Out of Site & Out of Mind: Speculative Historiographies of Techno Trash
by Mél Hogan and Andrea Zeffiro
published June 2015
The Future is Trash(ed)
On September 9, 2014, Apple announced the release of the iPhone 6–the company’s 8th generation iPhone since the first release in June 2007. Much like its predecessors, the iPhone 6 held the promise of hardware and software upgrades that would render older models to be rapidly outdated. As we become accustomed to referring to digital devices in corporate terms, e.g. generations, we also consent to the imposed cycles of production, consumption, and disposal. Generation alludes to a single stage in the production of a particular product—the iPhone 6 for example—but it is no longer a descriptor for a specific model. Instead, generation signifies newness, novelty, and improvement, and it connotes an individual freedom to exchange a new technological device with an even newer new one. In this sense, any new technology is always already obsolete. Planned technological obsolescence translates into performance upgrades, additional hardware sales, future profits, and a sense of consumer status that breeds enthusiasm for novelty, as Jonathan Sterne has pointed out (33-35). Within this model of production, the future is equated with economic growth, which is in turn rooted in the quest for the always already new. But, so long as the future is measured in terms of economic models, our future is trash, or as Sabine LeBel suggests, wasted (1-19).
As media scholars, practitioners, and consumers we should share the responsibility of digging into the numerous layers in which our personal technologies and media practices contribute to a mode of technological affect best described as the trauma and drama of disembodied techno trash. However, in practice, the waste generated from our media habits and behaviors remain largely invisible to us. Are there ways in which we can come to know the material and immaterial residues that we are responsible for generating and perpetuating? For example, how might we consider the 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals and 1.5 tons of water consumed in the production of one computer and monitor? (Pickren 113). Or, how might we account for the 40 million working televisions that became obsolete due to the digital transition in the United States alone? (Electronics Take Back Coalition 6). As the call for this journal issue queries, how can techno trash be framed, acknowledged, or conceptualized today? How might this concept serve to render the “indeterminate determinate”? (Hird 453-69). As opposed to the more generic term “e-waste,” which describes the end-of-life of electrical and electronic equipment, such as personal computers, cell phones, televisions, and home appliances, we have adopted the term techno trash to elicit a “becoming-with” with trash and humans (Haraway 300-1). From an e-waste critique, a new laptop, cellular phone, tablet, or desktop computer, for instance, is designed not only to be improved upon, but to be superseded, or, simply put: to be trash(ed). The term techno trash, therefore, evokes the environmental brutality of planned technological obsolescence and conspicuous technological consumption. How can we become attentive to the ethical dimensions and challenges in our contemporary digital media environment, as imbricated with “the environment” writ large? As explained in detail below, it is from this position that our project—Speculative Historiographies of Techno Trash—intervenes, with storytelling as a means and method for self-awareness and self-reflexivity.
Considering the ecological and ethical dilemmas posed by the production, consumption, and disposal of technologies is a hugely complex topic. While it is impossible to offer an exhaustive examination of the multiple and interlocking issues embedded in the waste generated by technologies, our contribution to “The Aesthetics of Trash” issue of NANO begins with an outline of the scholarship informing the project, followed by an overview of the project and a preliminary appraisal of the stories collected thus far, and we conclude with a brief discussion of the global issues that invariably shape the scope of our research. Our project goal is to render the material and immaterial residues generated from of our current and everyday media habits and behaviors more visible by accentuating the ecological and ethical dilemmas posed by the production, consumption, and disposal of media technologies. Raising awareness about the material choices of our communications technologies (including design considerations), as well as cultures of use and disuse, is at the core of this project.
As an approach, our project speaks more generally to research practices that too often overlook environmental questions in favor of new equipment made available through grants, and the allure and power of big data crunching made more accessible with emergent software and visualization tools. As we write this paper, collaboratively, using online services and editing across our multiple devices, the potential hypocrisy embedded in our research object is all too obvious. We critique the very tools and technologies on which we rely to propel these ideas forward. We acknowledge the tension, but explain the worth of the intervention that serves to demonstrate the importance of working with and within this reality, rather than suppressing it. Thus, at the crux of our exploration lies this question: how does scholarship, including scholars themselves and their daily practices, play into environmental devastation brought about by our technological hyper-consumption and our means of use, disuse, and disposal? These are issues that pertain not only to the glut of techno trash specifically, but to the shaping of the future of the networked technologies on which we increasingly rely to make sense of ourselves.
Figure 1: Image from: technotrash.org (image by Forsaken Fotos, from Flickr Creative Commons)
Scope of the Project
In its current iteration, technotrash.org is a website through which we are soliciting and featuring personal written reflections on the consumption and disposal of media technologies. These stories reveal the myriad ways in which people consume and acquire digital technologies, and what tends to happen once these technologies cease to function, or are replaced. As a method of gathering and preserving the voices and accounts of a multitude of individuals, we view these written accounts within an oral history tradition, first, as an ongoing collection and archive of personal testimony, and second, as a study of these narratives that cannot be found in other (written) sources. These stories, in turn, produce a kind of archaeology of the present (Harrison 141-161), that is, a contemporary history documenting what people are actively doing with things that are in full use (González-Ruibal 110-25).
To date, we have collected thirty-eight narratives, the majority of which have been submitted by undergraduate students from Brock University, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), and Tulane University (Winter 2015). The submissions were generated from a course assignment at each respective institution: a 350-student online course (New Media Literacy) at Brock University, and courses at both IIT (Environmental Media) and Tulane University (Tech. Analysis). Although the parameters of the assignments differed to reflect the nature of each course, all required students to compose personal narratives. These stories ultimately addressed technological use, disuse, and disposal and the limitations encountered in the pursuit of information about e-waste. As the leaders of the exercise, we found that students embraced the task with equal parts astonishment, enthusiasm, and horror. The multitude of responses repeatedly addressed the lack of transparency in dealing with technological waste, and intimated at how capitalocentric (Gibson-Graham 35) discourses persuade participants to upgrade technologies without due cause. As a pedagogical tool, the assignments were a means for students to find critical pause and evaluate their own ecological footprint in relation to their consumption and disposal of digital media technologies and their media practices more generally.
As we move forward with the project, our aim is to continue with the collection of personal narratives that reflect how people—academics, and those who crossover into the creative industries in particular—come to own and dispose of their various devices. These introspections will document the impacts of our digital devices on the environment as well as activate a response to the problems we have so far identified. The collection of narratives will add perspectives to existing dialogues on e-waste. Several scholars are working to similar ends to document and theorize the existence of an ecological dimension to our contemporary media technologies and practices. Of note, Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller debunk the myth of their ecologically benign consumption and fabrication (1-165); Jennifer Gabrys discusses the “de-constitution of material culture” (97); and Sean Cubitt explains the hazards that e-waste poses to workers. These issues are confronted and addressed across disciplines, in media and communications in particular, where research is invested in the politics, ethics, and materiality of hardware, software, and content.
In addition, our research draws from cross-disciplinary work—such as media archaeology and media ecology as proposed by Jussi Parikka, Jane Bennett’s theory of vibrant matter, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s explorations of the relationship between memory and technology, Joanna Zylinska’s anthropocene, and Myra Hird’s reframing of landfills and waste—that together enables us to further situate our technotrash.org project within new materialist and eco-feminist frameworks. These scholars pointedly demonstrate how waste (in the form of personal hoard or collective landfill) monumentalizes our priorities and becomes myriad testaments to our need to forget what has been wasted. New materialism and eco-feminism also urge us to consider the broader ethical concerns of our scholarship, practices, and politics. This framing has allowed us to locate vulnerabilities in both the system and within ourselves, as agents in and constituents of the waste economy. In particular, this theoretical purview considers that the human and the nonhuman form a relationship rather than exist as categories that reinforce a boundary and binary between people and their machines, or between the natural and the techno-cultural (see also Alaimo 1-141; Tuana 188-213). Only when these are bound together can we begin to assess the link between the illusion of immateriality offered by digital data (and its services and devices) and the landscape that becomes its underlying context and is in turn invariably affected by it.
Technotrash.org draws from these various insights to frame the participatory archive of stories. What technotrash.org adds to the scholarship is a collection of personal narratives, whereby participants (predominantly undergraduate students at the moment) reflect on their practices of disposal, situating their role within a wider media ecology. In so doing, they are also invariably reframing how they personally engage with—through indulgence and resistance—the urgency prompted by corporations, targeting them by promising heightened self-satisfaction through new(er) technologies. Most stories reflect a deep and longstanding personal attachment to technology:
I am absolutely dependent on my computer. It has become an extension of who I am. (Sarah Morris)
I received my first cellphone when I was 10 years old. I like to think of it as a product of divorce. (Alexis Gavrelis)
Most stories also, however, articulate a general lack of awareness about the environmental impacts of e-waste, and the complexities of its media ecology, from mining for rare-earth minerals, to design, assembly, transportation, production, consumption, disposal, and pollution. For example:
Although we are familiar with how to use these devices efficiently and effectively, we completely lack knowledge as to the impacts of our habits. (Katie Murray)
Once the devices were out of my hands, I never considered where they might end up or how it would impact the environment and other people around the world. (Elena Costanzo)
I had no idea how deeply rooted our entire economy was based on this throw-away system. I thought electronics, of all things, were made to last. (Rebecca Merner)
The stories also reveal confusion and uncertainty about where responsibility lies, whether with individuals, designers, corporations, or provincial/statewide or federal initiatives:
There should be a strategic plan in motion in schools, post-secondary establishments, healthcare centers and businesses to mitigate the consumption by computers and the disposal of obsolete or defective equipment. This would certainly require policy implementation at the provincial or federal level to develop strategies but also awareness-building initiatives for citizens like myself, who due to intentional obscurity, are unaware of the potentially permanent effects of technological consumption and disposal. (Eva Allouche)
We should technically go and dispose of these items in the designated e-waste bins but I haven’t seen or heard of any in my town. (Naveen Khan)
Once a product reaches the end of its life, and I know I will not be able to repair it, I am still hesitant to throw it away (even an old battery). A lot of the time I store it away in the hopes that one day a solution will be found to properly dispose of this technology […] The guilt is terrible every time I have to dispose of an electronic device. (Julia Haughie)
As creators in the digital industries we should not be forgiven for contributing to the waste of our upgrading simply because we are helping to service the innovation of these products […] Limiting the obsolescence of our innovations should be placed on an equal plane with profitability and ingenuity. A consciousness about where technology comes from and where it ends up is as much the responsibility of those who make technology as it is to those who use it. (Paul Juricic)
Numerous stories disclose an outright savviness about advertising discourses, while others describe an irresistible pull to be up-to-date technologically (Katie Murray). Just as many, however, question the value of always striving for the new, and admit instead a strange and often nostalgic attachment to old devices, and a deeply felt sense of responsibility about needlessly upgrading:
I like to collect items just because they have memories attached, but with the speed of technological progress, I don’t see these old devices being useful for much longer. (Naveen Khan)
For me, the pieces of antiquated technologies I have chosen to keep evoke memories of the things I’ve made and documented during this era of transition […] The nostalgia of antiquated technologies can cause us to overlook the ecological footprint of their existence. (Paul Juricic)
A significant number of participants report hoarding their devices, some with the intention of one day offloading files—photographs in particular—to another device as a means of preservation. Some stockpile their devices because, while they do not know how to dispose of the technologies, they had a sense that these were things not to be thrown out as/with regular garbage. The process, nevertheless, is marked by an equal sense of guilt and ambivalence:
I haven’t really disposed of anything. I either pass it on to be used by someone else or have kept it. I still have my first Walkman, camera, phone, and iPod sitting in a drawer collecting dust. (Amberly Keelan)
I want to donate them but it feels wasteful to me since I spent hundreds of dollars when I originally bought them. (Holden Patteson)
I like keeping my technologies because of the deep connection I make to them; that was the iPod that pumped me up for my big state swim meet in high school, that was the cell phone that facilitated the early phases of my love life, that computer was where I typed my college entrance essays. My loyalty to Apple products and every resulting piece of technology bought is represented through and the “free” earbuds that accompanied them. (Elizabeth Cook)
In certain instances, hoarding was due to a sense of reusability, but also, for some, the materiality of the object demanded proper disposal, because of specific elements like batteries and paint. Interestingly, family is a key factor in instilling a sense of responsibility, for instance, in terms of exposure to environmental consciousness and economic prudence at a young age (Cory Winiecki).
Thus far, none of the stories engage fully with the interconnections we have put forward, as techno trash, whereby the human and nonhuman tensions are revealed. However, as a successful starting point, through an increased awareness about the cycles of production and consumption of communication technologies, such as those targeted in our project, we argue that participants become able to offer self-representations of techno trash that necessarily implicate them personally into the global fabric of waste.
Figure 2: Screenshot from: technotrash.org/#recent-work
The Hard(ware) Facts & (Im)material Data
To understand the essence of technotrash.org is to engage fully with the global issues that have engendered the research. With our project, we strive to contribute to the argument that the distance—both conceptual and geographical—of consumers to their hardware and their data perpetuates a disassociation between them; in addition, a disassociation exists between current media practices and the social responsibility consumers feel toward their personal technologies.
Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the developed (and several developing) countries. According to a recent study completed by the United Nation’s Solving E-Waste Problem initiative, the amount of global electronic waste will increase by 33 percent, from the 49 million tons tracked in 2012 to over 65 million tons by 2017 (United Nations University 1). This is the weight equivalent to almost 200 Empire State Buildings or 11 Great Pyramids of Giza (United Nations University 1). When our disused technologies enter waste flows, there are few options for their placement in the afterlife: devices are put into landfills, recycled for reuse, dismantled for the recovery of valuable components, and most often unloaded as reusable goods in countries like China, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Vietnam. This is how for instance, Ghanaian wetlands have become the world’s largest techno trash dumping site.
An emerging body of scholarship is rearticulating notions of e-waste beyond the quantification of discarded hardware. This work is invested in drawing attention to the consequences of our media practices that take place online and in the cloud. It is estimated that 2.5 billion people are online and that number is expected to increase by 60% in the next 5 years (Greenpeace 5). This means an increase not only in computational devices but also a greater need for storage offline, to support online activities. Data centers are considered to be the fastest growing component of the global IT sector energy footprint, and energy demand from these facilities is expected to grow approximately 81% by 2020 (Greenpeace 10). Discourses of cloud computing that equate immateriality with sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness muddy the very real and very physical infrastructures required to support big data. The perceived immateriality of digital data is a prime contributor to the invisibility of e-waste. Digital flows are not green, weightless, and immaterial, but neither are they always easy to grasp in material terms.
Alix Johnson (see Adam Fish) and Sabine LeBel persuasively put into question the cloud as a structure that is detached and free floating; one that can store limitless amounts of digital data. The cloud may be theoretically limitless, in terms of its capacity for storage, but its physical containers cover vast spaces. Server farms, which occupy the surface of several football fields, are routinely erected in remote geographies and demand unbounded natural resources for power and maintenance. This body of literature reveals how the power and infrastructure of wirelessness remains largely unknown to consumers. In recent years, the association between wirelessness and immateriality has become even more abstruse with cloud computing, which perpetuates the image of floating and dislocated data.
Other scholars are examining the corporate push towards rendering visible data centers. In particular, Patrick Vonderau and Jennifer Holt (2015) are documenting companies, which, like Google, offer virtual tours of their data centers with glossy renditions of their inner workings and carefully curated brand interfaces. This body of work reveals how greening discourses are becoming increasingly important for companies who want to demonstrate care for the environment. Green IT or sustainable IT, however, are examples of the rebranding of capitalism with a “friendly face” (Parikka 17). Such rhetoric suggests that we can move forward with our global economy as an unobstructed subsystem of the Earth’s ecosystems, so long as we make it sustainable.
Our aim in collecting stories is to foster a critical digital literacy that is attuned to the ways in which personal technologies are political—how everyday decisions concerning the use, disuse, and disposal of digital technologies have tremendous global repercussions. Building on the legacy of storytelling as a key technique employed by social justice movements and activist formations, we have looked to storytelling in the environmental justice movement in particular as a tool for making sense of how the material effects of environmental degradation are not always readily discernible through policy or scientific practice (Houston 419). We bring together an archaeology of the present with (written) oral histories, merging simple “excavations” (of pockets, bags, drawers, and offices, etc.) with self-reflexive narratives chronicling cultures of use, disuse, and disposal of communications technologies.
As demonstrated by our technotrash.org project, storytelling has the capacity to shape popular perceptions about the future and incite people—scholars, policy makers, artists, and engineers alike—to action and in ways that merely representing data might not. Feminist, queer, and postcolonial scholars and historians of social movements in particular have long recognized storytelling as a method in exercising agency, as a way of shaping identity, and as a means to motivate action. Stories, when gathered together as we have done here and online, become productive and world-making, transforming situations that are experienced in a multitude of lives into a publicly recognized history. As such, the stories collected via technotrash.org have become fodder for future in-depth critical policy intervention and activism. What’s your story?
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Techno Trash References:
Elizabeth Cook. “Elizabeth Cook” Techno-Trash. technotrash.org. 10 Apr. 2015.
Elena Costanzo. “Elena Costanzo.” Techno-Trash. technotrash.org. 22 July 2014.
Eva Allouche. “Eva Allouche” Techno-Trash. technotrash.org. 31 July 2014.
Alexis Gavrelis. “Alexis Gavrelis” Techno-Trash. technotrash.org. 16 Mar. 2015.
Julia Haughie. “Julia Haughie” Techno-Trash. technotrash.org. 19 July 2014.
Katie Murray. “Katie Murray” Techno-Trash. technotrash.org. 22 July 2014.
Naveen Khan. “Naveen Khan” Techno-Trash. technotrash.org. 19 July 2014.
Paul Juricic. “Paul Juricic” Techno-Trash. technotrash.org. 13 Mar. 2014.
Rebecca Merner. “Rebecca Merner” Techno-Trash. technotrash.org. 20 July 2014.
Sarah Morris. “Sarah Morris” Techno-Trash. technotrash.org. 10 Apr. 2015.
Mél Hogan is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Illinois Institute of Technology. Her research is at the intersection of media, archives, and the environment.
Andrea Zeffiro is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film at Brock University (Canada). Her research intersects the cultural politics and practices of emerging technologies, contemporary media histories, and art activism.