BORN TO BE
What is electronic waste? E-waste is usually considered to be electronic devices that have been thrown away, often found in dump sites. In most cases, these electronic devices are broken, malfunctioning or just outdated and out of trend, therefore, making us lose interest. However, in a more broad perspective, not only abandoned hardware but also discarded digital files or data (which are immaterial forms) could be e-waste as well. Also, all the residues traced from electronics’ whole lives could be regarded as electronic waste. For instance, chemical contamination and CO₂ emitted by electronics manufacturers can be considered e-waste. Thus, e-waste can be defined in various ways, depending on how we categorize it. In this research, ‘discarded hardware’ is the main, e-waste focus, particularly its materiality.
Electronics continually perform in ways we have not fully anticipated. Electronic waste, chemical contamination, failure, breakdown, obsolescence, and information overload… (Gabrys, 2011, p. 4)
According to a report (2019) from the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the UN E-Waste Coalition, there are more than 1,000 different substances in any single piece of electronics, and these materials are assembled complicatedly. Not only are electronics composed in a complicated manner with various materials, but they also do not function only by either hardware or software. The hardware and software are very closely connected to make the device work. To make the software run, the device needs proper hardware that can support the performance of software - the connection of components, fans, screens, a suitable chip, wires, and so on. Therefore, hardware is not merely a shell. Although hardware technology is accelerating, software has developed more quickly. Software development also requires new hardware that can support its upgraded functions. For example, an updated operating system for a new computer needs a more high-performance microprocessor. When a new software upgrade does not support outdated smartphones anymore, the old smartphone does not function well, even though the hardware is not broken at all.
Software runs on hardware. Therefore, improvement of software requires the replacement of hardware. As a result, hardware trash is made. In this context, Jennifer Gabrys says, “every upgrade will produce its corresponding electronic debris,” in her book Digital Rubbish - research on the materials of electronic waste (2011, p. 2). Consequently, it should not be overlooked that software is fundamentally dependent on hardware - the materiality, to support superior performance. Thus, digital technology is very dependent on the material it is made with.
But the proliferation of electronics occurs as much in the form of “hardware” as it does in programs or “software” -those seemingly more immaterial forms of digital technology, form information to networks, that still inevitably rely on material arrangements. (Gabrys, 2011, p. 3)
In fact, digital technology is indeed the material itself. The hardware of digital technology consists of lots of elements. I am interested in pausing and looking at the materiality of electronics as e-waste. Gabrys says “In the dump, our digital media and technologies turn out to be deeply material” (2011, p. 16). When electronics serve a function to human beings, they are considered worthy of our time and energy. However, once a newer technology comes along, these electronics (functioning or not) are thrown away. As e-waste, electronics can be looked at in a new light, simply and profoundly, as their material components.
It is estimated 50 million tonnes of e-waste is being produced annually in 2018, and it is going to be reached 120 million tonnes per year by 2050. However, only around 20% of e-waste is appropriately collected to be recycled at the moment. (PACE, 2019)
We can see materials in the e-waste landfill, such as buttons, circuits, PCBs(printed circuit boards) and wires. If we take a closer look, we can also find raw materials like copper, gold, plastics, and so on. The numerous, tiny components in electronics are glued together with chemical solvents. Disassembling electronics for recycling requires hours of tedious, hands-on labor to properly sort out the reusable materials. Moreover, this hard work takes place in several developing countries for cheap labor. When unveiling the green image of ‘recycling’ e-waste, we can see the bare reality of offshore (overseas) recycling - the e-waste trade between developed countries and developing countries. In several notorious e-waste dumps and recycling sites like Agbogbloshie in Ghana, Karachi in Pakistan, and Guiyu in China, the people who engage in this hard labor are dangerously exposed to toxic substances from e-waste without proper protections.
Several artists and photographers have been investigating and exposing the worldwide e-waste landfills to reveal the people, environments, and contamination around the dumps. Photographs of Andrew McConnell’s ‘Rubbish Dump 2.0’ 🔗 and Kevin McElvancey’s ‘Agbogbloshie’ 🔗 reveals the life of people and the contamination around the dumpsites Agbogbloshie in Ghana. In their photos, we can see people and their lives in the landfill. People face with poor labor and the contaminated environment full of e-waste, which is imported from other countries. So e-waste is not just a thing in the trash can but is deeply matters of life in the photos. Also, the researcher and artist Dani Ploeger deals with political, societal, and ecological issues around e-waste trade in his research project ‘e-waste performance.’ 🔗 By doing a field study, he takes part in the activities of e-waste recycling in developing countries, and he documents what is happening in the field and what he experienced during the research. In his study, we can see vividly how the e-waste exists along with human lives.
💽 GEOLOGY OF E-WASTE ♻ VIRTUAL EXPLORATION 🌐
The world's largest e-waste dumpsite in Agbogbloshie, Ghana 🔗
(Imported)E-waste driven pollution in Karachi, Pakistan 🔗
TRAVEL TO THE OLD SILICON VALLEY AREA
N1. ATTENTION to toxic chemical residues in our digital home ground!
N2. ATTENTION to toxic chemical residues in our digital home ground!
N3. ATTENTION to toxic chemical residues in our digital home ground!
When looking at landfills, as seen above in google street view as well as photos from the artists mentioned above, we can see substantial e-waste mountains that are waiting to be dissembled and recycled. The e-waste looks almost dead, but not entirely yet as they are not dismantled and returned to the soil. Gabrys named the e-waste as ‘fossils.’ The life of electronics after thrown away becomes fossils, as they remain without vanishing. In their text ‘Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method,’ Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka use the term ‘zombie media’ to describe that dead electronics are neither entirely dead nor alive anymore, so that it resembles a zombie (2012). As a fossil or zombie, e-waste co-exists with us. It is born to be dumped. And it remains dead.
Media never die but remain as toxic waste residue. (Parikka, 2015, p. 48)
The point when electronics becomes ‘waste’ happens once they lose any meaning for users. It might not be easy to stop the ‘planned obsolescence’ as an individual in society. However, as users and individuals who decide to turn electronic to waste, we can each reflect on what we discard and why. Do we simply discard digital technology when it’s outdated or malfunctioning, so that it’s useless to us? However, what if such technology could still be valuable to us? What if we can make it worth again?