THE VALUE OF E-WASTE
When we define something as trash, it implies that we consider the object unworthy of our use. The meaning and usefulness of an object is based on the value that we assign to it. And this value is often ‘economic value’, especially in the case of electronics and other digital technology. Electronics being discarded reveals the loss of economic value. Despite previous owners devaluing objects by labeling them trash, it might be possible to differently understand value and use.
“rubbish is a way of understanding the relative position of value relations.” In Thompson’s ‘Rubbish Theory’ (as cited in Gabrys, 2011, p. 17)
Waste is, in this sense, what cultural theorist Walter Moser calls a “category of transition, a limit category.” Waste reveals the economies of value within digital technology that render valueless, for instance, a computer that is more than three years old. This collapse in value demonstrates assumptions within electronics—based on duration, novelty, and consistent consumption—that might otherwise go unnoticed, if it were not for the now-looming rubbish pile. (Gabrys, 2011, p.17)
Values are determined by the comparative criteria we give. So when electronics are considered worthless and useless and thus are thrown away, the value of which corresponds more with ‘utility’ than the ‘value’ on its own. The difference between value and use is described in “Facing Value,” by Maaike Lauwaert & Francien van Westrenen (eds.).
What makes understanding value even more complex, is the category of the useful: use and value are often equated, confused and mixed up. But not everything that is useful is valuable, nor is everything that is valuable useful. (Lauwaert & Westrenen, 2017, p.17)
As we see in the quotation above, we often confuse value with usefulness. However, in practice, not all value is useful nor can all useful things be valuable. Let’s look at electronic waste. It is broken or performs at a lower level than new models, which suggests that these electronics are no longer useful. However, it does not mean that it is worthless. Firstly, for commercial enterprise, in fact, it has economic value: not in entire entity as a ‘device,’ but each component and the materials consisting of the electronics body all have economic value. Apart from these substances that can be recycled and reused, the broken or outdated electronics themselves can still be valuable in another meaning. Let us look again to “Facing Value” to see the more specific difference between value and use.
Use is a concrete concept that can be even be measured in financial or monetary ways. Value is more ephemeral, more symbolic… (Lauwaert & Westrenen, 2017, p. 17)
In other words, use is a concept that can be measured on an economic basis. However, the value must be judged on levels beyond the material capacities.
AESTHETICS OF E-WASTE
Now, we can think value and usefulness separately when looking at electronic waste. E-waste can be seen as useless, since it does not function well anymore. However, whether e-waste is valuable or not cannot merely be judged by its use and functionality. There are several ways to revive e-waste by making it useful again or making it valuable. Recycling or upcycling is a way to revitalize the usability of e-waste. In this way, we can ‘use’ revived components for other purposes. It is a practical and economical way to deal with e-waste. While this approach usually happens in the industrial area, on a personal level we can also reuse e-waste. However, discovering a new value from e-waste must be a more creative process than focusing on its re-usability. Because such a process requires a perspective beyond economics, and into our imagination. Finding value from residues and abandoned leftovers is quite different from making e-waste work again through a fix. For my purposes, I keep the technology useless. For instance, we could see e-waste as playful and fun, which provides it value. We can see examples of this way through several practices among artists, hackers, and makers, in a form of circuit bending, hardware hacking, etc.
Nicolas Collins has been engaged in hardware hacking since 2004. Not only he himself is an artist and musician playing his experimental instruments, but also he has presented workshops and published books for hardware hacking and handmade electronic music. 🔗 Like as Collins does, there are more DIY instrument building examples on this blog 🔗, such as DIY synth made out of garbage and AM radio theremin by artists Tomoya Tamamoto and Yuri Suzuki. Hackes and makers in Makerspace lab in Urbana, Illinois, USA made an e-waste orchestra project. 🔗 They turned old hard drives into synthesizers and guitars and play the instruments in combination with sound-generating software. Artist Tin Dožić also creates electroacoustic and mechanical instruments using e-waste and old materials. 🔗 His work shows the musical potential of outdated tools and electronics. These practices can be described as tinkering or creating something from electronics rather than resuscitating the functions of it.
It is the lacks, the residues, and the excess that cannot be captured by capital’s mechanisms of valuation that will be explored in order to think beyond the logic of capital and show how values will always haunt value.
(Beverley Skeggs’s ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’, cited in Lauwaert & Westrenen, 2017, p.64)
In fact, exploring broken and malfunctioning technology is not a new activity. According to Cascone in his text “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music,” the playful approach to re-valuing the failure of digital technology has been popular in may arts throughout the late 20th century. Artists have been interested in error and failures in digital technology and have actively manipulated the error of technology to create new art. Especially in electronic music, artist and musicians experimented with glitch art and noise music with this perspective.
Cascone says, “Today’s digital technology enables artists to explore new territories for content by capturing and examining the art beyond the boundary of ‘normal’ functions and uses of the software” (2002). To explore a new aesthetics through technologies’ failures is to consider digital technology not just as a tool for creation, but as an object of investigation and experimentation. This kind of approach helps us rethink the relationship between humans and technology. I propose that we step back and see what happens in and around digital technology, and then engage in a nonnormal sector of technology. Through sound artists like John Cage started to bring ‘background sounds’ to the front (Cascone, 2002), glitch art in the ‘90s, and today’s tactical/critical art practices in digital technology, we can see these kind of approaches in art. Benjamin Gaulon’s (aka. RECYCLISM) art practices 🔗 are one of the best examples of this.
My research focuses on the limits and failures of information and communication technologies; planned obsolescence, consumerism and disposable society; ownership and privacy; through the exploration of détournement, hacking and
(Benjamin Gaulon’s statement)
We can derive meaning from broken, dismantled, and outdated electronics. We can discover unknown value from e-waste by reappropriating broken, dismantled and obsolete electronics. Then, there will be an aesthetics of e-waste.
Let’s find value in deceased and obsolete electronics beyond the logic of the economy.
Yet, how can we create another value from discarded electronics? How could we explore the aesthetics of turned-off technology?
I was inspired by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. In his book “Homo Ludens” (1938), Huizinga describes play as one of the fundamental activities of being human; however, play cannot be evaluated in terms of productivity, usefulness, and functionality. Playing makes human life enriched, although it is not necessarily related to productivity. Considering we humans as homo lumens, we can play with e-waste.
There are environmental, ethical, and societal problems around e-waste: contamination of landfills, the poor working conditions in e-waste recycling area, and consumerism of digital technology. However, to what extent can these problems be considered as important in the daily lives of individuals? E-waste exist all around us, but it is too burdensome to embrace it in our daily lives. However, we can turn the seriousness into a playful world. Such a move does not disregarding the severity of the problem. Instead, being playful is a way to bring serious issues and discussion closer to our lives. The act of play can draw huge and serious things mildly. As Huizinga addressed, playing does not mean not earnest, although it seems opposition to it. Instead, play embraces seriousness. We can bring various discourses and problems about e-waste more closely into our daily lives through the act of playing with e-waste.
How can we play with e-waste?
During the process of ‘off technology R&D’, I accidentally found that we can make ‘sound’ from e-waste by using its leftover circuits and components. When combining circuits with sound chips and several components, e-waste now becomes musical instruments with noise sounds! I don’t fix broken electronics nor recycle them. Thus in case of use, the e-waste instruments that I make would be useless as they still don’t function as they are devised. They still look like waste and indeed they are. I rather embrace how they look and how they are at the moment without wrapping or remodeling them. I just simply connect raw e-waste together with circuits and components. Even though it is still trash, e-waste now has ‘playful value’ in it as being an instrument. We can play a tune with e-waste.
When we throw away outdated electronics, the end up with being dumped. However, if we have an e-waste instrument that we’ve made by ourselves, e-waste becomes a toy that we have fun with. At least we would not discard it directly to the dump sites. Not only playing music with e-waste instruments but also transforming e-waste into musical instruments can be an act of play. Hands-on work (making an e-waste instrument) is an active engagement to rethink about the value of e-waste and to recognize the being of e-waste, which is neither alive nor dead, keep piling up and remain on land. By playing sounds from your new e-waste instrument, you create new meaning and value as an art as well as an activity. The two - making and performance - are essential to delivering the value of playful e-waste.