A study of the material life of information and its devices; of electronic waste in its physical and electronic incarnations; a cultural and material mapping of the spaces where electronics in the form of both hardware and information accumulate, break down, or are stowed away. Where other studies have addressed “digital” technology through a focus on its immateriality or virtual qualities, Gabrys traces the material, spatial, cultural and political infrastructures that enable the emergence and dissolution of these technologies. In the course of her book, she explores five interrelated “spaces” where electronics fall apart: from Silicon Valley to Nasdaq, from containers bound for China to museums and archives that preserve obsolete electronics as cultural artifacts, to the landfill as material repository.
Digital Rubbish describes the materiality of electronics from a unique perspective, examining the multiple forms of waste that electronics create as evidence of the resources, labor, and imaginaries that are bundled into these machines. Ranging across studies of media and technology, as well as environments, geography, and design, Jennifer Gabrys draws together the far-reaching material and cultural processes that enable the making and breaking of these technologies.
This project did not begin with Sterling’s modest proposal, but it is in no small way interested in the challenge of charting the dead and dying qualities of media technologies, particularly our contemporary electronic technologies. The “paleontological” record of dead electronics is surprisingly extensive and diverse. From obsolete software, to the chemical pollution and material waste that issues from microchips, to the sprawling landscapes of technology parks, discards recurrently surface in the electronic realm. Indeed, this project emerged from the discovery that digital technologies, so apparently immaterial, also have their substantial remainders. An often-cited anecdote in the history of computing describes how it was assumed, in the early days of postwar computing, that the demand for digital computers would not exceed even a dozen devices worldwide. With these few bulky and costly mainframes, experts declared, the computing needs of the world would be met. Years later, electronic devices of all shapes and sizes proliferate and pile up at end of life. Scan any city street, and you may find discarded monitors and mobile phones, printers and central processing units, scattered on curbsides and stacked in the dark spaces between buildings.
These remainders accumulate into a sort of sedimentary record, from which we can potentially piece together the evolution and extinction of past technologies. These fossils are then partial evidence of the materiality of electronics—a materiality that is often only apparent once electronics become waste. In fact, electronics involve an elaborate process of waste making, from the mining of metals and minerals, to the production of microchips through toxic solvents, to the eventual recycling or disposal of equipment. These processes of pollution, remainder, and decay reveal other orders of materiality that have yet to enter the sense of the digital. Here are spaces and processes that exceed the limited transfer of information through hardware and software. Yet these spaces and processes are often lost somewhere between the apparent “virtuality” of information, the increasingly miniature scale of electronics, and the remoteness of electronic manufacture and disposal. It is possible to begin to describe these overlooked infrastructures, however, by developing a study of electronics that proceeds not from the perspective of all that is new but, rather, from the perspective of all that is discarded.