Teaching Electronic Life Histories

Recent works on the anthropology of waste, rubbish, and discard abound. Many focus on the destructive capacities of capitalist accumulation and the unrecounted and undocumented afterlives of waste. Others trace the creative potential for circular economies, associated entanglements with nonhuman others, or the long-lasting, harmful impacts on landscapes, livelihoods, and bodies (Miller 2008; Nagle 2013; Reno 2016). Particular attention has been paid to electronic waste or e-waste, which includes “a broad and growing range of electronic devices ranging from large household devices such as refrigerators, air conditioners, cell phones, personal stereos, and consumer electronics to computers which have been discarded by their users” (Puckett et al. 2002, 5).

Yet the categorical placement of electronic objects, gadgets, and gizmos as waste in this literature overshadows their rich and vital lives prior to discard. Gone are the relational meanings and memorialized histories associated with their lives and the unintentional identity work that can result. E-waste, we suggest, is a powerful cultural domain to think with, offering distinctive opportunities to explore autoethnographic and object life histories in the transitory moments after use and before discard.

Photographing electronic life histories in the classroom
Photographing electronic life histories in the classroom. Photo courtesy of Kate Yeater.

This Teaching Tools post offers readings and three in-class exercises that ask students to examine not only the cradle-to-grave processual aspects of making and discarding electronic objects, but also the meanings that these objects carry with them as they travel with us through our lives. This electronic life history approach is related to, but distinct from a life cycle assessment approach, which is used to examine environmental impacts of industrial activities from resource extraction through manufacturing to the use and discard of goods.

The discussion questions and activities that follow place electronics in a broader context, inviting students to reexamine the possibilities and limitations of capitalism, what it masks and what it makes hypervisible. In doing so, the post outlines a multiscalar approach to understanding inequalities of production, while at the same time drawing attention to the material, technical, and symbolic vitality of electronic things.

Audience

These exercises and discussion questions are suited for undergraduate courses of all levels, especially anthropology courses with an interdisciplinary audience. Faculty and graduate students also may benefit from participating in these readings and exercises. The notion of electronic life histories has both methodological and theoretical implications, which make this module relevant to ethnographic methods courses as well as thematic courses on topics like culture and technology, environment and culture, and visual anthropology. This module works well as a two- to three-week unit but can also be adjusted to fit shorter timeframes.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the anthropological dimensions of electronic objects and e-waste
  • Produce and examine autoethnographic and object ethnography data and explore how it relates to a situated understanding of electronic objects
  • Interpret electronic objects as products of material-technical processes, but also as objects that carry symbolic meanings
  • Identify how electronic objects are part of students' lives and examine how this influences expressions of identity and understandings of others' identities and subjectivities
  • Understand how objects can influence and also have agency
  • Identify the ways in which capitalist processes mask or make visible phases of the life cycle of objects and their power-laden implications

In-Class Exercises

Electronic Life Histories

Reading: Vibrant Matter, by Jane Bennett

Materials Needed: None

First, ask students to pair up and to interview one another about the life histories of an electronic object in their lives. We recommend using the prompts developed by StoryCorps, as modified for this assignment: What is your first memory with this object? How did it come into your life? What are the things you normally can do with this object? Describe a typical day with the object. About how much time do you use this object in a typical day? Are there any funny stories or memories you associate with this object? If you had to describe this object in three words, what would you say and why? Is there anything else you want to share about this object? How long do you expect to have this object and what do you plan to do with it when you no longer are using it?

Next, ask students to turn their attention to their memory of the electronic object. Invite them to individually take a moment to describe it: what are its most noticeable sensory features and characteristics (e.g., make, model, functionality, personalization, sounds, design)? At this point, it may be useful to have students refer to a photo of their object, which can be gathered and presented via social media or a preferred online education platform. 

Bring the class back together as a group and have them take turns reporting on their findings from their interviews. Cluster the responses on a common space (whiteboard, chalkboard, etc.), arranging them in thematic patterns that emerge from the group discussion.

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Visualizing the different reasons we give for holding onto electronic objects. Photo by Laura Zanotti.

Reflect on the findings and themes. What do the interviews tell the class about the role and meanings that electronic objects have in their daily lives? What do they tell the class about the material, technical, and aesthetic features of the objects?

Jane Bennett (2010, viii) argues that nonhuman objects have the capacity “to act as quasi-agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” What does learning about the life history of this object enliven, if anything, for the students? Does your “sensory attentiveness” (Bennett 2010, xiv) to the object challenge the notion of the passivity of things? How might electronic objects exhibit what Bennett (2010, xiv) refers to as thing power, or the “strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience”? What do your relationships to such objects reveal about your own subjectivity and identity? Have your initial reflections about your object changed? Why or why not?

Conclude by talking about the strengths and weaknesses of autoethnography and object ethnography as a method to explore electronic life histories. What worked well? What questions are left unexplored or unanswered?

Accumulation by Dispossession

Readings: “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession,” by David Harvey; “Speed: An Introduction,” by Vincent Duclos, Tomás Sánchez Criado, and Vinh-Kim Nguyen

Materials Needed: Access to a mobile phone with functioning camera per pair of students; the electronic device from the previous activity; Internet access, if possible.

Ask students to get back into the pairs they formed in the previous activity and to re-engage with their electronic object. Have them take a couple of minutes to note what materials the object is made from and where those materials come from, using the Internet as needed. Come back together as a group and talk with students about what they found. Their list of items should roughly fall into the categories of glass, metals, and plastic.

Assign each pair a metal to investigate: aluminum alloys, lithium cobalt oxide and carbon graphite, gold, copper, silver, platinum and tungsten, and rare metals (e.g., iron-born alloys, dysprosium, and praseodymium). Once they have located where the materials come from, ask them to find peer-reviewed scholarship about the impact of mining in the identified parts of the world. Encourage students to search for ethnographic examples, in particular. Instruct students to compile a list of at least five major impacts that the process of extraction has on local communities, and identify two points or topics that an anthropological approach can offer in investigating these economies.

Invite students to come back together to report out their findings. Reflect on these findings in the context of a guided discussion of the readings. How and in what way does this exercise illustrate David Harvey’s concept of accumulation by dispossession? What are the power dynamics that were revealed? How do electronic objects enable us to “imagine a viable way forward” or, alternately, contribute to the modern symptom of “social anxiety” (Duclos, Criado, and Nguyen 2017, 2, 3)? How can electronic objects allow us to better understand “accelerated obsolescence of practices and techniques” (Duclos, Criado, and Nguyen 2017, 3) and the roles these practices, objects, and techniques play in everyday livelihoods?

Finally, ask students to reflect on this exercise and the previous one. How did these assignments make the students feel, and why? What are the connections that students see between the two exercises? What are the ways in which anthropology can bring these two different conversations, about electronic life histories and the life cycle of electronics, together? Do they see electronic objects as symptomatic of larger processes or challenges that the world is facing today? In what sorts of ways might they tackle or approach these issues to bring about more just futures?

Electronic Waste: Infrastructure, Categories, Policy

Readings: “The Global Cost of Electronic Waste,” by Syed Faraz Ahmed; “Reassembling Rubbish,” by Josh Lepawsky

Note: This exercise involves the completion of an activity before students come to class. The in-class component works best if students have access to the Internet.

In advance of the class meeting, assign students the task of mapping all of the waste and recycling bins that they encounter in a day. Students might sketch or hand-draw their own maps, draw on top of a printed campus map, or create their own Google map. Make sure that students submit their maps to a shared electronic space before class, and leave enough time for them to browse through the class’s map gallery.

As class begins, cluster students into groups of three or four. What did they find out about the discard options in their lives? What types of objects can they discard in these spaces? What do they consider as waste? How are their maps similar and how are they different in identifying discard options? What accounts for the differences and similarities?

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Electronic recycling bins, which often appear on campuses toward the end of the semester. Photo by Laura Zanotti.

Ask students to recall the electronic objects that they analyzed in the first two activities and to reflect on their options for what to do with them once they no longer function. If they wanted to repair or discard the object, where might they do so? Have them list all of the places they can think of. What do these spaces tell us about the discard, repair, and potential reuse of electronic objects? How does the infrastructure of waste management reflect values, attitudes, and meanings about different forms of waste? What is transparent and what is hidden about these waste streams? How do student patterns measure up to the consumer behaviors described in Ahmed’s piece?

Next, have students look up their state’s laws about electronic waste, if it exists, as well as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. Come back together as a group and have a brief discussion about the following questions: What are the discourses used to describe electronic waste? Is electronic waste positioned as a distinctive form of waste or clustered in a larger waste category? Why do students think this is the case? What are the legal implications of what counts as waste or nonwaste, as Josh Lepawsky’s Scalar project invites us to examine?

Finally, transition into a broader discussion about infrastructures and categories of waste. The goal is to identify what has been learned from comparing the categorization of electronic objects when they are new and marketed to consumers with the moment at which they are identified as waste. What are the ways in which management practices and discourses define objects that are no longer in use? How and in what ways do these objects gain new meanings as they move from use to discard? Are there particular communities or individuals that students think are disproportionally disadvantaged by wasting practices? In other words, how do race, class, power, citizenship, and other hierarchies of difference intersect with wasting practices? How does such an analysis prompt a reconsideration of what fair or ethical solutions are? What is gained by applying an anthropological perspective to the global e-waste “problem”?

References

Miller, Daniel. 2008. The Comfort of Things. Malden, Mass.: Polity.

Nagle, Robin. 2013. Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. New York: Macmillan.

Puckett, Jim, Leslie Byster, Sarah Westervelt, Richard Gutierrez, Sheila Davis, Asma Hussain, and Madhumitta Dutta. 2002. “Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia.” Report, Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Reno, Joshua O. 2016. Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Suggested Readings

Ahmed, Syed Faraz. 2016. “The Global Cost of Electronic Waste.” Atlantic, September 29.

Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Duclos, Vincent, Tomás Sánchez Criado, and Vinh-Kim Nguyen. 2017. “Speed: An Introduction.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 1: 1–11.

Harvey, David. 2004. “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession.” Socialist Register 40: 63–87.

Lepawsky, Josh. 2013. “Reassembling Rubbish.” Scalar project.

Additional Readings

Ahmed, Sara. 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd edition. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. “Introduction: Commodities and The Politics of Value.” In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai, 3–63. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland, and Elisabeth Schober. 2017. “Waste and the Superfluous: An Introduction.” Social Anthropology 25, no. 3: 282–87.

Gregson, Nicky, Alan Metcalfe, and Louise Crewe. 2007. “Identity, Mobility, and The Throwaway Society.” Environment and Planning D 25, no. 4: 682–700.

Kopytoff, Igor. 1986. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai, 64–91. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lepawsky, Joshua. 2017. “Waste and Waste Management.” In The International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment, and Technology, edited by Douglas Richardson. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118786352.wbieg0493.

Little, Peter C., and Cristina Lucier. 2017. “Global Electronic Waste, Third Party Certification Standards, and Resisting the Undoing of Environmental Justice Politics.” Human Organization 76, no. 3: 204–214.

Martínez, Francisco. 2017. “Waste is Not the End. For an Anthropology of Care, Maintenance and Repair.” Social Anthropology 25, no. 3: 346–50.

Schiffer, Michael Brian. 2011. “A Conceptual Scheme.” In Studying Technological Change: A Behavioral Approach, 22–42. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.