Content type: Text excerpts from essay
Credits: Jussi Parikka (Professor in Technological Culture & Aesthetics at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, UK)
Year: 2011

'Put crudely, media waste research is about where you dump the shit you do not want on your doorstep.'
Jussi Parikka

Introduction: Jussi Parikka is a Finish media theorist and writer. His work explores the materiality of media culture, archeologies of science, technology, art, cultural theory, e-waste and ecology. In 2015, he edited the book Medianatures: The Materiality of Information Technology and Electronic Wastepublished by Open Humanities Press, 2011.

The following is a series of excerpts from Parikka’s introductory essay ‘The Materiality of Media and Waste’. The essay examines the past, present and future of the discipline of media waste research. It is both a literature review and an urgent call for media waste researchers and designers to address the issue of e-waste. Parikka frames media as part of nature and waste management as a return to nature – 'Hence, e-waste research addresses dead media in a very concrete sense of media as the death of nature, biological processes and organisms (including humans)'.

Excerpt #1

In short, media are of nature, and return to nature – where the production process for our media devices, from screens to circuits, networks to interfaces, involves the standardisation and mass-mobilisation of minerals and other materialities. Discarded media technologies are themselves part of such a regime of natural ‘things’ – whether picked apart in an Asian recycling village, or then left to decay in urban or rural places. The natural affords our cultural agencies and assemblages – including media practices and concrete devices – and all of that comes back to nature. [E-waste research explores] this materiality at the core of media technological culture, and the various ecological ties these themes share with the current political economy. It can include perspectives from environmental sciences concerning e-waste and the management of electronic media remains, computer science and ideas in green computing, as well as the production and dismantling of things such as Cathode Ray Tubes and LCD-displays. Hence, e-waste research addresses dead media in a very concrete sense of media as the death of nature, biological processes and organisms (including humans).

Put crudely, media waste research is about where you dump the shit you do not want on your doorstep – where ‘shit’ is one of the most important factors in the multiple, connected management of subjectivity, language, body and public space, as Dominique Laporte (2000) has well argued.

instead of speed, efficiency and progress, we are confronted with the time of dust and soil

Excerpt #2

We are dealing with abstract relations, but concrete things – and all linked together as real parts of the global capitalist media industry. In other words, the materiality of media is to be taken literally. Our media devices are the products of various processes of mining, processing and standardizing minerals and other rare earth materials into finished mass-consumer products. After their use-value is exhausted, they become things of a different sort. Of course, abandoned and obsolete media technologies are not always just abandoned, but rather participate in another process – one that is often as complex and multiple as the one involving processing information, the way it happens with microchip-based media. Often the products assembled in Asia are returned there, despite the increasing number of bans in those countries, for example China, to import electronic waste.

Jennifer Gabrys has pointed towards the complexities of this new metamorphic economy, and its material, persisting nature: ‘[r]ecycling does not remove remainder or wastage; instead, it displaces and transforms waste’ (2011: 138). This point about transformation – both in terms of materiality, of dismantling, reusing, or just being left to decay, and in terms of the status of some media devices as obsolete and out-of-use – is also spatially distributed across the globe. This affects mostly developing countries in Asia and Africa, as well as some Eastern European countries, which are in the process of adjusting to their new post-Soviet part in the global capitalist culture and the global political economy (Ciocoiu, Burcea & Tärtiu, 2010). For instance, Nigeria is one destination for electronic waste which is not able to process its toxic e-waste. Filled with lead, cadmium, and mercury, the abandoned components, when burnt, release dioxins and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. And yet, burning remains one way to ‘resolve’ the problem of piling up electronic junk, such as screens, in ports and landfills (Schmidt, 2006).

Hence, focusing on the materiality of components and waste of electronic media suggests extremely long and uneven networks of the spatial distribution – and also labour distribution – of media cultures, as well as a completely different temporality to that which is usually marketed as an aspect of digital technologies. As Gabrys argues, instead of speed, efficiency and progress, we are confronted with the time of dust and soil. These are long-term temporal perspectives that more often are measurable in terms of scientific timescales that involve geological and environmental science perspectives. If humanities and social sciences have mostly been occupied with the human scale of time – of years, decades, or, at best, civilisations of hundreds or thousands of years – perhaps we need to look at timescales of thousands and even millions of years to reveal how materials live?

Media history is one long story of materials and experiments with materials

Excerpt # 3

In short, one needs to be more aware of the fact that any computational operation is an energy operation and that software is linked not only to hardware but to a wider material grid. From basic operations such as a search engine query, to, for instance, such a crucial part of our visual culture as encoding a piece of video, we are dealing with computational costs (see Silven & Jyrkkä, 2007). Hence it is no wonder that tackling such (monetary and environmental) costs – for instance, through automated internal transitions and energy efficiency in the actual use-time of processors and distributed environments such as data centres (Lang & Patel, 2009) – is becoming one of the most important issues for design today.

But the material and energetic perspective does not just apply to recent information technology. Media history is one long story of materials and experiments with materials – of what conducts, what does not, what reflects, what insulates and so forth. We could map a whole media history of experimentation with materials – only with the modern media industries, a mass-production and standardisation of materials for production has become such wide scale. As such, it is interesting to adopt a longer historical perspective to this issue of materials and energy. The nineteenth century was addressing these questions already, as we can see from many examples. There exists not only a media history of the telegraph, the telephone, television, and the computer, but also a media history of selenium, copper, zinc, dilute sulphuric acid, shellac, silk, wool, gutta percha and various animal tissue used in technical devices.

[we] need to think about the ecological materiality of media devices already in design practice

Excerpt #4

Media archaeological perspectives can offer alternative views to media, science and energy, as well as other, more political ideas. This relates to the need to think about the ecological materiality of media devices already in design practice. One of the problems of the current regime of ‘planned obsolescence’ – a term that actually stems from the 1930s – is the short use-span of electronic media, whether mobile phones, televisions, or laptop computers. As such, this is emphasised through design solutions that strengthen the black-box nature of media technologies which are not to be opened up, fixed or reused. Focusing on design from the point of view of sustainability and Extended Producer Responsibility means having to focus on materials used as much as the processes in which materials are processed. This includes considering issues such as those identified by Pinto (2008):

• Inventory management
• Production process modification
• Volume reduction
• Recovery and reuse
• Sustainable product design, which involves:
• Rethinking procedures involved in designing the product (flat computers)
• Use of renewable material and energy
• Creating electronic components and peripherals of biodegradable material
• Looking at a green packaging option
• Utilising a minimum packaging material

The (false) idea of digitality as automatically reducing CO2 and other environmental waste is one such claim that needs to be urgently challenged

Excerpt #5

It is essential, however, to remain critical of the ‘sustainability’ discourse in design and in information technology in general, and to unpick some of its core assumptions. The (false) idea of digitality as automatically reducing CO2 and other environmental waste is one such claim that needs to be urgently challenged (Fuchs, 2008). Sustainability is a good example of what Slavoj Žižek has referred in his talks and writings as the refashioning of capitalism into something ‘with a friendly face’. Sustainability thus become one possible investment focus, even if, at its core, nothing per se changes about capitalism as a mode of production which is keen to expand and intensify its accumulative nature. Ecology is therefore in danger of becoming a personal ethical project (Žižek, 2009: 53-54, 98; see also Yeomans and Günalay, 2009). Indeed, as Gartner Research (Plummer et al., 2008) projected in their 2008 consumer trend prediction, Green IT and tracking carbon dioxide footprints for information technology is something that producers and sellers have to start taking into account. This involves moving forward from mere ‘sustainability’ – which assumes that we can continue as things are, in terms of our political economy, our subjectivity, and the accepted miseries of the world, as long as we make it sustainable for us and for the ecology. As such, the discourse of sustainability on its own is unsustainable, and needs to be reinforced with a stronger, ecosophical project that maps environmental concerns as part of aesthetics, economy and the politics of subjectification.

‘waste’ is not just waste but also a form of life, and thus is in need of its own biopolitics

Excerpt #6

For humanities and media studies scholars, e-waste can be connected to the material accounts of media and contemporary culture. On the one hand, we need to be looking more closely at the intensity of the waste as living dead material – whereby ‘waste’ is not just waste but also a form of life, and thus is in need of its own biopolitics. As beautifully put by Gabrys, ‘The architecture of the landfill accretes through the sedimentation of trash, layers covered with earth and compacted into airless cells. The landfill settles, shifts, and subsides, generating methane gases and carbon dioxide. [...] But this shifting architecture decomposes into the soil to expel greenhouse gases and heavy metal runoff, as well as intractable and scattered objects that refuse to decay’ (2011: 140-141).

[media studies need to] tap into the ecological contexts of medianatures

Excerpt #7

Technology and apparatuses are far from static, and so is ‘matter’ or ‘nature’, both filled as they are with catalysing forces and becomings in a manner that testifies to their vibrancy (Bennett, 2010). Technologies are intensively involved in the world and hence share an eco- technological link, or in other words, a material-mediatic continuum. For media studies, this continuum is important to elaborate in order to really tap into the ecological contexts of medianatures as a theme that needs urgent attention. For the wider field of environmental sciences and product design, both for end-consumers and industries (for instance, greener data grids and servers or components), the challenge is as urgent.