Powering the digital: Author of ‘Digital Rubbish’ tackles electronic waste

by Bridget on June 13, 2011

Gabrys_Digital RubbishThis is a guest blog by Jennifer Gabrys, author of Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics, available now. 

Electronic waste is an increasing environmental issue. As one of the fastest growing waste streams, e-waste quantities—which are notoriously difficult to gauge due to a whole host of issues including stockpiling in homes and ambivalent classification systems—are estimated to be anywhere between 20-25 million tons per year to 35-40 million tons per year. Some studies suggest that e-waste will “peak” at 70-75 million tons annually by 2015. While countries such as the US and UK have been major contributors to the flow of e-waste, developing countries including China and India are now contributing to the overall volume of waste—waste that is hazardous and difficult to recycle without suitable infrastructures.

As I document in Digital Rubbish, e-waste is clearly an issue of considerable environmental significance; yet it also speaks to our contemporary material cultures of technological fascination, repetitive consumption, built-in obsolescence, shambolic resource use, and labor inequalities. In Digital Rubbish, I address these political and affective aspects of electronics, and examine specific instances of electronic waste across resource-intensive manufacturing, information overload and product obsolescence. In order to make the book a negotiable size, many other “waste spaces” fell outside the scope of the study, including mining sites where materials necessary for electronic conduction are procured; and off-shoring of manufacturing to Southeast Asia where labor and resource issues emerge for factory workers and software programmers alike.

While all of these processes are critical issues for addressing the ways in which electronic technologies generate complex material ecologies and economies, one of the areas I find particularly interesting of late is the issue related to energy consumption and electronics. Yet another aspect of “digital rubbish” is the increasing amount of energy (and resulting carbon emissions) required to power everything from Internet searches to Facebook pages and text messages. An increasing number of studies are emerging that calculate and document the carbon footprints of Google searches, spam, text messages and more, in order to demonstrate the increasing demand for energy to power and connect up digital technologies. As electronics become not only pervasive but also supplant non-electric media and exchanges such as books and socializing, and as computing becomes ubiquitous so that new forms of “smartness” are embedded in environments, questions emerge related to the energy resources required to power these digital worlds.

In many cases, information technologies (IT) are now promoted as devices that help to achieve efficiencies within any number of processes, from energy supply and distribution to urban transport. Digital technologies appear to be green because they seem more immaterial, and because they make processes more efficient. Together with the proliferation of personal mobile and computing devices, there is projected to be a massive increase in the number of “smart” technologies, such as energy meters and smart grids, that will ostensibly be directed toward making systems more efficient and environmentally sound. These developments raise real dilemmas as to what “green technology” means: can a technology be green if it is hazardous in its manufacture, prone to obsolescence, and difficult to dispose; and can a technology be green if it is largely powered by coal energy and contributes to increasing carbon emissions? In fact, a large proportion of data server centers continue to be powered on coal and nuclear energy—and the electricity demand of these centers continues to grow worldwide.

The energy required to power the vast server farms, networks and more that support digital devices and processes is a relatively remote but operative aspect of digital technologies as an industry. The increasing demands for power generate waste not just in the form of carbon emissions and land use changes for new data server centers, but also through power failures and website disruptions. How would an Internet of periodic but regular blackouts change our relationships to digital technologies? Would a more deliberate encounter with the energy of digital devices and practices generate alternative materialities for these technologies? As I suggest in Digital Rubbish, the apparent immateriality of electronics generates distinct materializations and relationships to wasting. Energy is another facet of this process. Digital Rubbish asks to what extent a more material (and environmental) approach to “digital culture” might begin to recast our relationship with these technologies.

–Jennifer Gabrys

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