intra-regional and supports a growing and thriving recycling and refurbishment industry (see Lepawsky and McNabb, Lapawsky and Mather, and Lepawsky). With planned obsolescence, more and more electronic gadgets are produced, consumed, and disposed—and this process occurs more quickly with each generation of electronics. The traditional spatial approach to waste is fundamentally challenged by the acceleration of consumption resulting from death dating. The question is whether our waste management systems, and, more importantly, the poor communities burdened with the waste from rich communities, can keep up with these growing mountains of garbage. Not only is the volume of waste growing exponentially, but this waste is also made from complex and toxic materials that are not biodegradable and require long-term timescales and human intervention to become ecologically neutral.
Planned obsolescence also muddles and accelerates our sense of what counts as a new, old, or obsolete technology. Lisa Parks suggests that distinctions between old and new media are connected to the capitalist logic that drives planned obsolescence (Parks 33). She argues that studying e-waste and other residuals is a method to resist the regime of the constant upgrade that can leave media scholars, especially in new media, scrambling to theorize and research the latest technologies. (Parks names the notable exceptions to this trend: Carolyn Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New and Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree’s New Media 1745-1915). Although the use of the phrase planned obsolescence seems to be ebbing, its usage grounded early research into these technologies, and thus framed the directions of this emerging discipline. Not only are consumer habits structured by corporate policies of planned obsolescence, but so too is the academic focus on new media that encourages us to use, understand, theorize, work with, and then quickly discard the latest electronic gadgets. The production of waste should not only be connected to electronics manufacturing and design, but also, and crucially, to the corporatization of culture. If a smartphone (or tablet, computer, or laptop) seems like garbage after a few months or years of use, then the aesthetics of e-waste are critically linked to the temporal politics of the information society, including speed, acceleration, and simultaneity.
3. WEEE Man
Figure 1. “Screen Capture of ‘WEEE Man sculpture at the Eden Project.’” Author's screenshot.
WEEE Man is a seven meter tall, three-ton sculpture, made from 553 pieces of electronic and electrical waste (Bird). Created in 2005 by artist Paul Bonomini and displayed outside the London City Hall, the sculpture is now housed at the Eden Project, an eco visitor attraction in Cornwall, England. It was commissioned by the Royal Society for the Arts and Canon Europe to promote recycling and raise awareness about the European Union’s WEEE initiative (implemented in 2009), which regulates producers, distributors, and exporters of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE). The initiative shifts end-of-life costs associated with the collection, recycling, and treatment of EEE to the producer and requires sellers of EEE to provide free EEE return facilities. WEEE Man was created from the amount of electronics the average UK household goes through in a lifetime, including washing machines, vacuum cleaners, fridges, computer mice, and keyboards. Robert Holdway, WEEE Man project director, says: “(We) created the WEEE Man in order to transform the public’s perception of electronic waste as ‘out of sight out of mind’” (as qtd. in Harvey). WEEE Man was built to draw the public’s attention to the spatial practices of waste management and to make visible the sheer volume of that waste. He connotes on the level of scale and is an embodied spatial representation of e-waste. The sculpture ultimately emphasizes waste as a spatial issue and makes visual the astonishing scale of waste produced by consumers.
4. The Aesthetics of Cool
Although e-waste is outside of the scope of his project, Alan Liu is one of the few theorists writing about changes associated with the information society who makes connections to ecological issues. In his wide-ranging study The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, he suggests that cyber politics are driven by cyberlibertarianism, which he critiques as, among other things, consumerist, individualistic, and disconnected from the collectivism of other and earlier political movements (Liu 262). Alongside cyberlibertarianism, Liu narrates some of the other political organizations that have emerged in response to information society. He relates the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an activist group formed in response to pollution from semiconductor manufacturers, to white-collar information workers, who struggle with job security and repetitive stress injuries (Liu 267-8). He explicitly relates environmental politics to the politics of the information age.
Liu suggests that the aesthetics of the information age are linked to a new form of “cool,” in a distinct break from earlier iterations of cool attitudes in jazz or Dada. The cool aesthetic is related to the renegotiations of work, play, and leisure that are the reality for many information workers for whom work is posited as play (Liu 78). It can be connected to an affect “that inhibits as much as it releases feeling” (Liu 235). Although this aesthetic emerged online, especially from frontline information workers, it has escaped the bounds of the online world and can be connected not only to the culture of information, but also to the corporatization of culture (Liu 240). He says:
Cool is the techno-informatic vanishing point of contemporary aesthetics, psychology, morality, politics, spirituality, and everything. No more beauty, sublimity, tragedy, grace, or evil: only cool or not cool. (Liu 3)
Locating WEEE Man in the aesthetic regime of the information age, we only need decide if WEEE Man is cool or not. Given the enthusiastic coverage in the mainstream British press, including The Financial Times, The Independent, The Guardian, and The Observer, not to mention countless environmental blogs, WEEE Man seems assuredly cool. And my, admittedly subjective, response to WEEE Man is strangely flat, affectless: “wow, cool.”
5. Hybrids as Friendly Monsters
Monsters have long been border creatures that provoke reactions of fear or uncertainty about the broaching of boundaries. Current monsters can be said to breach the boundaries between structuring oppositions among categories such as science/emotion, human/animal/technology, and us/them (Berland). In her paper “On Hybrids,” Jody Berland looks at how hybrids, constructions that embody multiple sides of these oppositions, are making us more comfortable with monsters, suggesting that contemporary monsters tend to be hybrids and have a different function than monsters of the past. Certainly WEEE Man reads more as cool than scary. Berland says: “One could say that while the monster conveyed the horror of the unnatural entity, the hybrid has almost completed the work of naturalizing the idea.” Berland is interested in animal-human-technology hybrids, but I think we can count WEEE Man as a human-technology hybrid in this lineage too. Bonomini, the artist who designed WEEE Man, says:
I designed him to look like he’s dragging himself out of landfill, coming back from the dead. He’s there to remind us of this monster that we’re creating when we dump these goods rather than recycle them. (“Giant Sculpture Made of E-waste”)
For Maryann Bird, WEEE Man “looks like a menacing mechanical skeleton escaped from some Tim Burton movie” (Bird). WEEE Man certainly bears a familial resemblance to many human-machine hybrids, cyborgs, and monsters of the 1990s, especially the T-800 in The Terminator. In many of these narratives, and with The Terminator franchise in particular, our future world is an apocalyptic place where technology is continually taking over as an entertaining spectacle. The WEEE Man as a cool monster can be considered to be a part of making us comfortable, “naturalizing” in Berland’s words, the breached boundaries in an information society of life, work, play. Part of the coolness of this monster is that it mutes affective responses. WEEE Man represents waste as spatial and works to conceal, or at least mute, the temporal politics of planned obsolescence, and in turn the long timespans necessary to manage the toxicity of e-waste.
Figure 2: “Screenshot of WALL-E.” Disney/Pixar. Author’s screenshot.
Another non-threatening, even friendly, hybrid is the robot WALL-E, in the immensely popular 2008 animated children’s movie WALL-E. WALL-E is one of the few popular films to make explicit connections between consumer culture, waste, and the environment. It imagines that waste from unchecked consumption has literally turned future Earth into one giant landfill site cluttered with humanity’s detritus. Although unnamed as the US in the film, future Earth and future humanity, as in many American films, resemble current American culture. I realize that it may be simply too much to ask that a children’s movie enact an ideal environmental politics of waste, if such a thing is even possible or desirable. However, it is precisely because WALL-E is so beloved that it is an important site of eco-criticism. Rather than poisoning its hopeful message, I locate it in the context of consumer culture and information society, which are rife with contradictions.
The opening sequence of WALL-E is shot from above, with views of tall, shiny office skyscrapers. As the camera draws nearer some are revealed to be massive stacks of compressed garbage organized into towering piles. This is our introduction to future Earth, 700 years into the future and abandoned by humans. The first third of the movie is spent with WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter–Earth Class), a still functioning robot that continues to compact garbage, and the robot heroine EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). The trashed landscape gives viewers the details of humans’ final days on the planet. One poster reads: “WALL-E working to dig you out.” Another declares: “Too much garbage in your face, there’s plenty of space in space.”
As the posters suggest, WALL-E’s approach to garbage is literally spatial, and his directive inadequately solves this problem. The film also imagines garbage as a long-term problem, with dire ecological consequences for a planet that no longer supports any life, except for WALL-E’s friend the solitary cockroach and the single plant EVE discovers on her exploratory mission to earth. Although the conclusion of the film does gesture towards a future of environmental renewal, the focus on humans learning to grow their own foods is surprisingly at odds with much of the complexity of the rest of the film that makes connections between technology, consumption, and culture. WALL-E is a fascinating example of waste as an environmental problem because the film depicts a long-term timescape without showing the long-term environmental rehabilitation required to restore land and waters polluted by toxic materials. We are left wondering how fertile the earth buried under garbage without any intervention for 700 years can be.
The film explicitly links consumer culture to the waste problems of future Earth. The fictional Buy’n Large corporation logo litters all manner of discarded products. It is also the company that organized the remaining humans to live on recreational space cruisers, leaving humans to become fat, child-like, and spending all of their time reclining on movable sofas, hooked into information and entertainment units, and disconnected from one another and their surroundings. Spoiled and pandered to by the space cruiser’s automatic pilot, AUTO, and its host of attending robots, humans no longer take care of their own basic necessities. The information and entertainment units in the film appear as holographic screens in front of every human’s face, telling them about the newest hot fad. “Blue is the new red” the screens squawk in one such moment, and people instantly change their outfits from red to blue. There is an explicit and negative assessment of consumer culture. The contrast between trashed Earth and infotained humanity can also be understood as an implicit critique of information society and its technologies that inform only to entertain, and entertain only to advertise.
7. Undermined by Product Placement
Kelly Gates characterizes the WALL-E franchise as having a “devastating contradiction” at its center:
The content of the film speaks volumes about the urgency of the global ecological crisis, and the movie is evidence enough of the rising visibility of this issue. But the disconnect between the film’s message and the structural conditions of its production, distribution, and consumption is truly disturbing. (58)
She is referring to the gross amounts of merchandize produced to promote the film and that make up the film franchise, including cheap plastic toys, t-shirts, robots, and so on, most of which is destined for a landfill soon after its purchase. Like Parks and Sterne, she directly connects planned obsolescence to corporate profit margins. Traditional approaches to film tend to focus on representation, not the larger context, and Gates suggests that when film and media theorists focus solely on the content of the film, we are perhaps also succumbing to the capitalist logic of consumer culture. Beth Snyder Bulik, writing in Advertising Age, suggests that the subtle appearance of Apple products in WALL-E might well be the future model for advertising in film. For example, and against all logic, an iPod projects WALL-E’s favorite film Hello Dolly. The Mac startup sound signals that WALL-E has finished charging his batteries. As marketing and business analyst James McQuivey says:
My first thought when I watched the movie with my kids and I heard that Mac boot tone and the whole audience laughed […] was that it’s so subtle, it’s almost indoctrinating […]That 600 years from now there’s nothing of value on the Earth, but there’s the Mac boot tone.” (qtd. in Bulik)
Bulik notes that EVE reproduces the iconic design of the Apple line. She has the sleek white look that began with the iMac computer and has come to define Apple products. Pixar, the animation company that produced the film, was owned by Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO at that time. Jonathan Ive, the chief designer at Apple, was a consultant on the set of the film for a few days.
While I am not insinuating a great marketing conspiracy, the interconnections among Apple, Pixar, and the WALL-E film point not just to sophisticated product placement but also to the contradictions at the root of information society. The film capitalizes on anxiety about garbage and waste as a long-term problem at the same time as the promotion machine directly contributes to that problem. WALL-E’s close ties to Apple and Pixar make it difficult to take the environmental message seriously, especially given that Apple products are some of the worst on the market with respect to planned obsolescence and backwards compatibility.
Both WALL-E and WEEE Man make e-waste visible in easy ways in line with the consumption of information and communications technologies and the business of information society. Neither communicates the global context, the inequities between rich and poor, nor the business-as-usual toxic trade not policed in any way by rich or poor countries, let alone corporate policies of planned obsolescence. Cute WALL-E and cool WEEE Man can both be seen as friendly monsters of the information age. Their cool aesthetic gestures towards waste as a spatial problem, but without taking on the relationships between death dating, toxicity, or the impossibility of current waste management policies catching up to the exponentially growing piles of trash we produce. In many ways, they succumb to the cynical logic of late capitalism identified by Sterne. We need to develop more complex understandings and representations of waste, time, and toxicity. Until then, these friendly monsters are buying time.
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Figure 1. "Screen Capture of ‘WEEE Man sculpture at the Eden Project.’” edenprojecttv. 2 May 2012. Author's screenshot. 15 Apr. 2015. [Source: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGXnQw9NkWc>]
Figure 2: “Screenshot of WALL-E.” Disney/Pixar. 2008. Author’s screenshot. 15 Apr. 2015.
Sabine LeBel is an adjunct professor at the University College Writing Centre and in the Arts, Culture, and Media Department at the University of Toronto. Her research is in the areas of waste, affect, and the visual.