What a Waste: Why Obsolescence Is the Wrong Lens for E-Waste
Elizabeth F. Chamberlain
Arkansas State University
(Published March 11, 2020)
New materialists have compellingly argued that technology has been too often represented in scholarship as a space of immaterial possibilities (e.g. Gabrys; Huhtamo; Parikka, “A Geology”; Taffel). “The weightless rhetoric of cyberspace,” Sy Taffel cautions, “is underpinned by vast amounts of matter” (19). Perhaps, as that old New Yorker cartoon famously proclaimed, no one knows you’re a dog on the Internet, but new materialists remind us that the hard drive under your paws contains coltan mined in the war-torn Congo, that the polystyrene in the case will be difficult to recycle, and that if landfilled the mercury in the flat screen might leach into the groundwater. Woof, indeed.
In answering the call to attend to technological matter, new materialists have enthusiastically traced materials up and downstream. Some have considered the environmental and cultural impacts of mining (Parikka “New Materialism”; Taffel). Others have followed the material flows of electronics after their “obsolescence” (Cortez; Gabrys; Rust). Many have addressed the ways that electronic waste (e-waste) pollutes environments and damages the health and lives of workers in electronics junkyards (Cubitt; Gabrys; Grossman; Minter; Pezzulo; Rust; Yang). These critics appropriately point to ways that e-waste is a growing international problem; contemporary technological culture creates massive amounts of waste that we have not yet as an international community figured out how to manage ethically and responsibly at the necessary scale.
Yet this common new materialist figuring of e-waste ignores a large and important component of what Karen Barad calls the material technosocial “entanglements” in the life of electronics. In taking up Walter Benjamin’s call to interrogate “the rags, the refuse” of history (460) and Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka’s call to consider “zombie media,” new materialists describe a life of electronics that is artificially centered on the electronics’ first use. The standard teleology of many new materialist depictions of material flows of e-waste—from a shiny developed-world purchase, to the device’s planned obsolescence, to the user pitching the device into the developing world’s waste stream—often does not account for the increasing use of electronics in the developing world. There are over 6 billion mobile cellular subscriptions in the developing world (International Telecommunications Union), and many of those users rely on secondhand electronics. Some of the devices on today’s Best Buy shelves will remain entangled with societies of users for twenty or thirty years, long beyond the point that they become “obsolete” in developed countries. Thus, any representation of e-waste that calls a technological object “dead” when it leaves its first user in the US or UK necessarily ignores the rich material lives of electronics in countries that rely on secondhand electronic imports for their connection to online society.
Narratives of the developing world’s use of electronics have been dominated by images of toxic pollution and dangerous waste-picking since 2009, when “Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground,” a Frontline documentary, made highly polluted electronics junkyards famous. In the decade since, however, export from the US and UK to Ghana and China has become less and less common; increasingly, e-waste is generated within developing nations. While I have no doubt that poor nations bear an undue environmental burden of e-waste (in accordance with the ecocritical axiom), slowing consumption in wealthier nations, if possible, will not solve the problem. Stopping e-waste exports, if possible, will not solve the problem. Even in the least developed countries worldwide, 30% of 15- to 24-year-olds are Internet users (International Telecommunications Union). Most of these users, however, are not represented by new materialist descriptions of “users” in the life of technology.
Furthermore, figuring e-waste as solely a “problem” unfairly presents poorer nations’ electronics reuse as a sad afterthought. One of Parikka’s calls to study e-waste describes it as the “materialism of dirt and bad matter” (“New Materialism” 99). This description of e-waste ignores its lingering potentiality; the uses that Ghanaian junkyard workers find in secondhand technology are not simply “bad encounters that reduce the vitalities of material assemblages” (Parikka “New Materialism” 99). Rather, these junkyards are often the site of rebirth of electronics—the ashes that breathe a second, third, and/or fourth life into electronics once called “obsolete.” Surely we cannot call such rebirths unequivocally “bad encounters.” What, indeed, could be a more vital use of a material assemblage than when a Ghanaian teenager is searching online for pulse-code modulation jobs on a refurbished Dell desktop that has passed from use in an American university, crossed the ocean through a network of international scrap dealers, and been repaired with parts that were scavenged—maybe even from the “blighted” Ghana scrapyard Agbogbloshie (Burrell 48)?
In this paper, I ask: How would the material ecology of electronics change if device design and manufacturing considered users beyond the first? How could new materialist understandings of technology change if we shook off the teleology imposed by a focus on “waste” and “obsolescence,” and instead embraced an extended international life of devices? What stories of electronics are obscured by the tired repetition of the environmental dangers of burning wires? I argue that many new materialist approaches to e-waste, by reiterating outdated stories about export and by perpetuating a wealthy nation-centric teleological narrative about the life of electronics, may reinforce the very structures of obsolescence they aim to critique.
Behind the Artist-Archaeologist, A Legion of More Utilitarian Upcyclers
Let me begin with a vignette that points to the varying potentials of different approaches to e-waste materialism. The setting: the largest e-waste dump in the world, Agbogbloshie, in Accra, Ghana, which has been the subject of dozens of documentaries aiming to expose the dangers and ecological horror of inexperienced electronics recycling. From Agbogbloshie, an artist named Joseph Awuah-Darko harvested discarded electronics and mechanical components to assemble the first in a series of afrofuturist grandfather clocks. The clock was sold in November 2017 to an unnamed British philanthropist. The clock’s artist, also frequently known by his performance name Okuntakinte, is a 21-year-old British-born Ghanaian university student and musical performer who founded the Agbogblo.Shine initiative. In addition to turning e-waste into high-end furniture, Agbogblo.Shine aims to provide safety equipment and vocational training for scrap collectors in the most dangerous parts of Agbogbloshie. In December 2017, the initiative was awarded a $6,900 Ford Foundation grant for a project that will produce 1200 stools for rural Ghana schools by 2020 (@AJEnglish; @Okuntakinte, “Today, in our”; Amoah; Yire).
Okuntakinte’s work fits in beautifully with the work of scholars who have taken up Hertz and Parikka’s call toward “zombification” of out-of-use electronics. In “Zombie Media,” Hertz and Parikka describe the ways that artistic practices like circuit bending and hardware hacking fight back against the corporate strategy of planned obsolescence, which are deliberate decisions “artificially decreasing the life-span of consumer commodities . . . and stimulating the need to purchase” (143). Since Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a museum and called it a “readymade,” Hertz and Parikka argue, the art world has found ways to repurpose commodities as objects deserving higher-brow consideration (426). Quoting Erkki Huhtamo, Hertz and Parikka laud the rebirth of the “‘artist-engineer’” archetype into the “‘artist-archaeologist,’” an artisan dedicated to breaking open the black boxes of technology with a kind of DIY aesthetic, exploring the history of media by literally tinkering with its insides (150).
Following the “zombie media” call, many scholars have turned an eye to this kind of artistic upcycling as a media archaeological practice that fights technological obsolescence and black-boxing. For example, in a Craft Research study of The Trons, “a robot garage band made from recycled materials,” Emit Snake-Beings describes how “a DiY craft aesthetic . . . allows material agency to become part of the making process” (55). The Trons, he explains, are a creation of New Zealand musician Greg Locke and consist of four robotic band members made of discarded speakers and microphones and scrap metal. “They” have released albums inscribed on discarded aluminum pie plates (63-5), and Locke reports incorporating the ways that the decaying salvaged material of the robots introduces errors into the sound of the music (69). In Hertz and Parikka’s formulation, Locke is a classic artist-archaeologist; Snake-Beings argues that The Trons redress the problems of e-waste:
Art and craft practices that utilize discarded materials and redundant technologies have recently been described as an engagement with ‘Zombie media’, signifying the ecological dangers of discarded electronic e-waste as significant threats for natural ecologies in the future. The use of ‘Zombie media’ brings to light the flow of toxins leached into the eco-system when e-waste is dismantled, suggesting that technology never really ‘dies’ but becomes ‘part of a wider pattern of circulation’ (Hertz and Parikka 2015). The reuse of apparently ‘dead’ media, in this sense, highlights dominant discourses of technology as a disposable commodity, with The Trons offering an alternative discourse based on a more sustainable attitude to technology. (58-9)
The Trons have a compelling DIY aesthetic, and their craft certainly seems to me to call into question the polish, personality, and finesse we expect both out of highly produced music and out of robots; in Locke’s reuse of electronic components, given that robots have perhaps the most apparent life of any electronic product, I see some thoughtful provocations on the notion that these components are “dead.” Yet I am far less convinced that this project presents “a more sustainable attitude to technology” or “signif[ies] the ecological dangers of discarded electronic e-waste” (5-6), How does constructing robots out of discarded technological devices represent an ecologically sustainable attitude? What dangers of e-waste, precisely, are called up by the presence of a robot band? Might there, in fact, be some counterintuitive danger in offhandedly and uncritically equating e-waste with “danger” as Snake-Beings does here?
Snake-Beings’s other work on what he terms “techno-animism” engages with a similar DIY craft approach to “media zombification.” In a 2018 Continuum article, he describes a workshop where people make creative use of e-waste, turning discarded electronics into electronic musical instruments. Snake-Beings’s research subjects thus resemble the prototypical artist-archaeologist described in “Zombie Media”: Reed Ghazala, a circuit-bending hippie who has turned old Speak & Spells into ethereal, half-familiar theremins. As artist-archaeologists, Ghazala and Snake-Beings treat old technology with reverence, tinged with a kind of affected pretense; the artist-archaeologist seeks cultural enlightenment in a pile of trash.
More than a few other uptakes of the “zombie media” call similarly claim to be addressing problems such as overconsumption of electronics and the toxicity of e-waste that ends up in landfills, while forwarding a nostalgic veneration of old technology that emphasizes a punk aesthetic over making something with functional potential. Nathanael Bassett and Jason Archer, for instance, also cite Hertz and Parikka’s “zombie media” call, when they describe a keyboard nostalgia movement; a group of old keyboard fans wax poetic about the “haptic experience” of keyboards that have not been in production for decades:
The enthusiasm for vintage or discontinued keyfeel also motivates a type of historical knowledge that allows for the care and recomposition of dead media. In 2016, the Brand New Model F Keyboards project brought back IBM’s Model F into production for the first time since 1994 and produced over a $140,000 worth of orders. (246)
As in the case of The Trons, I question the argument that this kind of “care” of “dead media” represents a substantially different or more sustainable attitude towards electronics. Indeed, the attitude Bassett and Archer describe instead seems to be a kind of consumerism repackaged for the iconoclast class; this reading is supported by the fact that, given the opportunity to purchase new electronics to fill the nostalgic impulse, collectors quickly amassed $140,000 in orders for a keyboard that had not been state of the art for more than twenty years.
I have many of the same misgivings about the nostalgic “feminist ROM [read-only memory] hacks” that Jaime Lee Kirtz describes in her 2018 article about feminist hacking and making practices. ROM hackers make changes to the code or hardware of video games, often old console games. Kirtz describes several ROM hacking projects from a woman named Rachel Simone Weil, who, among other projects, hacked Super Mario Bros. to add Hello Kitty and retheme the game in girly pinks and baby blues. This project, Kirtz says, is aligned in sexist obscurity with the work that poorly paid factory workers put into electronics:
From the forgotten labor of the migrant women workers in Chinese electronics factories to the lack of attention paid to feminist artists and game developers creating deep hacks of classic games, women have been excluded from the mainstream conceptualization of the video game industry and larger tech culture. . . . As such, ROM hacking video games, along with critically analyzing the histories of the hacked media, which includes the process of media resurrection for ‘new uses, contexts and adaptations,’ outlines an approach that can effectively extend conceptions of feminist hacking/making (Hertz and Parikka 2012, 429).
Again, while Weil seems like a perfect example of the artist-archaeologist, I struggle to understand how her work in any way brings light to “the forgotten labor of the migrant women workers in Chinese electronics factories.” I do not see in her work, or in Kirtz’s analysis of it, a substantially different proposed attitude toward consumption, toward product lifecycles, or toward the flows of electronics that have fallen out of use.
This kind of electronics re-use seems to me to be reminiscent of many neoliberal approaches to environmental struggles: it proposes individual solutions to the many systemic issues that make e-waste such a wicked problem. Such critiques might be made, Taffel argues, of the ethically sourced smartphone intended to combat problems of coltan mining. The phone, some might say, “merely represents the abdication of regulatory governmental practices by devolving ethical responsibility onto the individual, . . . thus creating minimal disturbance to mainstream corporate practices whilst affording the extension of the central mantra of neoliberal consumer culture: the right of the atomised individual to choose” (28). You can choose to make art out of your e-waste, these projects say, and that elevation from functional object to objet d’art is an adequate means of demonstrating your ethical electronics consciousness. The individual solution of the artist-archaeologist may be no solution at all—it upends no systems of use or reuse; it destabilizes no structures of waste flow; it does not demand change of any kind at all.
Worse, this nostalgic artistic treatment of e-waste might actually reinforce some of the more troubling practices of electronics flows: most e-waste goes through a period of dormancy and storage in first-users’ homes before it re-enters the electronics-using world through refurbishment, repair, or recycling. “At least 75 percent” of computers are “stockpiled” once they reach the end of their first useful life, Jennifer Gabrys explains: “Computer owners store the outmoded model as though there might be some way to recuperate its vanishing value, but the PC is one item that does not acquire value over time” (2). An artist-archaeologist treatment of e-waste gives that stockpiling a crafty purpose, as we might stockpile newspapers for papier-mache or bottle-caps to embed in a resin countertop. Meanwhile, the secondhand market in the US and abroad is robbed of the rapidly depreciating use value of still-functioning electronics. Internet cafes in Ghana are populated with computers that were new on the market seven or more years earlier, Jenna Burrell reports (160). If users in wealthy nations stopped stockpiling electronics as much and embraced a freer flow of electronics to poorer nations, might that improve the availability of more up-to-date devices in countries like Ghana? Might it lower prices for computers and make them more prevalent in schools and homes? Might the British appetite for e-waste grandfather clocks actually contribute to the cultural attitudes that make burning wires in the Agbogbloshie scrapyard among the more appealing jobs for young Ghanaians who have not been able to afford formal education?
Following ethnographic investigations of a Chinese scrapyard much like Agbogbloshie, Adam Minter reported that people in the yard did not feel “that scrap was dumped on them. Instead, they actively imported it, or they migrated from other provinces to work on it. The pay, after all, couldn’t be beat, especially if you were uneducated and illiterate” (65-6). Furthermore, some of the African and Chinese junkyard practices like wire burning that are so often represented with horror in places like Frontline are not actually so foreign. Minter, as the child of several generations of Minnesota scrap pickers, reported that in the 1980s and 1990s, his family “often paid contractors to burn our wire in farm fields outside Minneapolis,” and while his family no longer does, he knows “people who still do it in North Dakota—and there isn’t an impoverished Chinese farmer among them” (66). I do not mean to deny that stripping wires of their coatings by burning them is an environmental hazard, or to deny that using sloshing buckets of pure acid to break components off printed circuit boards is bad for workers’ health; clearly, in both cases, the environment and scrap workers’ health would be better suited by cleaner practices. Plus, when such things are still happening in the United States, their participants are likely violating environmental and occupational regulations that ensure most electronics recycling is cleaner. Such regulations are a net positive for the environment and workers’ health. But a representation of electronic material culture that presents the wire-burners and circuit-board strippers as victims of Western capitalism denies scrap workers’ agency, demonstrates ignorance that similar practices continue to occur in the West, and is undoubtedly not taking full account of the social entanglements of e-waste.
This is one major problem with the lens of the artist-archaeologist, the lens of zombie media, even the lens of obsolescence as a whole: When we look at the story of Agbogbloshie, Okuntakinte is the clear artist-archaeologist hero. He zombifies the most toxic trash of Ghana and sells it to London elites in the form of an ironically clever decorative object, a grandfather clock that announces its own age and obsolescence with every analog tick. Narratives of upcycling focus on dead electronics as something to make rich Westerners nod solemnly in art galleries.
Meanwhile, news reports of Okuntakinte’s work do not acknowledge that at Agbogbloshie, he may very well be the artisan practicing the least true upcycling. The scrap collectors with whom he works are turning waste into usable materials again. A report from Accra, conducted by the United Nations University and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, suggests that countries like Ghana that have “an active informal recycling sector collect as much as 80-90% of their locally-generated e-waste” (United Nations University). Furthermore, that so-called “waste” on average “contains precious metal ‘deposits’ 40 to 50 times richer than ores mined from the ground” (United Nations University).
The raw metals Agbogbloshie workers harvest will be sold to scrap dealers, who will pass them on—sometimes to local refurbishers, repairers, and remanufacturers, but sometimes to “factories and refineries in developed countries” (Ottaviani). Thus, that pile of burning wires from an early ‘90s server farm may very well yield gold that eventually ends up back in an iPhone. Agbogbloshie recyclers see in e-waste a literal piecemeal rebirth out of obsolescence where the artist-archaeologist sees only black-boxed media death. Rather than breaking open the black box of electronics, artist-archaeologists sometimes put a glass box around those still-valuable materials, materials that could readily be returned to the technological economy.
E-Waste Isn’t a One-Way Flow
The role of the informal scrap recycling sector in returning raw materials to the global metals stream points to another problem with the teleological narrative of global e-waste flows. Most conversations about the global flows of e-waste follow a “Western consumption is bad” narrative. To illustrate, popular press publications use pictures of sick, sad youth in junkyards like Agbogbloshie and Guiyu and Foshan burning hunks of wires to strip their coatings and beating open CRTs to harvest the copper in the electron gun; as Burrell puts it, the secondhand electronics industry “has recently become very visible in a very selective way through coverage in Western media outlets of the electronic waste problem in developing countries” (181). The story is that “we” (people from wealthy nations) buy things, then trash them, and then pollute “their” homes (poor waste pickers). A version of this same story has been adopted by many media archaeologists. To tell this story, Hertz & Parikka cite Sean Cubitt:
‘The digital realm is avant-garde to the extent that it is driven by perpetual innovation and perpetual destruction. The built-in obsolescence of digital culture, the endless trashing of last year’s model, the spendthrift throwing away of batteries and mobile phones and monitors and mice . . . and all the heavy metals, all the toxins, sent off to some god-forsaken Chinese recycling village . . . that is the digital avant-garde.’ (151)
This narrative maps nicely onto white Western guilt: electronic waste is positioned as the sad, seedy underbelly of our eternal quest for the shiny and new. Westerners are linked with “digital culture,” with “perpetual innovation,” with “perpetual destruction.” Chinese recycling villages (and Ghanaian ones, by extension) are “god-forsaken.” This story articulates a one-way flow of e-waste, from the wealthy users who discard technology to the poor “god-forsaken” recyclers, whose lives are polluted by the unending tide of Western electronic trash. The implication of this narrative: If only Westerners were not so “spendthrift,” not so committed to “perpetual innovation,” not so cavalier about our “perpetual destruction,” we would improve the lives of the “god-forsaken” Chinese and Ghanaian waste pickers.
Many new materialists repeat some version of this story. Here is Gabrys: “The disposal of electronics, then, follows a trajectory between developed and developing countries, where devices migrate from technology-rich regions to those places with an abundance of cheap labor and a high demand for raw materials” (91). In much of the same language, Rust says: “By shipping our e-waste overseas, those of us living in developed countries are diverted from thinking about the problem” (93). Grossman’s High Tech Trash begins on “the shores of the Lianjiang River in southern China” with a woman melting a circuit board with “unprotected hands,” “primitive recycling” that is attributable to the “million or more tons of electronic waste that have been arriving there each year since the mid-1990s” (2).
In this narrative lurk some troubling unchecked assumptions, assumptions that are not borne out by the reality of global e-waste flows. For instance, why do we assume that electronics consumption is a primarily Western phenomenon? Why do we assume that “recycling villages” internationally import all their scrap? Why are recycling villages “god-forsaken,” and why are their workers positioned as victims of electronic waste, without agency or technical skill?
This narrative has been the reigning story about e-waste for decades, and while aspects of it are grounded in fact, many of its facts are actually decades out of date. Much discussion of e-waste comes from the Basel Action Network (BAN), an organization dedicated to enforcing the letter and spirit of the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (Basel Convention), which aimed to decrease the amount of hazardous waste sold from developed nations to developing nations. In 2006, parties to the Basel Convention held the first international convention on e-waste; Basel signatories “noting the rapid expansion in the transboundary movement of electronic waste worldwide and the risk to human health . . . declared the urgent need to promote public awareness of the risks” (Ogunseitan). Gabrys attributes to BAN the widely cited claim that “up to 80 percent of electronic waste from the United States and up to 70 percent of electronic waste from Europe is shipped to developing countries” (129). Yet this number is now decades out of date and not based on research of e-waste flows; it is from a 2002 BAN report, an “estimate” attributed to unnamed “informed recycling industry sources” (Puckett et al., 1). More recent research suggests otherwise.
A March 2018 report by e-commerce company Jumia reported a cell phone penetration rate in Ghana of 119% (“Jumia Launches”); that is, there are 119 mobile phones in Ghana for every 100 people. As time goes on, the notion that Western export of electronics is the biggest issue in e-waste is increasingly undermined by the reality of global e-waste generation: According to the Basel Convention’s own research, in 2010, 50-85% of e-waste in Africa was domestically generated; five West African countries alone were generating between 650,000 and 1,000,000 tonnes of e-waste per year (Schluep, et al., 10).
The most comprehensive tracking of global e-waste flows further challenges the notion that e-waste is generated in developed countries and exported to developing countries. Several facets of media misreading of e-waste, controversies about export, and changes in transboundary movements of e-waste over time are targeted in Josh Lepawsky’s work on global e-waste flows (“The Changing Geography”; “From Actors to Networks”). In an article in The Geographical Journal reporting on 9400 trade transactions from 206 territories between 1996 and 2012, Lepawsky describes how global trade in e-waste changed in those fifteen years. For instance, the biggest importer of e-waste in 1996 was Indonesia; in 2012, not only had Indonesia become a net exporter of used electronics, but it exported those electronics primarily to countries with higher GDPs than itself. Exports do not move solely or even primarily, now, from the “global North” to the “global South”; the US is, in fact, now the third-largest importer of e-waste (primarily from Canada, but also from developing countries). Thus, Lepawsky argues, the Basel Convention’s focus on e-waste export is “increasingly irrelevant with respect to flows of e‐waste” (“The Changing Geography”).
By presenting e-waste as a problem of the West, as a problem that “we” foist onto “them,” we blind ourselves to the way that e-waste is a global problem. More importantly, we blind ourselves to the ways that the solutions to e-waste might also be global. Lepawksy argues that instead of focusing on banning e-waste exports, truly addressing the global challenges of e-waste requires a different lens:
Solving that [e-waste] problem will not happen if it is imagined as one predominantly characterised by dumping of e‐waste from rich, ‘developed’ countries of the ‘global North’ in poor, ‘developing’ countries of the ‘global South.’ … The dominant storyline about e‐waste misses the dynamic action of reuse, refurbishment, repair and recycling that accompanies this trade.
Ghana has deeply robust electronics reuse. Via manual disassembly, Ghanaian scrap workers recover components from computers that would have long since been shredded in American recycling facilities. Envisioning Ghana and other countries in the “global South” as the victims of technology ignores much of the reality of e-waste flow and denies those technicians agency.
Counterstories from “The Strongest Men in Ghana”
Given the increasing preponderance of evidence that demonstrates countries in the “global South” are global players in technological markets and effective users, repairers, and recyclers of those technologies, it seems likely that the media denial of that agency is explained in part by racism. The e-waste export narrative is what Aja Y. Martinez calls a “stock story,” a generalized narrative reflecting racial biases encoded in institutional practices. Martinez positions the narrative method of “counterstory” as an effective means of countering racist dominant narratives (82). She explains, “[a]s an interdisciplinary method, CRT [critical race theory] counterstory recognizes that the experiential and embodied knowledge of people of color is legitimate and critical to understanding racism that is often well disguised in the rhetoric of normalized structural values and practices” (69). Counterstory, that is, offers an experience that challenges the dominant narrative.
For one counterstory to the Agbogbloshie e-waste narrative, consider Burrell’s Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana, a 2012 ethnography of the Ghanaian use of electronics. In a chapter on import of second-hand computers and the problem of e-waste, Burrell describes a scrap dealer named Ibrahim, who works near Agbogbloshie collecting and selling computer and car parts to Nigerian and Chinese buyers. Ibrahim calls himself “‘the destroyer’” and speaks proudly of his work, describing scrap recyclers as “‘the strongest men in Ghana’” (174-5). Far from a hapless victim pressured into dangerous work by an exploitative global economy, Ibrahim “depicts his entry into the scraps business as a choice he made willingly and that offered him an avenue for autonomy and self-advancement” (176). Ibrahim’s business started with a $500 investment from his mother, who sold a cow to help him; by 2010, he had turned that into $5000 in working capital and operated a small taxi business in addition to his scrap dealing (175). Though the e-waste “stock story” describes burning hunks of wires as low-level, especially dangerous work, Ibrahim sees it differently. Burrell explains, “[f]or scraps dealers such as Ibrahim, by far the most valuable component of a computer per pound was the copper wires that connected circuit boards, the power supply, and the ports inside the computer case” (175). Nowhere in Ibrahim’s depiction of himself and his work do we see the sad, sick victims of e-waste export that populated the Frontline documentary. Instead, e-waste has made him a successful businessman, and he in turn employs auto mechanics and other repair tradespeople. Agbogbloshie, through Ibrahim’s eyes, is a bustling microeconomy.
As another Agbogbloshie counterstory, consider the work of the Pure Earth Blacksmith Institute, a non-governmental organization that “devises clean-up strategies, empowers local champions and secures support from national and international partnerships” (Pure Earth); in Agbogbloshie, the organization partnered with two local organizations, the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association (GASDA) and Green Advocacy Ghana to “promote Agbogbloshie as a recycling knowledge centre by setting up a model e-scrap facility that protects livelihoods while minimizing the adverse health and environment risks of scavenging and exposure to toxic substances” ( “Ghana (Agbogbloshie)”). With Blacksmith support, GASDA installed and began training Agbogbloshie workers in the use of recycling machines such as shredders and wire strippers; these new procedures increased profits of the local scrap recyclers, more than enough to fund ongoing maintenance of the recycling machines. Other GASDA and Green Advocacy Ghana members worked to educate the scrap workers, serving as “human billboards” and distributing posters and flyers about the dangers of burning and availability of a less-toxic alternative ( “Ghana (Agbogbloshie)”). Why do so many new materialist representations of e-waste describe artist-archaeologists and so few describe efforts to improve recycling conditions in the scrap yards that are held up as the unseemly “end” of the electronics story?
For further counterstory work, Burrell also profiles several shopkeepers in Accra selling second-hand electronics. One, Samuel, estimated that of the goods brought into the shop, 90% could be sold. Burrell explains:
He and two other hired technicians worked hard to test, repair, and refurbish as many of the computers as they could. They were paid per machine and earned money only for what they were able to get working again, creating a clear incentive to salvage whatever could possibly be salvaged. (171)
This notion of creating an obvious financial incentive for repair workers to fix what can possibly be fixed seems like a pretty standard business management technique: incentivizing repair and disincentivizing scrapping leads to a very high rate of reuse and refurbishment. Yet few repair shops in the US operate on this model, and almost no manufacturer-authorized repair shops do. This refurbishment-incentivizing practice is one way that “global North” companies could easily take a cue from the “global South,” to move toward more sustainable attitudes towards electronics overall.
A similar argument drives Jerome Denis and David Pontille’s work on maintenance and repair; in a 2017 Continent article, they describe two “regimes” of attitudes toward maintenance. In the first, which is common “in rich countries,” “[m]aterial fragility and the messy side of things are meant to remain at the maintenance work perimeter” (13). That is, repairers and technicians maintain order; users simply use, and refer failing or decaying objects and systems to service professionals. In the alternative regime, which is more common in poorer countries but also exists in some wealthier countries’ systems such as WiFi infrastructures, “the fragility and vulnerability of things are a shared concern. . . . And everybody is allowed, and sometimes explicitly invited, to take part in repair and maintenance interventions” (14). For an artist-archaeologist project that pushes at the boundaries of Western maintenance regimes, we might look to German artist Roland Roos’s “Free Repair” project. From 2008 to 2010, he sought out public examples of broken and defective objects; as his website explains, he completed over 100 repair jobs including restoring a “supermarket neon sign to its original condition in Zurich, in Lucerne he fixed a defective doorbell, in Warsaw he renovated the parking lot markings on some cobblestones, which had been disarranged by road works and in Berlin he repaired a damaged cupboard, which had been abandoned in the street” (Roos). These latter two repairs particularly challenge Western maintenance regimes. The parking lot markings had been disturbed by official maintenance, and the damaged cupboard was put out as if for disposal. Roos’s work asks questions like, “Who is authorized to fix things, and why?” Such artistic repairs can function as media archaeology counterstory: There are artists working to trace histories of cultural objects and challenge their embedded ideologies, without the outdated and wealthy-nation-centric implications of the “dead media” narrative.
I have argued in this essay that new materialists would do well to consider narratives of the lives of electronics that are less teleological, less myopically focused on consumption in the global North, and more attuned to the potentialities of the expertise and perspectives than what Denis and Pontille call “maintenance-users”: “[i]n the hand of ‘maintenance-users’ objects are always changing, living entities that traverse a number of intermediate states before being considered as inoperative” (“Beyond Breakdown” 16). As a companion to the new materialist search for “zombie media”-style “artist-archaeologists,” I intend to call for a hunt for the stories of “maintenance-users.”
Drawing on Gabrys, I present this “maintenance-user” approach to electronics as “neither utopic nor dystopic,” neither “technophilic” nor “technophobic” (12); I certainly do not mean to elide or diminish the very real ecological dangers of improperly disposed e-waste, nor to suggest that we ought to uncritically celebrate the rapid entry of developing nations into the technoverse. A cell phone in the pocket of every Ghanaian—closer and closer to reality—is absolutely part of the narrative of technological excess, of Western cultural imperialism, of the long fingers of capitalism. But the rising tide of technological objects is far beyond the power of new materialists to stem, and the global appetite for electronics calls for a new approach to e-waste, one that seeks responsible recycling solutions along the lines of empowering Agbogbloshie scrap dealers with better shredders and empowering Americans to become “maintenance-users.”
To start, perhaps we can stop framing new materialist discussions of e-waste with the lens of obsolescence, which artificially marks an end to an electronic device’s lifespan, at the abandonment of its first user. “Obsolescence” encourages device hoarding, which keeps a huge volume of closer-to-new electronics stagnant, off the secondhand market; it inspires nostalgia and artistic affect toward the technology of the past. Further, “obsolescence” is a socially constructed category, and as the social world of electronics markets becomes increasingly global, scholars must ask: Obsolete for whom? E-waste is not just “our” problem foisted on “them,” where “we” are developed countries and “they” are developing. Every year, more and more of the world, developed and developing, global North and global South, Western and Eastern, begins to consume technological devices. And we—all of us—need better ways of making that consumption sustainable.
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